Ink Master Review 2021

What is Ink Master?

Ink Master is a reality competition focused on the world of tattoos. (Top Chef for tattoos) Hosted by guitarist Dave Navarro, the show has 13 seasons although only 4 are available on Netflix.

This review is only for seasons 1-4

I see Ink Master as an art competition. They call the contestants “artists” and the recipients of the tatoos “canvasses”. Although it is not open ended (sculpture, painting, mixed media, etc), I think they demonstrate tremendous artistic abilities. The artwork is why I like the show.

Unfortunately, I find watching difficult much of the time because of several problems.

Toxic Culture

For some reason, the show encourages and edits for toxicity. They encourage each artist to slam every tattoo that isn’t their own. It was nearly unwatchable in Season 3-4 because of this problem. In fact, a fight broke out between a judge and a contestant exactly because of this issue.

This is a societal problem right now. We overdo the drama to get people riled up. We want people to choose sides and get angry. This happens all the time throughout the internet, especially on social media. However, this detracts tremendously from the enjoyment of the show for me. I want to see great artwork, not fighting prima donnas. The producers are doing this on purpose to goose ratings, but I wish they choose a different path.

In the end, I think these toxic interactions diminish the quality of the artwork itself. The actual tattoos suffer because of the fighting. Why is this preferred?

Time Pressure

The show (like Top Chef) creates tension by giving the artists too little time to create the tattoos. The show rewards the highest speed-quality ratio. A world-class tattoo expert who performs slower would lose the competition instantly. Speed is more important than quality because an unfinished piece of work is usually grounds for losing. In this way, the ability to choose the right “scope” is paramount. In other words, the ability to right-size the tattoo complexity and size in advance based on the time will yield the winning result.

I think time limits are important for the flow of the show. However, there is a balance to be struck. Too little time and you get low quality art. Too much time and you lose the pressure of the situation. I think Ink Master skews too far on the pressure side. An extra 10-25% time bump would increase the quality of the work.


One problem is that the judges know exactly whose tattoos belong to which artists. In Season 4, Chris Nunez admitted that he let an artist off the hook because of previous work. This is against the spirit of the competition. If you are great, but you mess up, you should go home. They don’t let Federer win the US Open just because he is more popular. A win is a win. It felt like cheating.

Unfortunately, this leads to bad outcomes and a poor viewing experience. One way to improve this would be to have blind critiques. It would be better to have the judges evaluate the tattoos without knowing who did what. That way, they could protect their integrity and reduce subjective or implicit bias. They should decide the worst tattoo and be surprised (like everyone else) when the person is sent home. Past work should not excuse current screw ups.

Best Tattoo of the Day

Unlike Top Chef, there is very little benefit for the best tattoo of the day. In Top Chef, there are smaller prizes for each round like money or trips. In Ink Master, there is virtually nothing. You get the meaningless gesture of sending someone down for scolding.

It also messes up the strategy since each win is virtually meaningless. I think they are missing an opportunity by having sponsors pay for small prizes. I think even $2000 would be a huge benefit for the artists. Another prize could be a guest tattoo artist in a famous shop.

Live Finale

The last unfortunate experience is the live finale. I understand they are trying to “American Idol” the voting so a live audience can vote in real time. Unfortunately, the world has changed in the last 20 years. Most viewers are not watching in real time. In fact, 95% or more (my guess) is watching after the fact either by streaming or DVR. This means the “live” finale feels dumb. The production value is lower and it is more boring. I end up fast forwarding through almost all of it. It would be better to just have a normal finale episode. If you want voting, have fan favorite like Top Chef.

Single Elimination

One innovation that Top Chef introduced is Last Chance Kitchen. It basically allowed for a double-elimination tournament structure. I do wish they had this for Ink Master.


One tip for contestants. Use game theory more. If the tattoo of the day doesnt mean anything then don’t optimize for tripping up the best artists. Rather, you should give the hardest challenge to the person you think will fail. That way, you assure yourself you will stay in the running. Guarantee your own safety. Giving a bad canvas to a top player will not get them kicked out. In one case, they even won the day!

In House Communication

Second artist tip: Don’t announce you are “playing the game” even if you are. You should never ever slam someone else’s tattoo or personality or talent. It serves zero purpose. You say “I am not even competing against you. I am competing against the best version of myself. I just want to make my best tattoos each day”. It is absolutely idiotic to give people in the house shit. They will just throw you the worst challenges. Be nice to everyone.

When it comes time to use your advantage, don’t talk to anyone about it. Just tell people that it will be random and someone has to get the bad canvases.

Of course, be strategic (above) about using your advantage, but for God’s sake, do not make enemies. You are not helped by creating enemies!


I like the show. The only thing that bugs me is the toxicity of the show. If they fixed that, it would be perfect. If I were to get a tattoo it would either be an embroidery tattoo or a photo realistic one of my kids.

I love the way this looks.
My kids will always be this age, no matter how big they get

I don’t think I will ever actually do it, but I like to imagine getting it done. It looks very painful. I know some people who love their tattoos. I wonder if they like the show.


Whatya think?