Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET (TLC)
Cast: Ari James, Chris Garver, Chris Nunez, Darren Brass, Yoji Harada
by Michael Abernethy
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In Lily Tomlin’s Appearing Nightly, Glenna, Child of the Sixties, laments that smoking pot has lost its appeal because everyone is doing it: “You see these accountants standing around at parties getting high. It just takes all the fun out of it.” The same might be said regarding the art of tattooing. At one time, tattoos were associated with troublemakers on Harleys and servicemen. Today, you see accountants at parties with full body suits of tattoos. In fact, a 2003 study by Ohio University and Scripps Howard News Service revealed that 15 percent of Americans, about 42 million, have tattoos, almost one in three adults 25 to 34. What was once a symbol of rough trade is now trendy.
It was inevitable that reality shows would enter into America’s tattoo parlors. Two new series, TLC’s Miami Ink and A&E’s Inked, explore the world of the tattoo artist, taking very different approaches. The first showcases the art, while the second explores the camaraderie and animosity among employees.
Miami Ink is set in a parlor opened by five friends and roommates. Located on the strip in Miami Beach, the Miami Ink Tattoo Parlor services enthusiasts without much money to spend. The series will follow the five as they set up shop and work to make it a success. By contrast, Inked goes behind the scenes of Hart & Huntington Tattoo Company, an upscale parlor catering to high-rollers thanks to its location in Las Vegas’ Palms Casino Resort. H&H already has an established clientele, but its future is as shaky as Miami Ink’s due to friction among the staff.
In Miami, Vin Diesel look-alike Ari James has convinced his three best friends to join him in the business, each with his own artistic style. Also working at the shop is Yoji, their apprentice. Although they live together, viewers rarely see the artists at home, and the shop’s opening is rendered only as a few shots of the crew cleaning up in preparation, followed by several clips from the opening party (which leaves all five hung over for their first day).
The focus on the artists plying their trade means the series also considers who gets tattoos. Part of the artist’s process is learning the purpose of the tattoo ands its significance to the customer, so viewers are treated to the stories behind the tattoos they see created. The most compelling of these stories is Erin’s, a college student tattooing her foot to remember her late brother. Her tattoo brings up painful memories of her brother’s suicide, and artist Chris Nunez, whose father also committed suicide, assumes the role of counselor, offering her advice on how to deal with the loss.
Scenes such as this invite viewers of Miami Ink to identify with the artists and customers on the show. The series frames tattooing as an art for the common man (using bodies as canvases), performed by men who more closely resemble the guy next door than the stereotype of the tough biker. (Neither show features a female artist Miami Ink debunks the myths associated with tattoos and those who get or give them.
Inked, by contrast, focuses more on relationships among employees than with the tattoo process. Having fallen out shortly after opening, the two owners spend much of the premiere episode planning the future of their six-month-old venture, as Carey Hart attempts to buy out John Huntington. After they bicker over the future, Hart announces to his employees that if Huntington won’t sell his half, then he will close the doors. Understandably, the parlor’s 12 employees spent most of the episode worrying about whether they will still have jobs.
Once Huntington sells, the crew turns its attention to tormenting Dizzle, H&H’s apprentice. Eager to begin tattooing, Dizzle must first endure a meeting with Rick “Papa” Walters, an old-school, hard-ass tattooist who was Hart’s mentor. Papa lectures Dizzle on his trade, then makes Dizzle do his first tattoo on himself. The lesson is that tattooing is not something to do because it’s “cool,” but because it’s a serious art form that requires years of training. Unfortunately, Dizzle’s lesson is all that viewers learn too. Failing to offer insight into the craft of tattooing, Inked features the usual reality show array of angst, gossip, practical jokes, fights, and confessionals.
Viewers attracted to this sort of programming will enjoy Inked more than its counterpart, but Miami Ink is a more substantive endeavor. Where most reality shows concentrate on “getting to know” participants as they “get real” with one another, Miami Ink explores how its subjects view their art, not each other.