When Ink Master debuted in 2012, it did so with a modest budget, a less-developed format, and no expectations. Sure, Oliver Peck and Chris Nuñez are rock stars in the tattoo world, but tons of ink lovers didn’t know their names then. And though Dave Navarro was already a recognizable rock star, he wasn’t necessarily the king of the tattoo world. But the show exploded in popularity, and the rest is heavily-inked history.
Ink Master has changed over the years. In season two, the show brought in the audience, allowing viewers to vote for their favorite tattoos and artists. In season three, the canvases finally got to have their say. As the series went on, the flash challenges have gotten crazier, the competitions have become more cutthroat, and the formats have grown more complex. Teams, shop face-offs, grudges, return canvases — they’re all in the Ink Master mix, in addition to the show’s spinoffs.
Almost every artist featured on the show has gone on to enjoy an elevated profile. Moreover, it seems like almost every Ink Master contestant who’s made it more than a few episodes owns their own shop. Some artists have been brought back for one, two, or three more seasons. Some artists have gotten hosting or judging gigs in spinoffs. Some artists have even explored fields beyond tattooing. Join us as we catch up with the talented artists of Ink Master.
Oliver Peck is a legend in the tattoo industry: His art is renowned worldwide, and he was once married to arguably the biggest celebrity tattooist in the world, Kat Von D. But in 2020, Peck left Ink Masters after 13 seasons, due to a racist scandal.
Multiple pictures of Peck in blackface emerged in January 2020, much to fans’ dismay. Peck soon announced that he and the show had "parted ways." Peck admitted his guilt and issued an apology in a now-deleted Instagram post: "I look at those photos and it’s hard for me to believe I could have been so clueless, insensitive and dumb," Peck opined. "I hope that I’ve matured a great deal since then and I’m deeply sorry for everyone I’ve offended." For now, Peck is lying low. He’s still very active in the tattoo world, however, as he remains a co-owner of Elm Street Tattoo in Dallas and the full owner of True Tattoo in Hollywood, CA.
Chris Nuñez has an amazing CV: He’s a graffiti artist, a hard-working tattoo artist, and a global traveler. And then there’s Miami Ink, the first tattoo reality show to become a major hit, set in the shop that Nuñez co-owned with Ami James. Its main competitor at the time, Inked, ran from 2005 to 2006, while Miami Ink ran from 2005 to 2008. Moreover, one of its artists, Kat Von D, spun off her own show LA Ink, which ran from 2007 to 2011, while Ami James spun off NY Ink from 2011 to 2013. But Nuñez’s longest-running show is Ink Master, which began in 2012.
Nuñez is still a judge on Ink Master, and he still owns his own shop. His Paramount Network bio lists him as a partner in Ridgeline Empire, a content and media corporation responsible for Ink Skins and Upset Gentlemen, as well as an animation company with two series in development. Few developments have been released as to these ventures and Nuñez’s involvement in the last few years, though Upset Gentlemen’s Instagram page shows ties to Nuñez and the company’s Miami roots.
Regardless of where these projects currently stand, they prove that Nuñez obviously plans to continue his artistic journey throughout the world of entertainment, whatever Ink Master’s future may be.
As ironic as this may sound, rock star Dave Navarro is the calming voice of moderation on Ink Master. Like any rock guitarist, he has a wild history filled with debauchery and excitement. He’s played lead guitar for Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and his own solo career. He’s been a reality host, an adult film director, and was married for a few years to Carmen Electra. Since most of his other commitments lasted no more than 5 years (and plenty were a good bit shorter), it would seem that Ink Master is one of his longest relationships.
Navarro is set to continue with the show, but it’s certainly not the only thing on his docket. In 2021, Jane’s Addiction released the documentary Jane’s Addiction Replay 2020, complete with interviews with the band’s members, as well as a seven-song performance from their Virtual Lollapalooza performance. Moreover, Navarro was selected as one of the many artists to perform on the one-year anniversary special of musician Yungblud’s show.
Tommy Helm is a much-beloved artist from season one of Ink Master. While he was eliminated before winning, Helm went on to another tattoo-centric show. In fact, Helm showed up on the season two Ink Master finale to announce Tattoo Nightmares, the tattoo cover-up show he hosted from 2012 to 2015. He even offered one of the human canvases a cover-up for a bad pin-up tattoo received during the season. Later, he came back to Ink Masters in season nine to compete with his shopmate Marvin Silva, eventually finishing sixth.
Helm has been concentrating on his own art lately. He’s doing well: Helm has over 290,000 followers on Instagram and owns his own shop, Empire State Studio. Recently, with the disappearance of Oliver Peck, Helm has been the subject of social media chatter. He has long been mentioned by many fans as the artist who should have won season one, and some say he’s the "odds-on favorite" to serve as replacement. Whether or not he does come back into the Ink Master fold, Helm is still a big player in the world of elite tattooists.
Scott Marshall was an extremely talented artist who thrived on work combining technical skill with beautiful imagery. In the season four finale, he beat out Sausage, one of the most admired artists of the series, who would go on to return several times. Marshall won $100,000 from that finale and a whole lot of attention.
Tragically, Marshall died of a heroin overdose at the age of 41, a year after winning. While he remains the only winner to die so quickly after starring on (and winning) the show, he’s not the only Ink Master to pass away. Clint Cummings’ mohawk and straight-up approach to his fellow contestants made him such a memorable artist in season two that they brought him back in season three to be a human canvas. Sadly, he died of cancer in 2016 at the age of 36, just four years after he made it to seventh place.
Tattooing is a male-dominated industry, and Ink Master is no exception. Before season seven, the highest-finishing female was Sarah Miller in season two, and then Tatu Baby in season three. No woman finished above ninth place in seasons five and seven. Then came Ryan Ashley and the girls’ alliance she formed with Nikki Simpson and Gia Rose. Ashley became the first female Ink Master champion — but that was only the beginning of her journey.
Ashley went on to become a host for Ink Master: Angels and Ink Master: Grudge Match. She also won as a coach on season 12 of Ink Master: Battle of the Sexes, elevating her to the vaunted status of being a two-time winner. She’s also been the cover girl for Inked magazine several times. In one issue bearing her on the cover, she announced her relationship with tattoo artist Arlo DiCristina. She later announced their baby on the cover of another issue. They reign as the first family of tattooing.
Cleen Rock One
Cleen Rock One was the runner-up of Ink Master season five. He later returned to the show and became the runner-up of season seven. Time and again, Cleen showed off his skill with his bright, bold, new-school tattoos. He and Aaron Is represented their shop, Golden Skull Tattoo, in season nine, but only made it to fifth place.
While Cleen has never actually won, his strong showing led Ink Master to bring him back for season 11, Ink Master: Grudge Match. In this season, Cleen mentored and coached a team against one led by his rival, Christian Buckingham. Cleen’s team included eventual winner Tony Medellin, making him the winning coach. It seems the fourth time’s the charm. Cleen also appeared in season one of Ink Master: Angels.
Cleen currently runs his own shop in Vegas, and also maintains an online shop, which sells merch and tattooing supplies.
Sarah Miller, a renowned portrait artist, had a dramatic showing in her Ink Master debut in season two, full of intense monologues and emotional rollercoasters. She went on to be the season two runner-up, and left a strong impression on everybody. She was also a human canvas in season three, and competed again in season seven, where she came in 10th. She went on to make an appearance in Ink Master: Angels, and became a coach in season 12, Battle of the Sexes. But her TV career has ended up going beyond Ink Master … sort of.
Miller starred in a Spike TV pilot that was eventually repackaged as a 2014 TV movie, Ink Shrinks. The concept was unique in the tattoo TV world: It sees Miller and two tattoo artists join a team of therapists to give clients tattoos that will help them deal with trauma and psychological problems. Basically, it’s rooted in the deep sense of healing a tattoo can give to the person receiving it.
James Vaughn was a favorite in season one, known for his ebullient Southern speech, witty comments, and jovial attitude. He finished third in that season. Vaughn was brought back in "Merry Ink," where he competed against Tatu Baby, Sausage, and Jime Litwalk designing holiday-themed tattoos. Vaughn again returned in season seven, where he finished fourth. Later, James served as a coach in season 12, though he was ultimately eliminated.
Currently, James runs two shops in North Carolina, Straight A Tattoo and Emerald City Tattoo & Piercing. He is also one of the state’s most-awarded tattooists. In 2020, Vaughn was named as the new artist manager of the American Tattoo Society’s shop in Fayetteville, NC. While he is a longtime Ink Master favorite and such people often get brought back, it’s obvious that Vaughn’s career as a tattoo artist and manager will keep him busy enough.
Sausage is a much-beloved Ink Master artist. There’s a fair bit of social media chatter saying he should have won over Scott Marshall in season four, in fact. According to Sausage’s artist profile, he became known as "America’s Inkmaster" after the controversial season finale (which ended a season in which he was constantly targeted by other contestants). Sausage returned in season seven, Ink Master: Revenge, ultimately finishing seventh.
Sausage did get some redemption in an epic face-off against his rival Matti Hixson during the live season seven finale. They weren’t fighting for $100,000 — just pride. The loser had to get a tattoo from the winner, and Sausage won. Thus, Hixson will have to spend the rest of his life with a tattoo from his rival. Sucks to be him.
Sausage was also brought back for "Merry Ink," and was a coach in season 12. Meanwhile, Sausage has been making Ink Master alliances off-screen. He and season three winner Joey Hamilton have four shops spread over Las Vegas and the Lake Tahoe and Salt Lake regions.
Kelly Doty came in third place in season eight, despite the fact that she didn’t really become part of Ryan Ashley’s girls’ alliance. But with her unique style — both in terms of her tattoos and her personal aesthetic — Doty left her mark. She went on to be a host of Ink Master: Angels, and a coach in season 12, Battle of the Sexes.
Even more importantly, Doty has been making strides in promoting the cause of women in tattooing. Doty co-owns Helheim Gallery in Salem, MA with Kristen Welch. There, she practices her art — when she’s not traveling the world as a tattoo convention celebrity, that is. Helheim is her home, though, and a true inspiration as a majority-female shop.
Doty was highlighted in Inked magazine in 2019 as a woman tackling gender equality in tattooing. Basically, she uses her fame for a great cause — and she still has awesome hair.
DJ Tambe made Ink Master history by winning seasons nine and 10, an amazing back-to-back feat. Moreover, along with Cleen Rock One and Ryan Ashley, he hosted Ink Master: Grudge Match. His wins even landed him an appearance on Ellen, transcending the tattoo world to make a splash on mainstream TV. Tambe was brought in to give another tattoo to an Ellen superfan who’d already gotten Ellen’s face tattooed on his forearm.
No doubt DJ Tambe will continue appearing on Ink Master shows. In the meantime, he’s continuing to tattoo at the shop he’s worked at for over a decade, Las Vegas’ Bad Apple, and at Nashville’s Branded Tattoo Company, the shop he founded in 2018 with fellow Ink Master winner Bubba Irwin. According to his website, Tambe is also busy in the worlds of fine art and digital art, and has even designed brand logos. When an artist has this much talent, he’d be a fool not to add some hyphens.
Silva first appeared on Ink Master: Angels. There, he won his place on the main Ink Master show, appearing in season 10 where he finished seventh. His story was a true American dream: He went from homeless teenager to tattoo artist to the stars. Silva was on an upward trajectory with the sky acting as his only limit.
Then, on May 10, 2020, Silva crashed his McLaren 600LT. Silva’s friend and passenger, YouTube star Corey La Barrie, died as a result of injuries sustained in the accident. The two had been at a party, and, according to LAPD media relations officer Mike Lopez, Silva "was driving the car under the influence of alcohol."
The 27-year-old Silva eventually pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter. He was sentenced to 364 days of jail, 250 hours of community service, and five years of probation. He was released on October 8, 2020.