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Tattoo Chronicle #14 ~ Would You Do a Reality Show?

Albert Brooks - Real Life 1979By Bob Baxter
That’s a good question. Hey, think about it. All you have to do is live your life in the usual manner: eat Cheerios for breakfast, kiss the baby, walk the dog and, if you are a tattoo artist, ink one of your favorite customers—all with a big, fat smile on your face. Hello, fame and fortune! Sure, a cameraman will be tracking your every move, but so what? For a pot of gold an episode, who wouldn’t? Lots of people. But, no matter how you slice and dice it, once those corporate lawyers get a hold of you, the whole well-intentioned project will end up like Albert Brooks' 1979 movie, Real Life, that’s why.

In case you missed it, Real Life was all about a carefully-selected family, headed by papa Charles Grodin, who literally came apart in front of the big, white video cameras perched on the heads of the ever-present crew members. It’s all fine and good to have your finest moments captured for all to see—telling your favorite joke, accepting a humanitarian award, tattooing Angelina Jolie—but what about the time you poked the tattoo needle into your thumb or the conversation you had with the waitress who brought you the well-done burger, when you asked for rare? What about the fine print? All this notoriety comes with a contract, in case you didn’t know. Rest assured, if those producer people are going to hand over their money for you to “act normal,” there’s strings attached. Miles and miles of ’em.

I posted a notice about this story on my Daily Blog that read, “I’m putting together an article about the impact of reality shows on tattooing. Would you accept an offer to have your tattoo life and personal life showcased on a TV series?” I received several interesting responses. Joseph Reincke said, “I’d probably watch something like that.” I’m sure he would and I’m sure lots of other people would, too. After all, there’s nothing more exciting than being a fly on the wall in someone else’s life. I mean, wouldn’t we love to eavesdrop on the backroom shenanigans of our heroes? You bet. That’s the best part of reality TV: the stuff that’s none of our business.

Keith Durocher wrote, “For better or for worse, those shows have had a pretty solid impact on the popularity of tattoo, which also means more clients and more money. With that in mind, yes, I would do it, under one condition: that there was a contract clause precluding the priority of ‘drama’ over the art of tattoo.” Dream on, Keith. No “drama” means no show. No one wants to watch Paul Booth polishing his autoclave.

Chris Robinson concurred. “I agree with Keith. I think the producers of such shows make up situations and scenarios to keep the ratings up! If I had as much drama and in fighting at my studio, I’d fire everyone, including myself!”

Miami Ink and spin off LA Ink

Sounds like a couple of smart artists, to me. “Drama”? “Fighting?” I guess they’ve seen American idol. Or maybe The Real Housewives of New Jersey? Or are they talking about L.A. Ink? I mean, Kat Von D wasn’t promoted from Miami Ink to having her own show, based in Los Angeles, because she’s boring. No sir. She was made a star by television executives who commissioned scripts that appealed to the prurient nature of the gossip mongers, star-struck teenagers and ambulance chasers looking for soap-opera dialogue from self-involved B-listers: the worst kind of entertainment. Kim Kardashian, Kat Von D, please tell me the difference. Both are clearly obsessed with notoriety, put on their makeup with a hand trowel and make their love lives as public as possible. And you really think this is an accident? Do you really believe that the absurd storylines in these realty shows just happen? Yes, plot lines do unfold, but it’s because they are written and directed that way, just like Chris Robinson says.

The artists at Drastic Pleasures Tattoo told me that, “I am in a small regional area with colleges all around me, and I think it’d be cool to show the real deal, not just the so-called glamour aspect or a shop that has tons of money to begin with.” I agree. The day-to-day activities of a small regional shop, especially if it were run by Sailor Jerry Swallow or Vyvyn Lazonga or Thomas Lockhart would be fascinating, but I don’t think these amazing artists would want to play along, especially after they read the fine print in the contracts—the contracts that don’t ask but rather tell you what to say and do.

The folks who create these television concepts, who arrive at their ideas around conference tables in advertising agencies, who select and groom tomorrow’s big stars, who package people based on their Credibility Quotient Rating, are business people not artist people. Regarding tattooing, for example, they have no experience, no insight or understanding of their subject matter, yet they are the ones who decide what is important. If you become a realty show star, it’s because of the script writers and the marketing machinery. Kat Von D moved from the back of the line at Miami Ink because of her CQR, not her importance in the tattoo community. Lyle Tuttle, perhaps one of the great tattoo storytellers of all time (he tattooed Janis Joplin, for heaven’s sake!), will never be on reality TV, but not because he isn’t knowledgeable or articulate or entertaining. He doesn’t have his own reality show because he isn’t twenty-five years old. Lyle is seventy-nine. He has met, worked with or knows practically anyone and everything worth knowing in tattooing over the last five thousand years, but he’s not what the producers of the reality shows are looking for. He ain’t cute.

American Idol,” one of the decade’s great television hits, and for obvious reasons, “is really about the American dream,” said the feisty British judge Simon Cowell. This finely-crafted, time-tested concept appealed to viewers to such a degree that the 2004 finale drew more votes than any candidate in the U.S. elections. But this “American dream” came with an extremely complex and prohibitive contract drafted by production company, 19 Entertainment. As Salon observed in 2002, “Their careers are literally not their own.” Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and the other winners had no control over their images. The idea is what attracted their hearts, but the fine print hijacked their souls.

LA Ink characters and Jesse James with Kat Von D

Jack Rudy is another pretty smart cookie in the tattoo world, and I remember how he criticized Corey Miller about his pending offer to join the cast of L.A. Ink. I talked with Corey just a few minutes after he spoke with Jack, at a tattoo convention. He had asked the old-school maven for his advice on how to proceed. Jack said it was “selling out.” Corey was troubled. He had already established an excellent reputation and built a beautiful and prosperous shop, Six Feet Under in Upland, California. We know what happened: Corey joined the show and stood helplessly by while the producers crafted scripts that portrayed him as a weak-willed whiner, who was under the thumb of Miss Kat Von D. Another cast member, Hannah Aitchison, opted out of her contract. Hannah told me that they were looking for more “tits and ass” than she could tolerate, so she quit, salvaging, hopefully, both her respectability and reputation.

I have never had my own reality show, but I did have a TV variety show on CBS back in the ’70s, so I have a hint of what goes on with network television. The way management deals with artists is still the same. They say one thing and do another. In my case, CBS told me that, if I got a “5” viewer rating, I would get my own one-hour show the next season. I got a “12” and they wouldn’t answer my phone calls. It had all been decided, and they were simply offering me a carrot because that’s the way they do business. They tell you whatever they want, so you will sign on. But, after you give them what they need, “Good-bye, Charlie.”

A couple of years ago, I was contacted by Discovery Channel to be part of a ninety-minute special on tattoo art. My fifteen-minute segment was framed around a visit to a tattoo convention in Arizona, sponsored by Bert Rodriguez, who, for years, produced those excellent shows in Santa Rosa, California. Even though I had dealt with dozens of producers who wanted my help “gathering talent” for various TV concepts they were planning (I turned them down), the idea my doing a walking tour through the convention, interviewing various artists along the way and, in addition, showing how we photographed tattooed models for my magazine, was very appealing, especially since I was assured this was a high-minded project. An inside look at an actual tattoo convention is something I’d never seen on TV.

Must have reality TVWell, after I talked Bert into allowing us to stroll around his convention with a camera crew, the director, a cameraman, a soundperson and I spent two days videotaping. We busted our humps supplying just the right people to talk to and just the right pretty girls to photograph. Guess what? Our entire segment was dumped on the cutting room floor. Without even a call from the producer or a hint about what they had done, we tuned on the broadcast and—surprise, surprise—we had been replaced by a story about some jerk who got his eyeballs tattooed blue. I thought I was so smart. Once again, screwed by the fine print.

Would you do a reality show? It depends. If you’re a mental patient, “yes.” But if you are relatively sane and don’t want your life screwed up beyond all recognition, the answer, my friend, is a definite “no.”


As editor in chief of Skin&Ink magazine for over fourteen years, Bob Baxter guided the publication to a Folio Magazine Editorial Excellence Award, making it America’s most respected and educational body art publication. He currently edits and writes a Daily Blog at www.tattooroadtrip.com, the ultimate E-zine and resource site for international tattoo artists and collectors. He also has his Tattoo Chronicles series and the 101 Most Influential People in Tattooing right here @ Vanishing Tattoo. To ask questions, make comments or demand an apology, you can email Bob at baxter@tattooroadtrip.com.

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