Best Ink Season 3 premieres tonight at 10/9CT on Oxygen.
I got my first tattoo as a gift from a pal on my 30th birthday. It’s a small kanji symbol for “joy” on my ankle so that whenever I get to wondering where the happiness has gone in my overscheduled life, all I have to do is look down and, boom, there it is. Shortly after leaving the shop, I realized that I can’t find any evidence anywhere that the symbol really does mean joy, so I’m not sure what exactly is on my ankle, but it’s a part of me whatever it says.
On birthday 35, apparently feeling much more optimistic about the world, I got a girlie version of a Kokopelli on my back — a girlie Kokopelli dancing kind of Charlie Brown style next to a campfire. I don’t remember exactly what that was about, other than I probably shouldn’t be trusted to choose my own body art, even well into adulthood. And though I have a near-daily urge to see if my questionable taste in ink has lingered into my 40s, I’ve yet to take the plunge.
Now I watch tattoo shows instead, which is almost as satisfying, since I’m endlessly fascinated by how the cool-kid tattooers create gallery-caliber art on canvases that may or may not a) be drunk b) hold still, c) have design ideas about as stellar as mine and d) caterwaul like a stray cat at midnight throughout the entire thing.
And they make said art using electrified needles. In permanent ink.
I’m partial to Oxygen’s Best Ink, which premieres its third season tonight, in large part because of its ubercool judging panel — the impossibly glam pinup model mom Sabina Kelley, renowned Chicago tattooist Hannah Aitchison (who is the kind of fortysomething dame I intended to become before suburban life took over), and my personal favorite, the show’s intense, pompadoured lead judge Joe Capobianco.
I recently got a chance to talk ink and the new season of Best Ink with the internationally known owner of New Haven, Connecticut’s Hope Gallery Tattoo and creator of the “Blood Puddin’” and “Capo Gal” tattoo styles before he jetted off to France over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Channel Guide Magazine: Did you ever think when you first decided to get into the business that it would make you — and other tattooers — international celebrities and TV stars?
Joe Capobianco: Not even a little bit [laughs]! Completely took me by surprise.
CGM: Why do you think tattoo shows have become so popular in the last few years?
JC: The thing about tattooing is that it’s so personal, and when people get to watch and hear somebody else’s story about why they’re getting tattooed, there’s a connection. And then it gives them ideas of ‘Maybe I should do this’ or ‘I went through the same kind of break-up or other issues in my life, so maybe I should do something like that.’
Tattooing is the most personal thing you can do, because that tattoo is going nowhere — once it’s done, it’s done. So I think people really make a connection, and it doesn’t even matter if you’re getting it for a deeply emotional reason or you’re getting it because you like the art. It affects you either way.
CGM: How did you come to be part of Best Ink?
JC [laughing]: They made a phone call! They inquired about whether or not I would be interested in doing it and to be honest with you, I wasn’t. There’s a lot of people in my trade that shy away from [tattoo shows] and look down upon them, because it’s making a tunnel out of a doorway — which is good for business, but bad in the sense that you want to keep tattooing a little more true and keep it a little more of an in-the-know kind of art.
But the fact is, it’s happening. I felt that the TV shows weren’t going away and I felt that I’m not the worst person to represent the tattoo business. So I said yes and thought I’ll give it a shot and see where it goes.
CGM: Do you, Hannah and Sabina have a say in the Best Ink competitors — or do you meet them on the first day of shooting?
JC: We meet them for the time on the first day of shooting. I wish I had a little bit more of a say in who they put on the show, but I’m not 100% sure what they’re looking for when they cast some of these competitors. So that’s the first time we meet them.
This past season — Season 2 — one of the competitors was a client of mine. They asked me if that was going to be an issue for me and I said absolutely not. I can separate my business from what a good and a bad tattoo is, and it was fine. But like I said, an issue like that would not have been a concern if I had a little more to do with choosing the cast. But I understand, too, why we don’t get to meet them until the day of.
CGM: You’ve got some really young contestants this season. Is age and experience always an advantage, or can someone become a formidable talent in just a few years?
JC: Most certainly! If you look at last season, Teresa [Sharpe] had been tattooing half the amount of time that DJ [Tambe] had been tattooing, and they were both equal — I mean neck and neck — up until the very end.
The one thing that this business has shown me recently is you can be doing this for two years and be an amazing tattooer. The caliber of the artists that are getting into the business now is huge compared to when I was first in it, and they’re pushing envelopes and they’re doing things that the older generation of tattooers frowned upon — and still frown upon. But they’re willing to take those chances, and they’re willing to see where it goes. and it works for them. It works for them 110%.
And for me personally, these younger tattooers are actually pushing me in directions that I never would have thought to go, based on the fact that I wasn’t trained that way.
So it really doesn’t matter. Where age and experience do help is that they know what they can and cannot do, and how much they can bite off and not worry about completing a task in the time given. But when it comes to actual raw talent, I don’t think age has a lot to do with it.
CGM: Can someone be ever be technician enough to make up for lacking artistic skills — or vice versa?
JC: If somebody is so technical and so on point that you can never find a fault with their tattooing, that can set them apart from everybody else, from the most artistic individual. But the one thing we stress in this show, and the one thing that I always look for, is I want to see an individual’s personal flair. I want to see what they’re capable of as artists.
Realistically, you can have two technically proficient individuals and you put one in there that’s a bit more creative and a little more outside the box and that’s the person that’s most likely going to end up on top when it comes to the actual competitions.
So I think the technical aspects of tattooing are incredibly important — I think it’s the combination of the two that will always set a person apart just a little bit.
CGM: Who comes up with the challenges — and do you feel like the contestants have gotten savvier about them now that the show is in its third season?
JC: The challenges are come up with by a creative team — I have a little bit of say once we get on the scene and I come throw my two cents in. But I think that the challenges have really gotten to the point where the contestants have no idea what to expect. So you can throw anything at them — short of throwing them in a room with a hungry lion — and I don’t think you’re going to shock them. They’re expecting the worst, and when it happens, they just kind of roll with the punches!
CGM: Got any favorite challenges this season that you can tell me about?
JC: There was one that involved a demolition derby that was pretty entertaining! There was another artist that was a guest judge — his name is Matthew Bone — who sometimes does really cutting-edge, almost disturbing imagery, and we tried to push these artists to create these outrageous images — really graphic, outrageous images. That was a really cool flash challenge.
As far as the tattoo challenges, there was a lot! There was a biomechanical challenge, and as a guest judge, we brought in Hannah Aitchison’s brother, Guy Aitchison. Guy is a legend in tattooing, so that was a huge, huge thing to have in the show.
CGM: I’m always fascinated by the skins, because one always risks wearing the losing ink of the episode — even though you rarely see someone upset by their tattoo. What’s going through your head when you’re walking around observing and you see something going really haywire?
JC: That’s just part of tattooing. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so something that I find to be less than tasteful — or just straight up bad — there’s going to be somebody out there that is going to be proud to wear it and happy to own it.
CGM: The contestants’ faces when they get their first look at you are usually pretty priceless. Can you tell right away which ones are going to be easy to rattle and which aren’t?
JC [laughing]: For the most part, yeah. This season, the one thing that I was maybe a little disappointed with was that there wasn’t a whole lot of backtalk. There weren’t a lot of people that felt that they owned what they did so well that they were willing to tell me to go to hell with myself. They were young and they took it and they were willing to listen. Nobody really came back at me.
But I’m like this with everybody. You can talk to the guys at my shop or the guys I work with on the road and they’ll tell you I’m like this with everybody. I’m not turning it on for the cameras. I enjoy giving people shit, and for the most part, it’s all in good fun — unless someone really cracks the hell out of me and then I let ’em have it 110%. But again, I’m not saying it just for the sake of saying it. If I say it, I mean it. I’m not playing games.
That’s life. That’s how life should be. Sometimes you need a good smack in the face.
CGM: From your experience over the past three seasons, what’s the biggest trip-up for even the most experienced and confident artists?
JC: Time! Time is the biggest trip-up for most artists. Because what is happening is that they want to impress you and they want to blow you away, so they either bite off more than they can chew or they really push it to the nth degree on how much time they give themselves to complete something.
It only takes a skin that fidgets too much or needs a break too often or simply can’t sit that long. Or they could have an accident with their machine, or an ink explosion out of a bottle — any number of things can happen. Time is the one thing that every artist wishes they had more of when they compete.
CGM: Looks like this season we’re getting a challenge where everyone gets tattooed on their ribs, so that should be a good test of skin issues.
JC: Perfect example. Perfect example of placement and how much a skin can handle affecting the outcome.
CGM: In the very episode, you have a contestant — Lara — who completely ignores you when you come to observe her work. What was that like?
JC: Sometimes I’m blown away! Sometimes I think they really believe that I’m only there to rattle their cage — that I’m not there to give them any advice, and that they shouldn’t take my advice. She’s the perfect example of somebody who could probably use to open her ears up a little bit. Hannah gave her some great advice, too. And in all honestly she didn’t really listen to anybody. She kinda does her own thing — which is cool. I admire that. Both Hannah and I have both made our living off of doing what we do, because we truly believe in it. And Lara truly believes in what she does, which is a great thing for her.
But occasionally when we come in there and they’re like ‘Whatever!’ and I just look at it like ‘Alright. Cool. Have fun! See you shortly!’ Because it all washes out at the end, so we’ll get to see how it all turns out.
CGM: When you have someone who is a total obnoxious jackass but a very talented artist, is it relatively easy for you to overlook the former and focus on the latter?
JC: Not even a little bit. The personality of the individual means as much to me as their talent as a tattooer in general.
There are individuals in this trade that are talented as hell, but are the biggest — for lack of a better word — jerkoffs, and I could not care less about them. If they disappeared tomorrow and I wouldn’t see another piece of art from them, I couldn’t care less.
And the shame of it is that there’s more of them the younger these artists get. They look at tattooing as this is MY art. And I never look at it as my art — tattooing is something I do for my clients. I’m not bringing my creative vision to the skin just for myself, I’m doing this for them. They come to me for what I do. I think a lot of artists lose sight of the fact that this is a personal-service business. When you’re asked to do something, you do it to the best of your ability.
That’s one of the greatest challenges on the show — when you’re asked to do something that you’re not entirely comfortable with, you’re going to have to do it if you want to win.
CGM: Some contestants just don’t appear to realize that when the show is over, they’re going back to their shop and the person they were on camera is the person everyone who watched it now believes they are. You may have made for entertaining TV, but do I really want to hand over my skin and my money …?
JC: Exactly. And I think that not a lot of artists — especially when they’re doing a challenge — look at it from that perspective when they come on our show. They approach as ‘This is who I am and I’m here to win,’ but they don’t think about the fact that the general public is getting a good look at who this person is and how they conduct themselves. An individual’s character is incredibly important to me.
Granted, when it comes down to winning or losing, my own feelings about an individual’s personality can only have so much sway, because realistically, it’s a show about tattooing. So I can’t say anybody is going to lose because they’re a jerk— but it does make them look less than a good individual.
CGM: What is the actual judging process like when the cameras aren’t rolling — do you find that you, Hannah and Sabina have gotten into a groove with how you go about it?
JC: Not even a little bit! [laughs] When we disagree, we disagree! I mean, there are a lot of things that I find to be strong in a tattoo that Hannah and Sabina may not. That’s why there’s a little bit of backbiting and arguing on in quite a few episodes this season, and hopefully you’ll get to see some of that. It’s everybody’s individual likes and dislikes of the tattoo and then we try to meet in the middle.
CGM: You have professional endeavors beyond actual tattooing — your own tattoo machine and ink, your artwork, books, DVDs. Do you think that’s necessary for a tattooer to go as far as they can in the business or is tattooing enough?
JC: Everybody does things in their own way. It’s not like there’s one set of rules to follow. I think that a lot of this business comes down to how you carry yourself and how you connect to your clients. That can bring you really, really far. There’s a real personal spark that everybody has and people either connect to that or they don’t connect to that. So again, you can be really, really talented and get nowhere in this business, and you can be a mediocre talent and still go very far. That’s something we see a lot in our business.
The show, I think, is like that, too. You can be a very meek individual with a decent amount of talent and go really, really far in the competition — or win it. And then there are the people that outshine everybody talent-wise, but are the dullest person on the show.
CGM: Will Hope Gallery always be home base for you?
JC: I honestly don’t know. I hate owning a business, to be honest with you [laughs]. Owning a business ties you down and makes it hard to do anything. I’m going to France this week and I’m freaking out about it. But I work with really good people and I’ve hired a really great manager to help run the place.
It’s difficult to walk away from your business, but in all honesty, one thing that being in this business has taught me with all the traveling and whatnot is that nothing is written in stone. Everything could change tomorrow. I’m not going to say yes or no to anything at this point!
CGM: Speaking of change, do you worry that if you ever decide to change up the pompadour, your fans are going to riot till you bring it back?
JC [laughing]: I got a good head of hair and as long as I got it, I’m going to do something with it! I’ve always liked a pompadour, and it’s something I didn’t think I could pull it off. I started making my own hair pomade to get the right amount of wax and grease, and once I got it, I was like, ‘I’m good!’ But I do catch hell for it and there are people that crack on me for it and there are people that love me for it. I really don’t care. Again, personality is what I like and I’m good with it.
CGM: Before I let you go — this season’s Ink Master runner-up, Jime Litwalk, is your good friend. What did you think of the show’s outcome?
JC: Jime’s my closet friend — he was the best man in my wedding. And the fact is, I think Jime is an incredibly talented individual and [winner Joey Hamilton] is a decent artist. I think he’s a decent tattooer. But he’s a dime a dozen in our business, where Jime is truly unique. His stuff has always stood out, and it always will stand out. You put him in a room with 20 other people, you’ll know exactly who Jime is. You put Joey in that same room, trust me, no one is going to have a clue who he is. I think that kind of says it all!
Best Ink airs Wednesday nights at 10/9CT on Oxygen.
Images: ©2013 NBCUniversal Media, LLC