Ink Screen

Tattoos are making a mark on the reality-TV genre.

For decades, “tats” or “ink” carried a stigma as deviant marks worn by criminals, bikers and rock musicians, an unambiguous sign of a person’s wild side.

But these days, tattoos are coming out of the sleeve: One out of every five Americans sports at least one tattoo on their bodies, according to a 2012 Harris Interactive report.

The tattoo industry is now a $1.65 billion dollar business with more than 21,000 parlors operating in the U.S., according to the online Tattoo Statistics website. People from virtually every demographic are proudly displaying their tats with few inhibitions. Tattoos were once an automatic disqualification for most jobs. Now cops, bankers, executives — and writers — are showing off their body ink.

And it’s not even mostly men. An Oxygen Media survey in 2012 revealed that 59% of tattoo-wearers are women, with the most popular images those of hearts and angels. Tattoos are also prevalent with young people: About 36% of all adults 18 to 25 have at least one tattoo, while 40% of adults 26 to 40 are inked, according to the Pew Research Center.

Getting “inked” has become a trend in large part due to changing social standards, particularly among young people. In a Harris poll, the number of people who said adults with tattoos are more likely to do something most people consider deviant has dropped to 24% from 29% in 2008, and the number of people who said it makes no difference whether someone has a tattoo has gone up to 74% from 69%.

Millennials see their favorite celebrities sporting animals, kids’ names and other images on their backs, arms and legs. In today’s entertainment world, it’s rare to find a celebrity who doesn’t wear some form of tattoo, while performers such as R&B singer Rihanna, movie star Angelina Jolie and singer Chris Brown sport nine tattoos or more. The biggest sports athletes are also sporting multiple tattoos, from basketball’s LeBron James to baseball’s Josh Hamilton to soccer’s David Beckham.

Naturally, tattoos need to be shown to be appreciated, so many are ending up on reality television. “The proliferation of tattoo shows corresponds with the growing popularity of tattoos in our culture,” Shelly Tatro, senior vice president of development and programming for A&E, said. Her network was one of the first to jump into the tattoo-based reality series genre with Inked in 2005. The network currently airs Epic Ink, which follows the exploits of the charismatic staff of the Oregon-based Area 51 Tattoo parlor.

“Series like Epic Ink are successful, not just because of the incredible talent of these artists, but also the characters and the stories behind the tattoos they create,” Tatro said.

More than a half-dozen tattoo or body-painting shows are currently on network schedules, ranging from intense and dramatic competition series (GSN’s Skin Wars, Spike TV’s Ink Master and Syfy’s Face Off) to shows focusing on charismatic owners and workers at tattoo parlors (Oxygen’s Tattoos After Dark and Epic Ink). At least one show explores correcting or removing unwanted body ink (Spike’s Tattoo Nightmares Miami.) And Ink Master was Spike’s second-highest-rated show in 2013.

Viewers are fascinated by the subculture and mystique of the tattoo and body-painting industry, and that interest is inking strong ratings for cable networks, programming executives said. “The genre has become a huge trend, and it’s been very successful for us with Tattoo Nightmares (and spinoff series Tattoo Nightmares: Miami) and Ink Master,” Chris Rantamaki, senior vice president of original series for Spike, said. “That’s part of the trend — not only is the artwork amazing, but we search for the best of the best.”

Tattooed Americans seem infatuated with permanent body art, even if it means running the risk of getting a less-than-flattering result. In a recent casting call for Ink Master, Spike drew some 15,000 applicants as well as dozens of people lining up to be “human canvasses,” according to Rantamaki.

“It always amazes me that people will line up to get specific tattoos that we commission for the series,” he said. “For a guy with no tattoos, I can appreciate the art, but when it doesn’t go well [those people] are walking away with tattoos that will probably be with them for the rest of their lives, so the stakes are big.”

Rantamaki said the network’s tattoo shows also draw an even split of male and female viewers, which may seem unusual considering that the tattoo phenomenon is perceived to be more targeted to males. A poll conducted by Oxygen Media in 2012 said that 85% of those surveyed believed that more men sport tattoos than women.


Nonetheless, female-skewing Oxygen pulled in female viewers to a pair of series, Tattoos After Dark and Best Ink. Tattoos After Dark, which chronicles a Los Angeles-based tattoo parlor and the unique characters that frequent it late at night, averaged 546,000 viewers during its freshman run earlier this past summer. Competition series Best Ink drew 613,000 viewers in its third season, which ended this past February. Both series were above the 415,000 total viewers the network averaged in primetime last year, according to Nielsen.

The tattoo craze has spawned another genre that has caught the attention of viewers: body painting.

The genre, in which creative artists use the human body as a canvas to paint designs, has been showcased recently in Hollywood through Rebecca Romijn and Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of blue-colored shapechanger Mystique in the popular X-Men film franchise. “There is a subculture of body painters out there and people are really interested in subcultures,” GSN executive vice president of programming Amy Introcaso-Davis said.

Viewers have recently taken interest in GSN’s Skin Wars body-painting series. The competition series, hosted by Romijn, pits body painters against each other in a series of creative skill tests. Its Aug. 6 premiere drew a network-series record 700,000 viewers.

Introcasco-Davis said the competitive nature of the series, combined with the painters’ artistry and skill, has also drawn a record number of young viewers to the channel, which also features reruns of such classic game shows as The $20,000 Pyramid.

“The [genre] is appealing to an audience that’s at the younger end of the spectrum and much younger than our audience,” she said. “It definitely has a much younger appeal.”

The tattoo and body-painting genres won’t fade too fast, Introcaso-Davis said. She said she expects more networks to jump on the bandwagon.

“There’s more room for competition shows in the genre like this,” she said. “The interesting thing about body painting, unlike tattoos, is that you can use the whole body. It makes the artwork much more extraordinary because there’s a bigger canvas to cover.”

Networks that were initially reluctant to look at that tattoo culture because it was too niche-oriented will soon realize that ink is more mainstream than people think, Spike’s Rantamaki added.

“We don’t want to oversaturate the genre, but we’ve had success where others have not,” he said. “We’ve really respected the tattoo culture.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.