Reality Shows That Leave an Indelible Mark

Tattoo-themed shows — once considered a stepchild of the reality TV genre — are now viewed as mainstream for young viewers, many of whom are sporting ink themselves.

Shows like VH1’s Black Ink Crew, A&E’s recently launched Heroes Ink and Paramount Network’s Ink Master are drawing up sizable audiences with character-driven stories of tatted-up people — from celebrities to law-enforcement officials — as well as the unique professionals who wield the ink and needle..

Paramount Network’s 'Ink Master' (l.) features tattoo artists in competition.

Paramount Network’s 'Ink Master' (l.) features tattoo artists in competition.

“At one time, the perception of someone getting a tattoo was that they were low-class,” said Marc Berman, editor of TV industry website Programming Insider. “It’s not like that anymore. It’s very up-and-coming and prevalent in today’s society, particularly if you’re young.”

The genre has come along way since such shows as Tattoo Girls, Bad Ink and Tattoo Rescue permeated cable-network lineups with often wild and outlandish stories and images of tattoo parlors and the characters that frequented them, network executives said.

“When unscripted cable emerged some 20 years ago, tattoos were still considered somewhat taboo and more associated with outlaws and fringe culture,” said Dan Cesareo, founder of Big Fish Entertainment, which produces VH1’s Black Ink Crew and MTV’s How Far Is Tattoo Far?

“Today that has changed dramatically — tattoos are mainstream, fashionable and have become iconic, in a way,” Cesareo said.

Ink Is Spreading

Indeed, four out of 10 people age 18-69 have at least one tattoo, according to a 2017 Statista survey, up from 21% five years prior.

“Years ago, tattoos were niche and few people had them, and now everybody’s grandmother is getting an anchor on their arm,” said Glenda Hersh, co-CEO and co-president of production company Truly Original, creators of tattoo competition show Ink Master. “It’s become much more common, relevant and connected to pop culture, art and fashion. I think that as that grows, so does interest in tattoo shows.”

Ink Master, which launched its 12th season this month, features tattoo artists competing in various challenges to assess their tattoo and related artistic skills. The franchise is so popular — season 11 finished as the most-watched reality series on ad-supported cable among men 18-49 and as a top 10 reality series among adults 18-49 — that Truly Original and Paramount Network have already green-lighted a 13th season.

Launch plans are also set for a spinoff series, Ink Master: Grudge Match, to premiere this fall on Paramount Network, as well as an Ink Master YouTube channel.

Ink Master has thrived through the years because of the appeal of its stars and their unique talents, Hersh said. “They’re colorful, they’re creative, they come from different backgrounds and are fun to watch,” she said. “Also, a lot of people watch for the game-play strategy. It’s not all about the art but also how you play the Ink Master game, what alliances you form as well as the rivalries.”

Also driving the appeal of tattoo shows is the intersection of art and celebrity. A significant number of celebrities and athletes, both men and women, are wearing tattoos, making the body art a fashion statement and part of the pop-culture scene.

Shows like VH1’s Black Ink Crew — and spinoff Black Ink Crew Chicago — have featured celebrities getting inked in the showcased African-American owned tattoo shops, including rap artists Jadakis and Nicki Minaj, as well as NBA star DeMarcus Cousins.

“[The stars] are not just coming in to make an appearance — they are getting something permanently etched onto their skin, which is obviously a much more significant commitment,” Cesareo said. “That helps draw in the younger, more elusive demographic of viewers that all these cable networks are fighting to get to show up and watch their content.”

With Black Ink Crew not only driving the highest African-American viewership of any show on VH1 but also one of the highest male viewership numbers on the predominantly female-skewing network, Cesareo said Big Fish is developing another spinoff of the series, but would not reveal further details.

From Stars to First Responders

Rather than celebrities, A&E explores law-enforcement officials’ affinity for tattoos in Hero Ink. The series, which launched on June 6, follows the work done at Prison Break Tattoos, a Houston parlor that specializes in creating meaningful tattoos for first responders.

Artist Zoey Taylor is one of the cast members on A&E’s law enforcement-focused tattoo show 'Hero Ink.'

Artist Zoey Taylor is one of the cast members on A&E’s law enforcement-focused tattoo show 'Hero Ink.'

Elaine Frontain Bryant, executive vice president and head of programming for A&E Network, said the tattoos created in the series serve as the entry point for these professionals to tell their own personal stories.

Through the first two telecasts — including reruns — A&E said Hero Ink has reached nearly 8 million viewers since its debut on a Nielsen live-plus-3 basis.

“I’m interested in the artistry, but I’m also interested in why people choose a particular image that’s going to stay with them for the rest of their lives,” she said. “Usually there’s a story and a reason behind the tattoo. It’s a great way to get to know people better and see some great art at the end of it.”

Added Berman: “It’s no longer just about getting a tattoo, but it’s about the people coming in and telling their backstories. Shows that work in the reality genre are those that showcase people that we can relate to or those that we want to be, and right now people are relating to these tattoo places.”

VH1 vice president of original programming Daniel Rogge said the Black Ink Crew franchise has not shied away from showcasing the authentic trials and tribulations of its unpredictable and complicated stars. He pointed to a situation from last season’s Black Ink Chicago, in which a featured cast member temporarily left the 9Mag Ink Tattoo Shop after revealing he was dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts.

“We used his story as a pro-social opportunity to provide resources for people who may be experiencing the same thing,” he said. “On the one hand, the show focuses on the entrepreneurs who are trying to run a successful business, but then there’s also a mother working to raise a family, and there are others dealing with friends, family and personal issues. It has a core of relatability to situations that viewers can see themselves in.”

As the tattoo industry moves further into the mainstream, network executives say shows that profile the people that create and receive tattoos will continue to prosper.

“There is a mainstreaming of [tattoos] that is a good thing,” said VH1’s Rogge, adding that he is a client of the 9Mag shop himself, having had one of the show’s artists tattoo his child’s name onto his arm.

Added Big Fish’s Cesareo: “If you were to pull out the staples of unscripted programming that will never go away, tattoos will always be one of those staples.”

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.