As We See It

Ink Master Joey Hamilton on realism, fake skin and his prophetic license plate

Joey Hamilton is the latest winner of Ink Master. License plates don’t lie.
Photo: Adam Trujillo

After 12 intense episodes and a final 35-hour challenge on Season 3 of Ink Master, Las Vegas artist Joey Hamilton said: “I put everything I had into this tattoo. I came here to compete, and I came here to win the money. … Mark my words: I’m gonna be the next Ink Master.” When the dust settled, Hamilton indeed stood alone with the $100,000 prize and a title to match the license plate he got when he knew he was in the top three. “I believe in positive thinking,” he says. “I put it out there to win it, and I did.”

Back in the booth at Planet Hollywood’s Club Tattoo, Hamilton is focused on staying booked up and grounded. We talked about his past, his future and what he would do with a million bucks.

You and some buddies from Club Tattoo drove down to LA for the Ink Master audition. But you didn’t get the callback at 6 p.m. … It was like 6:20 that first day; we were still in LA hanging out, no phone call, nothing. So we said, “Okay, let’s go back to Las Vegas.” We started heading back, and they called me. So I had to fly back out a day later.

Was this your first foray into TV competition? I actually tried out for Best Ink. It was on Oxygen, and I made it to the top 20 on that show, but they only took 12. … I didn’t want to go through that again. But my friends kind of talked me into it.

You’ve been in the business for 17 years, but before you became an artist you served in the U.S. Air Force. My last year in I finally got a tattoo, and the only reason I got one is ’cause I was looking to do tattoos.

What was your first tattoo? Skulls and flames. I’m notorious on the show. (laughs) Everybody’s like, “All you like to do is skulls and flames.” I’m like, “Well, that’s what I like; that’s what I have.”

Realism is your signature. How does it compare to other styles? It really is hard to compare because everybody has their own strong opinions on what a better style is. A lot of times when you do realism people just think you’re a photocopier … compared to new school, where you draw the design out. But I think I tend to do a little bit of everything, in the sense of composition has a lot to do with a tattoo. Even if you’re doing a realistic tattoo you still need to compose it well, and you need to make sure it has all the right elements. And I think that’s what helped me out on the show. ... A guy that does realism can usually tattoo all different styles. ... You’re mimicking or copying, but you can still tattoo what you’re seeing.

One benefit of art on canvas that isn’t skin is the ability to go back and work it until it’s right. How do you feel about the immediacy of a one-shot tattoo? Being in Vegas, a lot of tattoos we do are just one shot. We do not get to go back into a tattoo. When you’re looking at Nikko Hurtado’s work, you’re looking at somebody that’s super up there in realism, those guys usually get like three different sessions on one tattoo, so they get to add all that super depth and smooth it out, and that’s the only bad thing about being in Vegas is we don’t get that chance as much. … There’s still a goal—at the end of the day you’re trying to get the tattoo to look like whatever you want it to look like.

Were the demands of Ink Master crazy compared to a typical day at Club Tattoo? It’s really funny; the shop I work at was almost like being on the show. … It was very similar to your six-hour timeframe that we were doing on the show. So a lot of things in my career kind of led up to this whole thing.

How has the exposure affected you so far? Honestly, I’ve had a great experience from this. I would say 97 percent has been positive feedback. Of course, you’re going to get people that like the other contestants better, diehard fans that are gonna dog you. … I’ve responded to some. Half the time by the time you’re done with the conversation they’re like, “Oh man, great talking to you.” And you’re like, “At the beginning of this you were calling me a douchebag.” I think that’s just how society is. They want to have that interaction, and if that’s the only way they can get it then that’s what they do.

The judges take their share of heat. Chris and Oliver and Dave, that’s a tough job. It really, truly is. As much stuff as I see about those guys on social media, [Chris] said it right; he’s there to judge, as an artist. If I can accept that and don’t take it personal then I’m fine. That’s what I did. I was like, “I know it’s not personal; he’s just trying to pick out negative stuff.” And that’s what I do to my own work, so it kind of already prepared me for that anyway.

What’s with Oliver’s toothpick? He just said he got so used to having it, it was like a pair of car keys, like he always had to have it.

Obviously, competition shows play up personal drama for entertainment. Were there any real beefs for you through the season? Between me and Joshua there were actually a couple situations where I was just done with him. Even now, though, when I saw him in New York I gave him a hug and was like, “Dude, it was really cool to see you.” I’m a grownup, and I can separate myself from that situation.

Do you have any grand plans for the $100,000? It’s hard to say what I want to do money-wise. … I’m definitely going to put some money away for my retirement. … Just try and stay booked up as much as possible and then just see what opportunities present themselves.

I was hoping you were going to buy some ridiculous car. I had a 2007 Lexus that was kind of taking a dump on me, so I got a used E350, a Mercedes. It was a 2011, so it’s still a nice new car. But I’ve made money like that before, where you make a big chunk of money, and if you don’t do something smart with it then you don’t have anything to show for it. If it was a million bucks, then yeah, I’d go buy an Aston Martin DB9 or something.

Who has better eyebrows, Dave Navarro or Tatu Baby? (laughs) I’m sure Dave gets his tweezed daily. Who knows?

Did you see Tatu Baby as serious competition? Of course. I was expecting her to be a great threat. When we first got there, after about the second tattoo, I was like, “The final four should be me, Craig, Jime and Tatu Baby.” That’s what I saw. But maybe the fourth episode in, whenever she did the garter belt, you could just kind of see her not finishing her stuff on time … That’s when I was like, “Well sh*t, maybe she doesn’t have her head in the game.” … She doesn’t have that many years experience in the business, and I think after a while you could actually see that.

Who would you really love to tattoo? I used to work at Hart and Huntington back in the day, when their show was on, and it was crazy. Adam Levine came in that shop like five times in one day, and he kept talking to me. This was before he had tattoos. And he was like, “I really want to get tattooed, and I like your stuff,” and they were performing at the Palms that night. … By the time I got to go research [what he wanted] he never came back. That would have been cool to do his stuff for him ’cause he’s so out there.

You’ve tattooed Chester Bennington from Linkin Park and Fieldy from Korn, pro athletes and actors. Anything in the works with someone famous given your new fame? They just had the OIympia [fitness competition] in town two weeks ago, and the guy that won the 2012 Olympia, Flex Lewis, he was hitting me up on Twitter. This guy just won the biggest bodybuilding award you can win, and he’s hitting me up, like, “I want you to tattoo me.” So right before he left town to go back to Florida, we met at the Whole Foods on Las Vegas Boulevard for an hour, just talking. … He was like, “Once you win the championship, the champ can tattoo the champ.” And I thought that was so cool.

You have a sexy portrait of your wife on your forearm. How do you feel about people removing hyper-personal tattoos when things go wrong? There’s no way I would see people living the rest of their life with it if somebody cheated on them or left them. They don’t want that remembrance. ... The first two tattoos I got I had them lasered and covered up. When you start getting tattoos you don’t know what to look for or how good the artist really is. A lot of the time artists are salesmen. … That’s the bad part about this business. There’s a lot of people out there that probably shouldn’t be tattooing or selling themselves to be better than what they really are. I understand people have to practice to get better, but now they’re making this fake skin and dummy stuff that you can tattoo, and you can practice that way instead of practicing on people.

How much will a tattoo cost now that you’re an Ink Master? I learned a valuable lesson working at Hart and Huntington. When I worked there, for two years we were charging through the roof just because we could. There was a line out the door, tons and tons of people wanting to get tattooed. I rarely have anybody coming back from those days. Being in Club Tattoo, I try to charge a fair price. I try to stick around $250 an hour, which is what a lot of upper-echelon tattoo artists charge. I’m not trying to go crazy, through the roof. … And I’ve gotten so many repeat customers this last five years at Club; it’s been great. I would say 80 percent of my clients right now are people I’ve already tattooed.

Given your capabilities and the earning potential on big, complex pieces, is it worth your time to tattoo anything small and simple? I would say yes. I love tattooing people and making them happy. ... I definitely like throwing in the little tattoos here and there because you don’t have to think as hard about it and you’re not sitting there planning for two days to do this huge, massive tattoo.

Tell me about your license plate, the one that says “INKMSTR.” I believe in positive thinking. I go gamble in the casinos quite a bit, or used to, and people were like, “How come you win all the time?” I said, “Because I think positive.” If you think positive about what you want to do or what you want to achieve, a lot of times it comes true. And my wife, whenever we went and got that car—you know Vegas is notorious for specialty plates—the guy was like, “Do you want to get one?” I’m like, “Yeah.” My wife, instantly she goes, “Ink Master.” I was like, “Hell yeah!” And she goes, “Well, I’m just kidding.” I was like, “No, I love it. That’s awesome.” I figured I was the only artist from Vegas ever to be on the show. So if I didn’t win, it would still be okay.

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