Skin game

A Reno tattoo artist competes on the national TV show Ink Master

Tony Medellin works on Elizabeth Hubert’s sleeve in his studio space inside Lasting Dose Tattoo & Art Collective.

Tony Medellin works on Elizabeth Hubert’s sleeve in his studio space inside Lasting Dose Tattoo & Art Collective.

PHOTO/JERI CHADWELL

Tony Medellin was born and raised in Reno. The 31-year-old has been tattooing for 16 years, and now he’s a contestant on the 11th season of the Paramount Network show Ink Master, which premiered on Aug. 28.

Where’d you tattoo first?

It was this little shit shop off of Keystone. … I don’t know if I want to mention the name, though, because it was kind of a sketchy situation. And then after that, I moved to Los Angeles—worked in a friend’s practice studio for a couple months. I came back up here, and I started with Jon McCann at Absolute. So, Jon kind of took me under his wing. That was, I think, ‘05, maybe ‘04—no, 2005.

I saw a Facebook post you made back in May kind of explaining your decision to pursue this Ink Master thing. There was a comment from your mother that was just tear-jerking. Honestly, I’m reading it, thinking, “I don’t even know these people, and I’m tearing up.” She spoke about you taking a younger sibling along with you to talk with artists while she was working. Will you talk to me a little bit about that?

So, my mom’s a single mother. Me and my little brother have different dads. My dad’s still in the picture, but they divorced when I was young, so it was just kind of whatever. His dad bailed on him when he was a little kid, so, pretty much, I raised him since he could walk. Yeah, I got him his first job. I actually just went and got him his first car today, like, I co-signed for his first car. He graduated high school. I bought a house so he could have his own room. He’s killing it.

And now he’s killing it.

He’s fucking awesome. … He writes music and plays piano. He’s a very cool kid.

Talk to me about your style. It seems it’s a ton of different stuff.

People are always like, ‘What’s your style? What do you prefer?’ I just like tattooing.

One thing I see in your work is a fairly solid outline. Not that I’d know, but that seems classic.

If it has black outlines, I’ll tattoo it. That’s my number-one rule. Everyone, when I was over at Ink Master, was like, “Will you explain why?” Think of it like this. You have a dirt lot. You just leveled it. You don’t do a cement foundation. You build a nice house on it. The house is going to look great right out of the gate, but, in the next five years, it’s going to start shifting, cracking—and it’s going to fall apart. But if you put a cement foundation on it, that holds everything together. That’s what a black outline is.

I wanted to ask about another thing you addressed in that Facebook post about Ink Master. It was your changing opinion about shows of its nature.

I’ll start from the beginning. Years ago, they asked me, “Would you like to go on the show?"—five or six years ago. And I was like, “No.” I mean, to be honest, a part of my response was, “Go fuck yourself.” And that was me being a tattoo elitist, thinking the industry was being ruined—blah, blah, blah. I didn’t know. I was just being young and stupid. So, finally, they hit me up again, and they’re like, “We’re going to pick someone from Reno. We’d prefer you. We like you, but it is what it is.” I realized at one point that tattooing is changing with or without me. I think the hardest part about being a tattooer is staying relevant. Tattooing is easy. It’s, “Will you keep up with the changing times?” Technology changes. Trends change. People change. I figured this was the best way for me to get ahead.

That’s an interesting point. I’ll draw a comparison to hair stylists. It’s an art to do it well, but it’s also an industry, where if they’re not keeping up on new techniques and tools and styles, people won’t come to them. Is that a fair one?

For sure—if you’re still using curlers from the ‘50s, then you’re not going to get the wave of ladies who want their hair done using the new technology they saw on Buzzfeed.

Do you think the industry changing also has to do with the clientele for tattooing changing? I mean, a few decades ago, someone like me—a journalist in her 30s—wouldn’t likely be sporting tattoos.

Yeah, there’s a perfect example. The demographic changes all the time. I think tattooing doesn’t have a solid demographic. It’s just what’s popping that year. Oh, watercolor? OK, so know you’re going to have all of these fairly conservative ladies in their 30s and early 40s coming in because they saw a Buzzfeed thing. You’d be surprised. Buzzfeed does a lot of that shit.

It’s not just Pinterest then?

No. And, you know, my biggest pet peeve with people who talk shit on Pinterest, saying, “Oh, it’s another Pinterest tattoo, yet another Pinterest tattoo,"—Pinterest has been paying my bills for three years. … There’s a reason why it’s so successful. There’s a million ideas at your fingertips. … I love Pinterest. I want Pinterest to sponsor me. And you know what’s funny? The first episode aired, and nobody wanted the dreamcatcher. “That’s a Pinterest tattoo.” And I was like, “Give me that thing. Give me that Pinterest tattoo, and I’m going to win tattoo of the day with this dreamcatcher.” And I did.

What’s it like to have people from all over commenting on your work now in conjunction with this big TV show?

Let me show you something. Every time I open my Instagram—I just checked it like five minutes before you got here—it’s like this. I posted this photo a couple of hours ago, four hours ago, and I’ve got 50 comments and 1,000 likes. My Instagram—I started Ink Master with maybe 7,000 followers. And I went up to 14.2 thousand, just like that.

Has business been busier since you’ve been back?

It’s still the same. I book out two or three months all the time. I think I’m finishing December, and then I’m going to close my books until June, just to let me kind of catch up with all of my projects. I’ve never been that person who says, “Book’s closed.” But I’m getting to the point where I need to focus on my big projects. If you outlined a back piece, I don’t want you to wait six months for every session. I’m like, “All right. We’re lining out the back. We’re going to do two sittings a month, and we’ll knock it out.”

So I’m sure there are Ink Master things you can and can’t talk about. What do you think of the challenges that are art endeavors but not tattooing?

I don’t like the challenges. It’s TV filler. That’s all it is. Some of them were interesting. I’ll say that. But I don’t really care for them.

There’s a different dynamic on the show than you get in a tattoo shop—the interaction between artists and the clients or, well, you call them “canvases.”

I don’t call them canvases. It’s weird to me.

You’re doing more for them because they’re part of the show, though. I’ve heard you and others suggest that.

You know, I treated them just like I treated everyone else. … If you feel good and you feel comfortable, then you’re going to be a bit more easygoing with my ideas. I can persuade you on something a little bit better. Your ideas are good, but I have an idea to make it better. So I was just really nice to all of them.

But it’s weird that they don’t get to listen to music or read a book, which a person would do during a normal session.

It’s the worst.

I’m not trying to be a jerk, but do you think it makes people, like, whine about it more? I try to keep my shit together when getting tattooed—but it’s all weirdly quiet on the show.

Absolutely. You need music. You need something to keep you entertained and calm. I hated that. And then you can hear everyone talking. It was a pain in the ass. The environment was not ideal. And I was one of those people who were thinking, “This is easy. I’ll be fine.” … But for everyone who talks shit about that show, especially tattoo artists who think they could go on and just win, I guarantee you, slim to none will actually make it. It’s rough. It’s rough. It takes three to five days to film an episode. And those are usually 12- to 15-hour days.

How have people responded to your participation on the show since your post in May?

Surprisingly, everyone’s been super supportive. I thought I was going to catch shit for changing the way I think. But I admitted in the post, I was like, “Look, I thought a certain way, and I don’t think that way anymore.” And, you know what? If you’re good at something, and you genuinely have a chance to win, you’d be stupid not to take that chance.