Paramount Network’s Ink Master is a fantastically gripping show. Whether tuning in solely for the artistry of the tattoos themselves (or to mock the more questionable ones), the increasingly odd flash challenges, the dramatic rivalries between contestants, or some combination of these things, it’s a heck of a ride.
As fans watch, they tend to pick their favorite artists to root for, as well as the ones they definitely don’t want to see in that finale. Over its run, Ink Master has both satisfied viewers and left them cold, with (as is the case with reality shows everywhere) deserved winners taking the title in some seasons and more controversial choices winning out in others. Let’s take a look at some of the worthiest winners, as well as those who maybe shouldn’t have.
Ink Master Winners Who Deserved To Win
Cleen Rock One (Season 11)
Season 11, as with most seasons of the show, presented a unique spin on the concept. Ink Master: Grudge Match – Cleen vs. Christian placed two of the most talented, versatile, and volatile competitors, Cleen Rock One and Christian Buckingham, at the heads of their own teams of hand-picked artists.
While the two coaches themselves weren’t competing for the title of Ink Master, they had their own finale, in which their ultimate goal was to defeat the other and claim their own $100,000 prize. While Buckingham prohibited Cleen from tattooing in his signature new school style for this tattoo, he still pulled off a huge, bold, and beautiful piece, which was a worthy winner over Buckingham’s own effort (though the latter’s own new school vampires was an impressive out-of-his-comfort-zone piece too).
Anthony Michaels (Season 7)
Long-time Ink Master viewers, and tattoo artists themselves, will know just how important experience is in the industry. However talented an artist might be, technically, artistically, and in every other respect, there are certain things that can only be achieved after spending a considerable number of years putting ink to skin.
As such, contestants and viewers alike surely underestimated Tucson, Arizona’s Anthony Michaels, who had been tattooing for just 5 years at the time he competed in Season 7. Only fellow competitor Ashley Velasquez had such little time in the business under her belt. Nonetheless, Michaels shined throughout the competition, proving his wide-ranging ability. At the finale, his ambitious dragon chest tattoo won the day.
Joey Hamilton (Season 3)
Joey Hamilton is the co-owner of Revolt Tattoos in Las Vegas, Nevada. Alongside him is none other than Sausage, making this shop a force to be reckoned with. It has two of Ink Master’s greats at the helm!
Unlike Sausage, though, Hamilton didn’t fall short when he competed in Season 3. He may have only won Tattoo of the Day twice, but he defined himself very early as a competitor to watch. With solid performances in every style of tattoo he was tasked with (runner up Jime Litwalk had a tendency to fall back on his trademark new school style), Hamilton’s impressive mermaid and underwater scene deservedly won the day at the finale.
Josh Payne (Season 10)
Speaking of Ink Master: Return of the Masters, which of DJ Tambe’s contestants did he coach to victory? Josh Payne, that’s who.
The New York artist irritated many opponents (and his own team members at times) with his confrontational ways, but unlike some contestants, always backed this talk up with his art. He was given some of the most troublesome canvasses with the most outlandish ideas, but always did them justice and won Tattoo of the Day on four occasions.
Ryan Ashley (Season 8)
By Season 8, it was about darn time that a female Ink Master was crowned. Fortunately, this was guaranteed in 2016, as the Peck vs Nuñez contest ended with two women standing: Kelly Doty and Ryan Ashley.
These artists famously formed an alliance during the season, which clearly worked. It wasn’t just about politics in the loft, either: between them, these talented women won almost every Tattoo of the Day (other than two, which Nate Beaver won). Ashley took four of them, a brilliant and well-rounded artist who deserved the prize.
Ink Master Winners Who Didn’t Deserve To Win
Scott Marshall (Season 4)
Now, there’s no denying that Scott Marshall, who tragically passed away in 2015 at the age of just 41, was a fantastic tattoo artist and an asset to the industry. For some fans, though, he was outshone by a fellow Season 4 competitor, a man who made it all the way to the finale stage with Marshall but walked away with the runner-up spot.
Fan-favorite Walter “Sausage” Frank won Tattoo of the Day four times over the course of the season, the most of any contestant. Along the way, he endeared himself to viewers with his cheery personality and beautiful, delicate, powerful tattoos, allowing his work to do the talking rather than engaging in the squabbles, drama, and pettiness that often defines life in the loft.
Jason Clay Dunn (Season 5)
In contrast to Anthony Michaels, Jason Clay Dunn actually had the most experience of all of Season 5’s contestants (besides Mark Longenecker, who also took part in this season and came fourth). Both men had been tattooing for two decades when they appeared on the show.
Ultimately, Season 5 proved to be a real mixed bag. While it’s always nice to see an underdog defeat the odds against them and prevail, Dunn battled it out in the finale with Eric Siuda and the incomparable Cleen Rock One, artists who had perhaps proven to be more well-rounded over the course of the competition. Dunn’s highs and lows were a thrill to watch throughout, but some Ink Master viewers feel that he shouldn’t have won.
DJ Tambe & Bubba Irwin, Old Town Ink (Season 9)
As with The Office, Season 9 of Ink Master divided opinion somewhat. Shop Wars saw pairs of artists representing their own studios, for the joint titles of Ink Master and Master Shop. In this season, the classic Ink Master returning veterans were out in full force, which changed the course of the competition.
Bubba Irwin was the first of the veterans to return, representing Old Town Ink alongside DJ Tambe. As strong a team as the duo proved to be, many other contestants raised concerns that DJ was ‘carrying’ Bubba. DJ went on to become an Ink Master legend (coaching his own team in Season 10’s Return of the Masters and defeating Steve Tefft and Anthony Michaels’ own teams to win twice back-to-back), leaving some to question whether Bubba’s return unjustly derailed the chances of many of the new teams who were more solid as a unit.
Dave Kruseman (Season 6)
Season 6 presented another twist on the Ink Master format, in the shape of Master vs Apprentice. As both apprentices and mentors started to fall away, the cream of the competition began to rise to the top.
Did Dave Kruseman deserve his place at the very top? As always, opinions are divided on that. For some fans, second-place artist Chris Blinston had been the star of the show throughout, while third-place Matt O’Baugh was robbed of the opportunity to even show off his master canvass (a 35-hour piece!). This finale proved highly controversial all around as a result.
Tony Mendellin (Season 11)
Ink Master always emphasizes the idea that the winner should be the best overall artist, the one who doesn’t balk at any challenge. That’s what it means to be an Ink Master.
That’s the theory, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Similarly to other artists such as Sausage, Joey Hamilton and Ryan Ashley, Tiffer Wright put in a fantastic performance in Season 11, winning Tattoo of the Day a stunning five times (giving his team a tremendous advantage in the process). He was tipped by many to win the title but came third in the finale. Fantastic as winner Tony Mendellin’s Odin tattoo was, stunning as TJ Poole’s black and white piece was, third place was a huge injustice for Tiffer.
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