Tattoo-based reality shows, such as Ink Master, are relatively polarizing in the world of tattooing. On one hand, they've helped bring the art form into mainstream culture, but at the same time, many tattoo artists believe that the program sets unrealistic expectations for the amount of work and time it takes to complete a single tattoo.
Scottsdale's Aaron "Bubba" Irwin has a notably different viewpoint than most of the Valley's tattooers, as the co-owner of Old Town Ink competed in the fourth season of Ink Master, which aired in the spring of 2014.
See also: Scottsdale Tattoo Artist Aaron "Bubba" Irwin to Compete on Spike TV's Ink Master Season 4
"I'm grateful I got picked [to be on Ink Master]. It was something like 16 of 64,000 people who auditioned to be on it," Irwin says. "Having lived through it, it doesn't always give the right impression about tattooing. It's focused on people's personalities and ratings, whereas the real world of tattooing is much more art-driven."
Overall, Irwin says his time on the show was definitely a positive experience, even if the touring schedule to promote the show took its toll on his shop.
"It definitely helped my life, but the shop suffered a little because I was gone so much," Irwin says. "It actually cost me the whole first crew at the shop. I probably learned more about tattooing from the first crew than I've ever learned from anyone else, but don't get me wrong, I'm super happy with the crew I have now."
While the touring life might not be the best fit for everyone, Irwin enjoys traveling around the country. For that matter, it reminds him of his former career.
"I used to race motocross for a living, so I love being on the road," Irwin says. "I used to travel every other weekend for motocross, so now I try to stay on the road a lot with conventions. I usually shoot for about 12 or 13 conventions a year."
One of the interesting aspects of Irwin's tattooing career is that he never really spent much time working at shops before opening up Old Town Ink in 2011. Then again, the 30-year-old only became interested in tattooing about a decade ago.
"When I was 20 or 21, I wanted to get my first tattoo," Irwin says. "I went over to my friend's house and got a tattoo on the couch. It was a terrible idea, but that's how I got started."
Irwin then asked the home artist if he would let Irwin do a tattoo on him, and after tattooing a few friends, Irwin decided to buy his own equipment. Although he's only been "taking it seriously" since 2011, Irwin's unique twist on realism and biomechanical tattooing has already become known around the Valley.
"I like doing realism, but I don't try to do photorealism," Irwin says. "I like putting my own spin on stuff, and I like doing biomechanical tattoos. You know, making people look like robots."
What are some of your tattoos? My right arm is my family arm. I've got a portrait of my daughter, my dad, my mom, the guitar that my dad used to play when he was touring, and a horse because my mom loves horses. I was lied to about the experience of the guy who did the portrait of my daughter, so I had it redone on my other arm.
What's the most important thing to you about a tattoo? Finding the right person. Paying for a tattoo you don't like is the shittiest feeling in the world, and I'm guilty of that. Pick an artist that does the right style for the tattoo you want. I still get people who come in to get tattooed by me and they're embarrassed to say they want me to tattoo them because of the show. Then they tell me how much they love my work and ask me to do a tribal piece.
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What do you look for in an artist or a tattoo shop? Well, for hiring someone, I look for a good personality on top of how good their work is, because customer service is super important when you own a business. We handpick our artists from all over the country. As an owner, I'm always worrying about everyone who works for me before me, I always make sure they get paid first and that they have money to eat, stuff like that. When I'm finding an artist to get tattooed, I don't care about personality as much. I have to dig their work. I want something unique where people will know who did it.
Would you change anything about your tattoos or tattooing if you could? I'm kind of a schizo when it comes to my own work. I'll look at my tattoos on my Instagram at night and just pick them apart. I just think of all the ways I could've done them differently.
What's one piece of advice you'd give to someone getting their first tattoo? Definitely, like I said, finding the right artist. Don't be so closed-minded or picky. You're going to get a better tattoo if the artist is really into it. You both need to like the tattoo.