Unless you're really into the local tattoo artist scene, you've probably never heard of Old Town Ink co-owner Aaron "Bubba" Irwin. But Irwin's notoriety will likely grow this month, after the season four première of Spike TV's Ink Master at 10 p.m. Tuesday, February 25, in which Irwin is a contestant.
Irwin says some of his customers turned him on to the show and, after watching an episode one day, he saw a link advertising open auditions for the show. Irwin drove out to California and did an interview, which didn't result in him being casted. It wasn't until he went to Vegas for the following season's auditions that he landed the role.
"I've never really cared about fame or anything like that," Irwin says. "I guess it's cool to see myself on TV. There's already a commercial out and on SpikeTV.com. There's a video with clips of us tattooing so I think that's pretty cool."
Irwin, who has a 3-year-old daughter, says he's looking forward to increasing his business and having a more secure footprint in the industry by being on the show.
Always having an interest in art, Irwin first got his start in tattooing while at his friend's house, where he went to get his first tattoo, which, he admits, is a very unprofessional thing to do.
"I got it on my ribs and asked him if I could try it on him, just because I'd never done it," he says. "I figured I'd take a crack at it, so he let me, and I tattooed a Roman numeral three on his leg -- turned out okay. I mean it's not like amazing or anything, but I had fun doing it."
Irwin says he really liked it, and within 30 minutes he had tattooed another friend that was sitting there with him, and then he borrowed some money from his brother and bought his own stuff to start doing tattoos.
Without any formal training, Irwin says that's probably his biggest selling point with the show.
He got to where he is today through a lot of trial and error, he says, and a lot of people just let him try tattooing them when he first started out.
"I have a lot of dumb friends," Irwin says.
He started working at a shop in Las Cruces, New Mexico, his hometown, but within a few weeks, he decided to move to Arizona and built a little studio and tattooed people out of his house.
"March of 2011 is when I first opened my shop," he says. "I opened it as a different place, Scottsdale Tattoo, and then in November of 2011 we opened Old Town Ink."
Irwin says that business has been pretty good and increases about 30 percent each year.
Although Irwin says he'd be open to having his own TV show, generally he's not a big fan of reality television, because it's not real.
Irwin's main styles are realism and biomechanics, or biomech, as it's commonly referred to in tattoo industry, and he says he's not really into traditional work.
"Biomech is making people look like robots, like machine parts on their arms an kind of futuristic stuff," says Irwin. "I started getting into a style called 'new school' that's pretty fun. It's just kind of caricatures of everything, you kind of warp things and make distorted views of things."
Irwin used to race motorcross professionally and says that once it became a job for him he wanted to get out.
"A lot of stuff happened to where I did get out," says Irwin. "My friend broke his neck, lost his sponsor, and lost medical insurance all in the same week. But [tattooing] is an industry I can't see myself ever getting tired of. I get to tattoo celebrities -- the guy I'm about to tattoo plays for the NFL. I just don't think it's ever get boring for me."
Irwin says that he never really declines to do any piece that a client requests, although he draws the line at tattooing men's genitals. He will advise if he thinks something won't work, he says, like if it's too small or won't work on the area requested.
"If I can do it, I'll do it. I can advise you, but ultimately it's up to you. I just won't post it if I don't like it."
Irwin says that there are lots of tattoos that he doesn't like, including anything involving script, but he especially hates cliché tattoos.
"I hate anything repetitive," says Irwin. "Girls find stuff on Pinterest and they'll show me a picture of a tattoo on a girl and they want the exact same tattoo in the exact same spot. It's like, do you not want to be unique at all? That drives me insane."
Irwin says a lot of the time he tries to talk clients out of doing tattoos like that.
"I've had to send people away just because they wouldn't stay still," says Irwin. "I don't want to finish, because they move every time I touch them with the needle."
Irwin says he still gets excited about pieces and still gets adrenaline rushes from pieces, specifically portraits, which he loves doing.
"It's probably my favorite thing to do," says Irwin. "My favorite aspect [of my work] is doing something that I love for a living. There's a lot of times where if I don't have an appointment I'll just call up a friend and be like, 'Hey man, let me tattoo you.'"
Irwin says the best advice he can give anyone looking to get a tattoo, whether it's first or addition work, is to let the artist have a lot of artistic freedom.
"Chances are it'll come out better than you imagined," says Irwin. "Let them do what they do, it always comes out better that way. When people are very specific about what they want and where they want it and how they want it, it's really hard for us to even enjoy doing it, it's kind of like being a copy machine."
Irwin also recommends doing research on your potential artists, and definitely don't do what he did and get tattoos out of people's houses.