Portland Tattoo Artist Competing In Reality Show 'Ink Master'

By Claudia Meza (OPB)
Jan. 7, 2020 8:10 p.m.

Bob Jones is not the kind of person one would imagine participating in a high-stakes, drama-filled, reality TV show. He’s low-key and reserved. He’s thoughtful and the proud father of a corgi named Maverick. He grew up in Beaverton. It seems unfathomable he could look dead-eyed into a camera with a straight face and utter, “I didn’t come here to make friends.”


“I went into it, you know, as most tattooers would view it, like, 'oh, this is just reality TV,'" Jones said. "'This is just a bunch of fake drama and a bunch of, like, BS and then some tattooing.'"

Bob Jones works out of Esoteric Tattoo in Portland, Oregon.

Bob Jones works out of Esoteric Tattoo in Portland, Oregon.

Claudia Meza / OPB

But on Tuesday, Jan. 7, Bob Jones will be one in a team of five, representing the West Side in the world premiere of Paramount Networks' "Ink Master: Turf War."

“Every season's a little bit different," Jones said. "On 'Turf War,' they’re trying to pull the best artists or really good artists from each region, like from the West, the South, the East and the Midwest. And they want to pit us all together and see which side of the nation comes on top. In the end, it's everyone for themselves, of course.”

If you’re reading this wondering, what the heck is an ink master? “Ink Master" is an elimination style competition show in the vein of "Top Chef" or "Project Runway." There are three judges. One of them is Dave Navarro, the guitarist from Jane’s Addiction – because why not? And the contestants are given a series of daily challenges, that sometimes have to do with tattooing. Sometimes.

"Nothing to really do with actual tattooing, but having to do with more like art fundamentals which are applied into tattooing," Jones said.

Think of it as a very stressful arts fair. You see really talented tattoo artists attempting to make large scale sculptures and work in mediums they've possibly never explored. And at the end of the day, whoever the three judges decide made the worst art goes home.

But as some tattoo artists in the industry have voiced, making art into a spectator sport can feel wrong.

“I know that there's a lot of tattooers that are like, it's a bunch of fake BS, it's not like respectable. [But] it's interesting for like other people that don't really even care about tattooing because there's some drama in it and they can, you know, root for people," Jones said.

Bob Jones is right; "Ink Master" is an interesting show. I would say even fun. Like suck-you-in, gasping-out-loud-type of fun. For one, the critiques can be brutal. And it’s about someone’s art so the exchanges can get personal. The editing is paced so every moment feels like you're racing against a bomb that’s about to explode. Dave Navarro’s sole reason at times is to be that of a handsome clock, ringing out the minutes left in decreasing intervals.

An example of Bob Jones' ink armor. Growing from a biomechanical tattoo style, Jones explores illusions of plating and robotics on the skin.

An example of Bob Jones' ink armor. Growing from a biomechanical tattoo style, Jones explores illusions of plating and robotics on the skin.

Courtesy of Bob Jones


“But I feel like it did give more light to tattooing than tattooers want to admit," Jones said. "It might not be the light they wanted it to get, but at the same time, I feel like it did help and benefit the tattoo culture in some form of way.”

Reality shows about tattoos have made the industry as a whole more mainstream. And one could say that is a good thing.

“When I was younger, getting a job and having a tattoo was like, 'oh no, this person's trouble, this person's in a gang.' Like that whole mentality is being kind of like numbed by being seen like on Ink Master and also in social media ... you know, making tattoos more acceptable," Jones said.

But this “giving more light to tattooing than tattooers want to admit” Jones mentioned – that could show the good, but also the very bad.

Just this weekend Oliver Peck, a tattoo artist and one of the judges on Ink Master was called out for having many pictures of himself in blackface. Peck has since apologized via his Instagram, but it's not a good look. Back in 2014 a production assistant filed a sexual harassment suit against Oliver Peck and fellow judge Chris Nunez.

Bob Jones has nothing to do with these controversies. He’s done nothing wrong except maybe give his family some minor heart attacks with his career choices.

“I did go to Art Institute of Portland for a couple of years," Jones said. "But I didn't get a degree or anything. I dropped out to tattoo.”

But through it all, he’s had a great support system.

“My family has supported me through any decision that I make in life because they know that I'm going to try my best at whatever I do," he said. "I gave my mom a tattoo quite a few years ago. My mom's from Hawaii originally. But she's 100% Japanese. I tattooed her family crest and some cherry blossoms on her leg.”

Though Bob Jones is representing the West side in the "Turf War," Jones' style is not what one would normally think of when they think of West side tattoo art. West side as a scene is usually centered around California or Nevada. It relies more on realism, black and gray. This style originated in prisons, so it has thin lines, intricate shading and very little color. In Oregon, the dominant style is American Traditional, or permutations of it. Those are the big bold colorful tattoos that you might have seen on sailors or bikers, but now adorn well-dressed bartenders stirring bespoke cocktails.

Bob Jones is half Japanese and brings in influences from manga and anime, as well as from larger scale tattoos that cover whole body parts – which are more in line with traditional Japanese, Yakuza-style bodysuits.

“I specialize in biomechanical, which a lot of people think is like gears and steampunk," he said. "I kind of don't like doing any of those things and I like to do more futuristic robotic kind of prosthetics on people. It's a very like Japanese style of art because you get one artist that does all of your tattoos, it's one brain working on your whole body as if it is one tattoo and they're thinking about your silhouette more so than they're thinking about the individual little pieces.”

Tattoo artist, Bob Jones, creates large scale works that pull inspiration from Japanese pop culture like gundam and anime.

Tattoo artist, Bob Jones, creates large scale works that pull inspiration from Japanese pop culture like gundam and anime.

Courtesy of Bob Jones

Sworn to secrecy, Jones isn’t giving up any hints on how far along he was able to get in the elimination style competition. But he was able to say a little.

“You know, living with a bunch of really good artists all the time, it would be stupid of you not to learn things from people that are so about tattooing that they're going to be on reality TV to tattoo in front of everybody. I'd say that it was like a really good experience, even though it was probably the most stressful thing that I've ever done in my life. But I did feel like I brought back something that I can apply to my tattooing today.”

If you want to root for Bob Jones, tune in Tuesday for the "Ink Master: Turf War" premiere at 10 p.m. on the Paramount Network.