Jesse Smith at work (photo by Rebecca Fradkin)
One-trick pony: These words have haunted Richmond tattoo artist Jesse Smith since leaving the show “Ink Master” in Season 2. But now he’s back, and he’s bringing the heat.
Smith, 39, returned to Spike TV’s hit show for Season 7 as one of eight veterans to compete against eight new competitors. “Ink Master” contestants are put through a series of tattoo challenges designed to test their technical skills and creativity. The prize is $100,000 cash and an editorial feature in Inked Magazine. Smith decided to come back to prove that he has what it takes to claim the title of Ink Master.
In Season 2, Episode 11, Smith was sent home for having the worst black and gray portrait tattoo among the five remaining contestants. When he came back in the most recent episode on Tuesday, April 12, Smith surprisingly did not set the elimination challenge in his own specialty — “new school,” illustration-based tattooing Smith describes as colorful and cartoony. Instead, he chose black and gray political portraits.
“Because of the fact that I didn’t know how to do a portrait last time, I’ve focused and paid a lot of attention to portraits since then,” Smith says. He studied portraits, traditional style, Japanese style and other forms of art, to expand his skill set.
“It just helps you grow as an artist,” Smith says of being on the show. “It kind of knocks you off kilter, humbles you a bit.”
He came back with not only more skills, practice and experience as a tattoo artist, but also with a new attitude. This season, he says, he “let it all out.”
“I realized last season a lot of people didn’t remember me because I didn’t really talk that much,” Smith says. “If you’re not in the drama, you don’t get on camera. If you’re not on camera, nobody remembers you.”
Smith says that this time around, he was more sarcastic, more like himself. “Less guarded, less serious, more fun,” he says.
In person, Smith is not the “tough guy” portrayed on reality TV. He makes fast friends with everyone who walks into his shop in Carytown, Loose Screw Tattoo.
“What’s pretty cool with him is that if you challenge him, it’s amazing how he’ll accept it,” says Ben Grigsby, a client who has known Smith since 1999. Grigsby has often “volunteered his skin” for Smith’s ideas. A walking canvas of Smith’s artwork, he is quickly running out of places to add more ink.
“Jesse puts a twist to things. It’s his version, and it’s creative,” Grigsby says while the artist fits a new tattoo for his right thigh. “He’s traditional, but it’s ‘Jesse Smith traditional.’ ”
Here's a sampling of Smith's work:
Grigsby is one of the lucky few who has a standing appointment at Loose Screw Tattoo every month. Smith may be competing for the title of Ink Master, but he certainly doesn't have to compete for clients.
Despite having a waiting list of more than 3,200 people — he stopped keeping track a while ago — he only takes on about 20 projects at a time. This makes sense considering his average piece runs about 100 hours. Compare that to the six hours that contestants on the show have to do their best tattoos.
Better yet, ask them yourselves.
The next episode of Season 7 will be aired at Siné Irish Pub & Restaurant on Tuesday, April 19. The event will be a tattoo competition, viewing party and meet-and-greet with more than 20 Ink Master artists including Season 2 winner Steve Tefft, plus Sarah Miller, Kay Kutta, Chris Blinston, Joey Hamilton, Halo, Duffy Fornter, Gentle Jay, Kyle Dunbar, Saint Marq and, of course, Richmond’s own Jesse Smith.
The tattoo competition registration begins at 7 p.m. and the competition starts at 8 p.m. Only 20 tattoos can be submitted, so it is first come, first served. The competition will be judged by Smith, Tefft and Chris Adler, the drummer from Lamb of God. These three will “play it up” like judges Dave Navarro, Chris Nunez and Oliver Peck do in the show. Smith even plans to put a toothpick in his mouth to copy Peck’s trademark accessory. The newest episode will be aired at 10 p.m.
There will also be a raffle. All donations will go to Clint Cummings, a Texas tattoo artist and former Ink Master contestant who is battling colorectal cancer. The next day, the public is invited to SplatBrothers Paintball park to continue the fun as part of different Ink Master teams.
This event will bring together Smith’s competitors, good friends and some of his favorite artists.
“The line-up of artists that they have this time are, in my opinion, the best of the best,” he says. “Battling the best of the best is a nice stroke to the ego.”
Smith will no longer be haunted by his Season 2 reputation. “I want to prove to myself and anyone who had any doubt that I’m not a one-trick pony.”