Ink Master: Grudge Match winner from season 11, Cleen Rock One, has returned to the tattoo competition as a judge on this season 13 of Ink Master: Grudge Match. Cleen, who is known for his straight-shooting, tell-it-like-it-is type of personality makes him the perfect choice as a judge for this upcoming season.
Ink Master: Grudge Match is a spinoff of the original show which changes all of the rules. The goal is to bring former Ink Master contestants who have unresolved grudges and pit them against each other in a head to head battle. Whether the goal is to squash personal vendettas or to just a friendly tattoo battle, two tattooers will vie for the top spot. The Ink Master alumni battling it out could be faces from any of the previous seasons. Some of America's best tattoo artists will be going face to face for a chance at redemption, to win $100,000 cash prize, a feature in Inked magazine, and the coveted title of Ink Master. Cleen will be judging tattoo technique, design, and style alongside two other former Ink Master champions, including the first-ever female winner, Ryan Ashley, from season 8 and two time back-to-back Ink Master champion, DJ Tambe.
Ink Master legend and master of bright, bold tattoos, Cleen was a contestant on season 5, again on the 7th season, and finally got his victory the third time around on Ink Master: Grudge Match. As DJ describes him, Cleen is a "man's man" with a sharp tongue with bold opinions. This tattooing champion is now returning as a no-nonsense judge to help settle these tattoo artist's grudges from previous seasons - once and for all. The talented tattoo artist sat down with Screen Rant to talk about how he got his first tattoo at 16, how he began tattooing, and how it feels to return to Ink Master as a judge in this unfiltered interview.
So tell me about yourself, How did you get started tattooing?
I got my first tattoo when I was 16. I went in there and the guy, I saw some of his drawings hanging up in his station and I knew, right off the gate, I was like, "I could draw better than this guy." Once he started the tattoo, I saw how he just took my little sketch that I drew and he made a stencil, and he, you know, put a stencil on me and started tattooing. And I was like, "I got this." So then every penny I made after that, I just kept running back to the tattoo shop getting tattoos and much as I could. I started tattooing when I was 18, professionally.
How did you get from getting tattoos at 16 to tattooing at 18 in a professional tattoo shop? What kind of art led you there?
I mean, I've been an artist my entire life. My mom was an artist- still is an artist. So when I was a kid, obviously you've got all of the school art classes. I just kind of mowed through all of those with ease. My senior year of high school, I was really pursuing trying to get this ball rolling. And back then it was a really hard industry to get into. So I had a lot of doors kicked in my face. I was just a young kid. Now I get it, 'cause I get these kids who want to tattoo and I tell them to f*ck off. Back then, it was the same thing but even worse. Back then it wasn't full of nice guys on TV, you know, it was an industry ran by outlaws. I had guys sic dogs on me, threaten to throw me downstairs and to break my hands and all of this stuff. That actually attracted me even more, like, "Yeah, these are my dudes."
So I finally got my foot in the door - I actually started tattooing out of my house, kind of secretively. Because back then, when somebody, some pros found out you were tattooing out of your house, they would usually show up to your house and beat you up. I tattooed some guys out of my house for a while. Then the shop that I was already hanging out at, [I was] being their little go-fer, getting them coffee, making stencils, and cleaning, and drawing - that kind of stuff. He had a spot open up, and I just took the spot. I busted my a**. I worked, pretty much, I wouldn't say seven-days a week, but I was pretty much there seven-days a week for five years. I didn't have a weekend off until - let's see, I started in '95, until 1999. You got all of these kids now, like, "Oh man, I want to be a good tattooer. I'm gonna work noon to eight and probably leave for an hour lunch." Yeah right. I worked from noon to four in the morning pretty much every day for years. It wasn't a job; It was fun, it was my hobby turned into a career where I actually made money.
You loved tattooing.
Yeah, it was fun. There were always fun times. There was always something crazy happening at the tattoo shop. So it wasn't like a nine to five, go to work, type of day. You had people, real people experiences. There was always some kind of looney coming in with crazy ideas. Then you had dumba**es come in and you have to wrestle them out the door, kick them in the head a couple of times. You got tons of hot chicks coming in and they're looking for discounts, so it worked out really good, you know?
You know what the worst part about the tattoo shop was, I used to live right upstairs from the tattoo shop. So let's say we got off at ten o'clock. My doorbell would be ringing at two in the morning when the bars closed, and they would be like these drunk dudes or these f*cking horny chicks that are like, "We want our belly buttons pierced." Next thing you know, I'm tattooing some drunk dude at two-something in the morning and other times there'd be chicks that would want their belly buttons pierced and we'd hang out for a while and they'd end up leaving without their belly buttons pierced sometimes. I'm trying to keep it PG right now.
Your color tattoos are your forte, but you excel in any style you put your mind to. How would you describe the Clean Rock One style?
Well, I feel like tattooing is very repetitive and very, "Oh well, I saw this guy doing that - I'm going to do it." So I really try to do things differently, as much as I can. I mean obviously, if I'm doing a skull, it's gotta look like a skull. I still try to my own thing on it, sometimes people will be like, "It looks a little wonky," or whatever, which is fine because I didn't want it to look like everybody else's tattoo. I just try to do things different and I try to do them as different as I can to where it still has the structure of whatever it's supposed to be. But, yeah, I like the bright, bold colors. I really drew to that when I first started tattooing; just because in the '90's the new school thing was really getting big and it just seemed like graffiti and this wave of new kids tattooing - the color tattoos - let's make them as bright as you can make them and as solid as you can. And that just kind of, that just stuck with me and that's what I do.
DJ describes you as "the loud voice" and Ryan describes you as "unfiltered" and "merciless." How would you describe your type of judging style?
I'd like to say I'm just honest. I'd like to say that a lot of people want sugar-coated cherry-on-top sundaes every day for everything they do, and I feel like we're in a time right now in the world where everybody is so soft and so butt-hurt about everything and I don't give a sh*t; I could care less. I could care less about your feelings. I mean obviously I don't go out of my way to hurt people's feelings, but if you're asking me my opinion - my real honest opinion - I'm going to give it to you. I'm not going to spare your feelings so you can go ahead and get your participation ribbon. I mean, if you suck, you suck.
Of the three original judges, Dave Navarro, Chris Nunez, and Oliver Peck - who do you most relate to in the way you judge tattoos?
I'd maybe say Chris Nunez. I think he tries to stick with true tattooing. I feel like he's always, in my eyes, always gotten it right, for the most part.
When judging tattoos, what are the most important things you look for?
Application. If you're in a tattoo competition, the tattoo part has to be the best. Right? Obviously, the art is going to be awesome, but what if you've got this amazing drawing that's so good, that no one could ever touch it, but it's tattooed like really poorly, like chewed up, blown-out lines. But it's an amazing picture, well it's still a sh*tty tattoo if it's tattooed sh*tty. If it heals poorly it's a sh*tty tattoo; I don't care what you say about the image. So I feel like the tattoo part is the most important. You have to be able to pull clean lines, saturated color, and do nice shading. So the technical aspect is the most important to me, honestly.
As a winner of the original Ink Master: Grudge Match - How does it compare being contestant vs. being a judge?
It's a lot harder. It's way harder to judge these tattoos because sometimes you have two really good tattoos and how do you choose a winner? So you literally have to look at these things with a fine-tooth comb and you have to go back and forth in your head like, "Well I hate the drawing on this one. But this one is tattooed way better. But this one has this wobbly line." It's basically like convince yourself which one is better sometimes, you're just like, "Man, oh man, this is tough." And other times there are blatant winners where some are just so f*cked up, and you're just like, "Wow, this thing is beat." But for the most part, Grudge Match has some really really good tattooers.
Ink Master Grudge Match premieres tonight. What can you tell Screen Rant about the upcoming season?
The upcoming season, basically, it has two tattooers who have beef and they're basically going head-to-head - no gimmicks, no drama, no trickery. It's put up or shut up. You're basically saying that you're better than this guy, well now it's time to prove it. And that's what it is - it's cut and dry. So you do the tattoos and we pick the ones that's the best. So you've got amazing tattooers doing, most of the time, what they specialize in, which is going to prevail amazing tattooing. So it's pretty awesome. And you've got just good art and good tattooing - it's really awesome actually. I like the format a lot better than Ink Master, I'm not gonna lie. It's sad to see somebody struggle because they don't specialize in a certain style where Grudge Match doesn't really have that, it's just straight-up tattooing. It's good. It's really good.
Ink Master: Grudge Match premieres Tuesday, October 1st at 10 pm EST on the Paramount Network.