Back to back two-time Ink Master champion, DJ Tambe has returned to the tattoo competition - not as a competitor, but as a judge on Ink Master: Grudge Match. The effortlessly nonchalant, self-taught tattooer has already taken Ink Master by storm twice - winning both times. And he's is back on our TV screens for Ink Master's 13th season.
Ink Master: Grudge Match is a spinoff of the original show which takes the concept and flips it on its head. The goal is to pit former Ink Master contestants against their biggest rivals to either squash personal vendettas or to just a friendly tattoo battle. The Ink Master alumni could be faces from any of the previous seasons. Some of America's best tattoo artists will be battling it out for the chance to win $100,000 cash prize, a feature in Inked magazine, and the coveted title of "Ink Master," DJ will be judging alongside two other former Ink Master champions, including the first-ever female winner, Ryan Ashley, from season 8 and season 11's winner Cleen Rock One.
DJ, who is known to crush the competition with his versatility, mastery in design, and attention for detail, can finally take a break from the stress of the competition as his job now is to judge the other artist's work. It's a huge change for the two-time winner. DJ sat down with Screen Rant to talk about how he got started in the tattooing industry. He opened up about his troubled past, his relationship with the other two judges, and spoke about what viewers can expect to see this season.
You are a legend in the tattooing industry - the only contestant to ever win back to back seasons, you kill it in almost every style, and now you’re coming back as a judge on the show that catapulted you into the spotlight. Tell me about yourself, at what age did you get started tattooing?
Young crazy kid, had some older friends, took some ink from art class; I hand-poked some stuff on myself. I was young at that point. I went to school and all of my friends wanted one. I started hand-poking all of my friends. That turned into me making a tattoo machine, a prison-style tattoo machine, started tattooing all my friends with that. And then when I was real young, I went into a shop that was opening - I was 17 years old and I got my first job. I went in and asked the owner for a job and when he asked me if I could tattoo, I told him "yeah" and I had just done house tats. He made me tattoo one of my friends for hours, and then he put me on skin the next day. I started tattooing lines of 25 dollar tattoos in the hood in Rochester, New York.
At what age did you start doing the stick-and-poke style of tattoos?
Man, I did my first one on myself when I was fourteen - thirteen, fourteen. I think my first one was on my girlfriend at the time, after myself. I did a little one on my ankle and I went to school. Everyone was like, "What's that?" No one really had tattoos at the time, except for maybe like one giant senior. I started hand-poking all of my friends. I actually posted something in my story today, like a 24-year-old tattoo, that I either hand-poked or with the prison tattoo machine.
Were you always artistic? What was it that drew you to tattooing?
Yeah, since I can remember - I've been doing art. One of my cousins, when I was younger, he drew all sorts of cartoons and comic strips and stuff. He kind of was the first to kind of open my eyes to like, "wow, that's pretty dope." My first job was with him, I used to like draw on pants, whether it'd be like Bart Simpson or whatever. I think I sold a pair to one of my teachers when I was a kid. So that was kind of my first art kind of job. Just ever since I just stuck with it. I used to paint a lot of graffiti. I had train tracks behind my house as a kid. We used to get the neighborhood kids and walk the tracks and paint the trains - kind of that graffiti background - but, yeah, since I can remember.
So how did you end up on Ink Master in season 9, did they contact you?
Yeah, me and Bubba, we partnered up, Bubba knew that I was pretty versatile and we were pretty good friends; we knew each other personalities and styles and stuff like that. We just knew it'd be, you know, tough to get by us. First, I tried to get on season 2, I got pretty far in the process but then I didn't end up going on, so I've been trying to get on since then.
Your co-star and co-judge Ryan Ashley describes you as “nonchalant about how talented" you are, how many years did it take to get that nonchalance?
Oh man, I think I've just kind of been that way since I've been born. I don't know. Maybe my mother made me that way or my father. It's just an attitude. I don't think I know everything and I just try to stay that way. I try not to be a giant dick. This time has gone by really fast in life, so I'm like, I don't want to be a dick in life, I wanna be like, I want to be cool. So I just try to stay humble, and a lot of my stuff I hate. You know, it's just me as an artist. I'm like, "Ugh, I hate that," you know? Everyone's like, "That's amazing," and I'm like, "Ugh, I could have done this, I could have done that. So it's me as a person, but it's cool to hear I inspire people and stuff like that. It gives me a weird feeling, but I love it.
Clean said you have a "really good eye for composition," and are an amazing technician - who would you credit as the masters that you learned from?
Like I said, I kind of taught myself. A lot of the shops I've been in, I mean everyone's amazing, but I kind of just focused myself. You know, once I learned the technique, I just don't really rely on anybody else but myself to kind of master it as much as I can. I mean, tons of artists have influenced me throughout my career, there are just too many, too many to name. I guess I just focused on myself throughout my career and just harness those skills. I mean you can take stuff from everybody, but I mean you're really holding the machine. To get your lines clean, you got to have steady hands. You can't really - no one really taught me that.
You opened up to viewers about your troubled past with drug use and your time in jail. How did that shape you?
Well I mean I saved money now, I have things now. I mean, when everything is gone and you don't have anything, it's like, you really start to think about stuff. That's kind of what it was for me. I wouldn't say I'd take it back. It has molded me into who I am, but it was a tough change, it's like, I struggle every day - take it day to day. It's part of my attitude too, you know like I've been low, so you just got to be positive if you have anything. I mean not doing drugs; I used to get told that I was good at tattooing while doing drugs so it's like, it's only up from there, and after I wasn't doing all of that stuff. I'm to the point where I'd never do it again, so it makes me look back and try to help other people that were in my position.
Why did you decide to be transparent about your past with the viewers? Did you just want to be completely honest with them?
Yeah, it's just an honesty thing. It's just like, who I am. Like you said, it's kind of molded me and it's not like I do it now, so I can talk about all of that stuff now. The people when they're on drugs, they're not talking about it, they're hiding it. So it feels good to totally flip it and now it's like, "That's where I used to be." You know what I mean? I'm digging for old photos and stuff like "Here's the day I left for rehab" and this is now. So it's pretty cool.
So, if you don't mind sharing, how long have you been clean from drugs?
It's been 11 years - coming on 11 years. And don't get me wrong, I still have a couple of cocktails and I smoke weed all of the time, but that's what I got. And I don't waste my whole savings on it, lose houses and relationships. But, yeah, I'm stoked.
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 think I relate, see that's hard too. I know it sounds stupid, but I relate to all of them in certain ways. You know, Chris is really smart with the tattooing side of things too, and he takes it pretty technical. Dave is an artist and he had a pretty sh*tty past and he turned his life around. And Oliver is just a goof and he knows what he's talking about with solid tattoos. So it's a little bit out of everybody. I relate to them all, I love them all.
When judging tattoos, what are the most important things you look for?
I always take it back to fundamentals - the basics - that first. If they're chewing people's skin up, or doing any trauma to the skin, they're out. That's first, but after that, it's like can they draw, do they know what they're doing at the design table; that's what it is. But just really like clean, solid, smart decisions, and just something that will stand the test of time, that looks great.
One of your most talked about moments is when you used a mag needle to pull lines for your shading on a line tattoo challenge, you got a lot of flack for that by the other contestants, but the judges didn’t seem to mind. How would you have judged that situation?
I think it shows innovation. I'd be on the artist's side too. I think if you're just being creative and still meet the challenge. It's showing that you are one step ahead of all of the other artists. So if you pull any tricks out at any moment you might as well do it, because you're in a competition setting.
How would you describe your relationships with Ryan Ashley and Clean Rock One?
I think we're great together. I mean, we're all friends outside of here. So that helps knowing people's personalities before even sitting next to them, is cool. So that works out. And we all get along, we're all positive, upbeat people. Cleen's really straight forward, loud, and just makes you laugh. Ryan's super smart, she's got the look, the personality. I'm more art side of things. I think our dynamic, I don't know man, is just perfect.
Ink Master Grudge Match premieres tomorrow, What can you tell Screen Rant about the upcoming season?
Viewers can expect to see amazing tattoos, I mean, the artistry is cool just to watch behind it. These artists pretty much established already, coming back to just settle a grudge. So there's a lot of heat. There's a lot of maybe personal issues between the two of them, or none at all, it could be just a friendly battle of one friend trying to show up another. It's different week to week, everything changes. You don't have to see the same faces, except for our ugly mugs; but get used to that, hopefully. I think it's going to be awesome, we try to have a lot of fun and keep things honest and show the world what tattoos should look like and settle these grudges.
Ink Master: Grudge Match premieres Tuesday, October 1st at 10 pm EST on the Paramount Network.