Meet Ryan Ashley, the first woman to be crowned 'Ink Master'
"May the best woman win."
Tattoo artist Ryan Ashley said those words to fellow tattooer Kelly Doty after both women were named to the live, three-finalist "Ink Master" finale.
"Ink Master" is a competition show on Spike that pits tattoo artists against one another in different challenges involving human canvasses (in other words, people who sign an exhausting amount of paperwork in order to get tattooed on television.) The artists are whittled down week by week, until only the final three remain. This season, the artists were split draft-style into two teams: Team Peck and Team Nuñez -- named for Chris Nuñez and Oliver Peck, the show's judges and famed tattooers.
Basically, "Ink Master" is the ring where tattooers come to box.
For seven seasons of the reality show, no woman had ever won the title of Ink Master. Only one other woman -- Sarah Miller in Season 2 -- even made it to the finale, making Ashley's win in Season 8 all the more sweet. Here's the winning tattoo she inked (which, by the way, she completed in 24 hours):
Ashley grew up in a trailer park in Dallas, Pennsylvania, a small town about 20 miles west of Scranton. She was raised by a single mom who juggled a job at McDonald's with night school, where she eventually earned her degree in accounting.
"We were really poor for a really long time," Ashley said. "We never had cable or the internet. My mom is an artist, and when we were bored she would ask us to draw her things. If I couldn't do it, she'd show me how."
Always a talented artist, Ashley moved to New York City after high school to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She landed at a private-label company, but after nearly five years, she decided she needed to get out of her cube and away from her screen. She found her way into tattooing.
Tattoo artists aren't made overnight. They do apprenticeships at shops and with other artists. Ashley worked with Nick Malasto at his private studio focusing on custom tattoos, not dissimilar from the ones on "Ink Master." She now owns her own private studio nestled within the collectibles shop she co-owns in Kingston, Pennsylvania: The Strange and Unusual Oddities Parlor.
Street shops, where people typically walk in to get ink, aren't really her style, she says. "I had to do a tri-color Rastafarian ankle band on half-off day," Ashley said. "It was the worst day of my life, and since that specific tattoo I decided I could never work in a street shop again."
Though the finale began with three artists -- Ashley, Doty and Gian Karle -- by the end it was only Ashley and Karle standing. Ashley was awarded the title in a 2-1 split decision by the judges with host Dave Navarro making the final call.
One of the more staggering parts of her victory is that Ashley has just entered only her fifth year of tattooing. Her win marks the second consecutive year that a relatively new artist has triumphed over the field, following in the shoes of Season 7 winner, Anthony Michaels.
"Older tattooers only want to do what they want to do," judge Peck said in a phone interview. "Young tattooers are eager. They feel like they have a great opportunity to do something and are willing to jump through any hoops that come their way."
"Ink Master" is hard. The contestants often tattoo for extended periods of time and compete in challenges that require both physical and mental stamina. Tattooing for long amounts of time -- while not classically "athletic" -- is still physically demanding. The artists hunch over, gripping vibrating machines, while creating permanent art on another person in whatever conditions they're given.
Ashley says she was able to thrive in the competition because of the support given by the other women in the house: Doty, Nikki Simpson and Gia Rose. The four of them formed an alliance that crossed Team Peck and Team Nuñez and landed two of them in the finale.
"We want the best artist to win," Ashley said before the finale. "We don't want the easy road, we don't want anything to be handed to us just because we're girls. All of us, collectively, had the same hope that it would finally be a girl this season."
This season, the best woman did win. She was also just the best. No qualifier needed.