[Photo by: Brinson Banks]

Tattoos have gone from social taboo to artsy trend in just a decade. With groundbreaking shows such as Miami Ink and its spinoffs LA Ink and NY Ink, television has helped show the general public the high level of artistry associated with ink in skin. But while the stigma that used to be attached to people with tattoos has vastly diminished (according to NPR, about 40 percent of people ages 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo), there still are shortcomings that need to be fulfilled within the industry—the biggest being the lack of recognition for female tattoo artists.

Read more: 14 amazing tattoos inspired by lyrics

Tattoo lovers need only to turn to Spike’s Ink Master, the tattoo competition show pitting artist against artist in various style showdowns, to see the lack of women lauded in the tattoo industry. While this is one of the most popular shows featuring the tattoo medium on TV, only around 20 to 40 percent of the contestants each season have been women. Thus, it took eight seasons for Ink Master to crown a female winner.

For anyone who watched Season 8 of Ink Master, the four female contestants, Ryan Ashley Malarkey, Kelly Doty, Gia Rose and Nikki Simpson, completely stole the show. In fact, they flipped the entire competition on its head. This particular season divided the contestants into two teams where two judges, Chris Nunez and Oliver Peck, served as team mentors. While the girls were divided in the competition, they banded together to form the most memorable alliance in Ink Master history. And now, the Season 8 champ, Ryan Ashley Malarkey, has joined forces again with the three other badass gal pals she befriended on Ink Master for Ink Master: Angels, premiering at 10 p.m. Oct. 3 on Spike.

“I don’t think we necessarily had a very clear idea in the beginning of what we were going to make the show about,” says Simpson. “All we knew was that we wanted to go into a creative project together. The only ideas that us girls had started with travelling. Instead of everybody coming to New York like they do on Ink Master, I think they all collectively thought that it would be interesting to go to those artists or go to those cities.”

The premise of Ink Master: Angels is like a mini touring version of Ink Master. Each week the Angels travel to an American city well-known for its tattoo scene—New Orleans, Portland, Nashville, Dallas, etc.—in which they seek out the best tattooers in the area.  Those selected artists then compete against one another, and the victor gets the opportunity to battle one of the Angels. If they successfully beat an Angel, they get a spot on Ink Master Season 10.

“It’s definitely taking a lot for us to not just be the judges and not just be the ones who call the shots,” says Malarkey, whose tattoo style is primarily a signature black and grey realism with an ornamental twist. “We’re also putting our artwork against these artists’ work. So, we’re kind of putting our money where our mouth is in a sense. We’re not just standing on this pedestal judging. We keep tattooing and competing. Just because we competed [on Ink Master] doesn’t mean that we’re better than anyone or that we’re the best. We’re all artists. We’re all in this together.”

“Just because we competed [on Ink Master] doesn’t mean that we’re better than anyone or that we’re the best. We’re all artists. We’re all in this together.”

“For someone who wears this much black, I’m still deeply a positive person.” 

Ink Master is known for being a very one-on-one competition, which was a mindset the Angels clearly sought to overcome. This highly motivational attitude transcended the competition to become a dominating force on Angels. “I feel like Ink Master: Angels has such a positive message behind it,” says Doty, who made it all the way to the finale of Season 8. “You want literally everybody to do well, like you’re rooting for literally every single person in the room. And that’s one of the things that I liked most about [the show] is just how positive it is. Because for someone who wears this much black, I’m still deeply a positive person.”

“I think ever since tattooing has been big on television, there’s been people like Kat Von D who have done huge things for the tattoo industry and women [in it], but I think society got a little excited and almost started to begin to fetishize women with tattoos and female tattooers,” explains Simpson, who is known for her neo-traditional depictions of female faces. “I think a great thing about the show is that we are helping; through the critiques, we are sharing our knowledge and experiences throughout tattooing. And to go through Ink Master, you’re not going to go anywhere based on how you look. How you look means nothing. It’s about putting your best work forward and showing that knowledge.”

“Listen sister, if I want your opinion I’ll beat it outta ya!” Elvira, mistress of the dark. One of my all time favorite characters. All the classless charm I wish I could embody. Like a dark Peg Bundy. This is on my friend Cliff who curates The Nightmare Gallery here in #salem. Cliff is awesome. Don’t touch the figures in the gallery though, or he will lose his mind. Thanks Cliff! @elvira.mistressofthedark @helheimgallery #helheimgallery #salem #salemma @spikeinkmaster #inkmaster #inkmasterseason8 @quickcaps #quickcaps @kingpintattoosupply #kingpintattoosupply @heliostattoo #heliostattooneedles @truetubes #truegrips @eternalink #eternalink @saniderm #saniderm @redemptiontattoocare #redemptiontattoocare @stencilstuff #stencilstuff @fkirons #fkirons

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Television has proven to be a remarkable outlet for the tattoo industry, and partaking in shows like Ink Master has become a way for contestants like Doty, who is one of the most talented New School tattooers around, to show their skills outside of their standard styles, while also becoming role models. “A lot of people don’t understand it and they say ‘Why does gender have to matter at all? It should just be whoever is the best artist wins.’ And that’s exactly what we wanted,” Doty says. “We wanted the best artist to win, but we were rooting for a woman because you don’t get to see yourself represented very often. And when you’re in a smaller group of people you don’t see yourself on TV very often, and so it was very important for us to push each other to do well just to show other people that we are completely capable of doing exactly as well or better than the man next to us.”

“How you look means nothing. It’s about putting your best work forward and showing that knowledge.”

“Don’t take no for an answer,” Rose adds. “People are going to tell you ‘no’ a lot, especially when it comes to something that is very specialized and not easy to get into or easy to learn. [Tattooing] is not something that you can kind of do yourself. Tattooing is definitely something that you need guidance in to get into, and so you have to be able to find that in the end; and if someone says ‘no’ in one place, go somewhere else.”

Playing as both judges and competitors on Ink Master: Angels unifies the Angels and their contestants. “We don’t create anything in a vacuum, and being able to be critiqued by a panel is one of our strongest assets as far as growth,” says Rose, who also works in a unique neo-traditional style. “When you have the opinions of other people, it can be hard sometimes, and being able to take it and use it to better yourself is definitely something that will help you only become a better artist and a better person.”

While Ink Master: Angels embraces a lot of female empowerment, at the end of the day, the competition is all about artistry and knowing what works best in such a strange, but beloved medium. “[Tattooing] is about making sure that you’re the best artist that you can be. It’s not about stroking your own ego,” says Simpson. “It’s about learning the artform and how sacred the craft really is and pushing yourself to the limit and realizing that if you put in your 100 percent, every bit of energy into your craft, there is no stopping you.”

“Never stop learning,” Malarkey adds. “Never start thinking that you’ve mastered anything because you’re going to learn something new and realize everything you ever thought was correct may not be correct. Just be a sponge; absorb as much information as you can. Make sure you’re learning from someone who has your best interest in mind. Make sure that you’re learning from someone who cares about tattooing and cares about you, and just put your artwork first.”

Tune in Oct. 3 to see all the action the Ink Master: Angels bring to 10 cities around the US.

Follow Ryan Ashley Malarkey on Instagram or the Strange and Unusual Oddities Parlor Facebook. You can follow Kelly Doty on Instagram and the Helheim Gallery Facebook. Nikki Simpson can be found on Instagram, and you can follow Gia Rose on Instagram and the White Oak Tattoo Co. website.