Pittsburgh tattoo artist shines on Spike's 'Ink Master'
Zach Shample of Oakland lies down on the parlor bed, rests his head on the plastic-wrapped pillow, and lifts his shirt.
“Are you ready?” asks tattoo artist Sarah Miller.
“Ready,” says Shample, a 25-year-old Pittsburgh police officer.
Miller pulls out her tattooing tool, with needles dipped in ink, and starts drawing more elaborate details on the skin of Shample's side torso, which sports a tattoo of an underwater scene.
National tattoo talent scouts have spotted Miller's work. She will be competing on Spike television's reality show “Ink Master,” which premieres its second season Tuesday. After spending the summer doing the show in New York City — where 15 other top tattoo artists painted their creations and faced elimination every week — Miller is eager to see her journey unfold on TV and for the public to watch it with her.
Looking back over the last few months, Miller, 27, says she is awed by the exciting, boot-camp-like experience of the show. She remains surprised that it happened in the first place.
“I really wasn't thinking I was going to get cast in the show,” says Miller, owner of Wyld Chyld Tattoo, which opened in March in Brookline. “This kind of thing never happens to me. It was like the stars were aligning.
“More than anything,” she says, “I wanted to see what I could do.”
“Ink Master” casting directors chose the 16 contestants for the show in three ways. Some 13,000 tattoo artists applied after seeing the invitation on television during the show's last season. Others attended open casting calls around the country. Still other tattoo artists, like Miller, were chosen while casting directors visited hundreds of parlors in search of candidates, says Chris Rantamaki, executive in charge of production for this show. Producers narrowed the candidates' pool down to 100, and Rantamaki reviewed them and picked the best ones.
Miller, who also paints paintings, is a stellar contestant for “Ink Master,” he says.
“The No. 1 criteria for this show is the artwork,” Rantamaki says. “Out of all those people who applied, Sarah's artwork stood out. That tells you how exceptional of an artist she is.”
One of Miller's hallmarks is the ability to create soulful eyes in tattoos with images like a human face, Rantamaki says. “If you look at the eyes in her portraits, it's a very tough skill to master to get the eyes to look lifelike. Look closely at the eyes: If it looks like it has life in it, that's a ... good artist.
“I'm really excited for this season,” he says. “There's a lot of really fun stuff ... and amazing talent.”
The show's season has been shot — except for the two-part finale, which will air Dec. 18 and 19. Contestants and viewers won't know who won until the live finale. Each artist created at least one tattoo per episode, and had just three hours to come up with and design the idea. Then, contestants took up to six hours to apply the tattoo to someone's skin.
Shample, a longtime art fan who has many other tattoos, looks forward to attending Miller's viewing party for “Ink Master” and just watching the show.
“It's amazing to be able to watch it and say, ‘Hey, I got tattooed by her.' ”
Miller — who charges $200 per hour and is booked until the summer — hardly ever uses pre-made patterns for her tattoos. She works with clients to create personal, custom tattoos. Miller, who earned a degree in graphic design from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 2008, has about 30 tattoos herself, including an image of a dragon on her back. She has been working as a professional tattoo artist since 2006, and was thrilled to open her own business this year. A New York native, Miller moved to Pittsburgh a decade ago.
Miller got her first tattoo at age 21, and got hooked. At first, she encountered disapproval from her grandmother, Helen Zauderer of New York — until Miller got a picture of Grandma's face tattooed on her arm, and Zauderer was thrilled.
What's the appeal of turning skin into an artist's canvas?
“For me, it's more of an existential fulfillment,” Miller says. Tattoos are “a walking mural.”
The show premieres at 10 p.m. Oct. 9 on Spike television. The 13-episode season ends with a live finale Dec. 18 and 19. Details: www.spike.com/shows/ink-master
Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7824.