Every morning Joey Hamilton — former Ink Master champion and co-owner of Revolt Tattoos in Las Vegas — drives 30 minutes to go draw on people’s skin for up to eight hours at a time while live-feed cameras catch every needle stroke. In preparation for the new season of Ink Master premiering June 23 on SPIKE, I caught up with Hamilton and we talked about how he got his start and what sets him apart in the tattoo game.
Q: Were tattoos a part of your childhood?
JH: Not really. I grew up in Oklahoma which was the last state to legalize tattooing as a profession. It wasn’t until my last year in the military [that] I thought ‘I need something to do when I get out of here!’
I was more into art and spent a lot of time drawing, which is why I prefer the “realism” form of tattooing. The girl I was seeing at the time mentioned I should at least check out tattooing. That was 20 years ago and now I’m here!
Q: What kind of ink work were you doing at the beginning of your career, during your last year in the service?
JH: Well I was able to get really good machines from a friend, so I started tattooing inanimate objects at first. When I felt comfortable I started to offer other guys in [the] Air Force tattoos for free. After a while I was starting to get good at it so I had to at least start charging something.
I’m not exactly sure that’s how you are supposed to start a career in tattooing, but it worked out for me.
Q: You started your career in Florida — what’s the tattoo culture like there?
JH: I started in Cocoa Beach and then moved to the Destin area. I spent some time in southern Florida before moving back to Destin. They were tourist areas. My whole career has been tourist-based. Like now, I’m in Las Vegas. People might come to me for just something small or a whole sleeve that’s going to take eight to nine hours.
Q: How did you end up tattooing in Las Vegas?
JH: I had a good friend tell me I had become a big fish in a small pond in Florida. I thought I had become pretty good so I decided why not become a small fish in a big pond.
I actually just went to Las Vegas for a vacation because I needed to get out of Florida for a bit. I got into the shop where they were filming the show Inked and angled for a guest spot. That didn’t work out but got asked to tryout for another tattoo show on SPIKE, Ink Master. It was my last day of vacation and I got the call saying I had made it and we’d start filming the next day.
Q: Going into Ink Master, how did you feel about jumping into various styles of tattooing?
JH: Well I had been working in tourist shops, so you’d be at the customer’s whim. I was confident in creating whatever was asked of me.
For the culture of the show, I feel like I was born to be on it. Some guys were upset and missing their families or something but I was happy to just have food and a bed and the opportunity to tattoo.
Q: Doing realistic work seems to be your preferred style. What are some of the most difficult pieces you’ve created in it?
JH: I recently gave someone Rocket Raccoon from Guardians of the Galaxy. He had the gun and the fur. That was pretty difficult. It took nine hours and wasn’t even that big. Even when I was done I felt like I could have spent a few more hours.
Realism is very tedious so I can’t work in it all the time. It would just be too draining.
Q: What’s next for Joey Hamilton?
JH: I’m not exactly sure [laughs]. One of my goals was to win Ink Master and I did that. I wanted to open my own shop and I did that. I think next I’d love to have a show in our own shop. We have the space to do whatever we want, and I believe the next step is to figure out what exactly that is!
Until Hamilton’s dream of having his own show becomes a reality, you can catch him on the live-feed cameras at his shop. And you can watch a new Ink Master be crowned on the sixth season of Ink Master, premiering on SPIKE on June 23 at 10 PM ET/PT. This season, it’s master versus apprentice for the 18 tattoo artist hopefuls who will be applying their skills once again to a host of human canvases. Trailer here!
Luke McCormick is a writer living in Brooklyn that has written for SPIN, rollingstone.com and other publications.