Aaron "Is" Michalowski does not aspire to tattoo world domination. He joined the Season 5 cast of Spike TV's reality competition Ink Master to advertise his skill and challenge himself — but even he admits his star has been on the rise since filming wrapped more than a month ago.
"I am crazy busy right now, ever since the cast announcements were made, because old clients have been calling trying to get in before the show airs and things really get tight," said Michalowski, 37, of Holiday.
As co-owner of Bloodline Tattoos in Ybor City, he's had to hire a personal assistant because he's terrible at scheduling and worse at managing his own money. "That is something all artists have in common, I think," Michalowski laughed.
This season, Ink Master slightly altered its format from the standard 18 tattoo artists competing in timed challenges being judged by a panel that eliminates one or more artists each week. Season 5 artists come into the competition to face their personal rival — an artist he or she has prior bad blood with — as well as the 16 other selected artists.
Michalowski's rival, Emily Elegado, has beef with him personally and professionally. "She's a good artist but she needs to know that she doesn't know everything or she isn't going to progress," he said.
"The moments of drama you see on this show are all us. It's not the producers directing us or anything. It's all the people in this pressurized situation reacting like humans do," he said. "I told them afterward even if I wasn't here I would watch this show. This is great TV."
Art has always been Michalowski's passion. He got into tattooing through a friend who was opening a shop. His first tattoo was on himself, a free-form design on his leg just to get the experience. From there, he trained as apprentice and began finding his own style based in photorealism and dotwork. Most recently, he's added sacred geometry to his repertoire.
"I did this one tattoo recently of Audrey Hepburn with the sacred geometry, like, coming out of her head and it was just supercool," he said. "I'm also into doing trash polka tattoos with these designs that have like splatters and lines behind them and all the elements come together to make something interesting."
As a veteran, he is not interested in your "infinity knots" or dream catcher tattoos you find on Pinterest.
"I tell people all the time when they come in with ideas or pictures on their cell phones of other people's tattoos, you don't want that," Michalowski joked. "If you're calling to get an infinity knot or tribal armband, I'm booked up for the next seven years, but if you want to try something cool, I've got time tomorrow."
Michalowski couldn't reveal any of the challenges he faced on the season, but assured with a wink that he was present throughout the majority of the show's taping, which started at the beginning of the summer.
Standing in front of the judging panel — Jane's Addiction guitarist and host Dave Navarro, tattoo artist and Miami Ink star Chris Nunez and tattoo artist and Guinness Book of World Records holder Oliver Peck — can be humbling.
"To have them pick apart a tattoo that you liked when you were doing it, but after you see it on the big screen, you can see what they were talking about and you learn," Michalowski said. "But there were days when you come back from that feeling low."
On those days, Michalowski treasured the calls from his three daughters who reassured him that he'll always be their favorite and that he has more in his life than the competition.
"I missed them so much," he said. "I'd like to be able to pay all my bills and maybe have enough money to take my three daughters to Disney World for the weekend on a whim and I'm good. I don't need to be rich... I'd rather be rich in love."