Spend a few minutes talking with Thomas "T.J." Halvorsen and, regardless of your background, the thought will enter your mind:
Should I think about putting some ink on my skin?
Halvorsen, co-owner of the Foolish Pride Tattoo shop on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, might be one of smoothest, most passionate advocates for body art around — even though you might not guess he has any designs on himself, at first glance.
"I'm a big believer that visible tattoos are a preference, you know, and everybody has to make that decision," said Halvorsen, whose careful haircut and clean-cut looks harken back to his five years spent as a sniper and gunner in the U.S. Army. "I like being the diet cola of tattoo artists; the anti-artist."
That might also be why the producers of Spike TV's Ink Master reality show chose the 29-year-old comic book artist and Iraq/Afghanistan war veteran to join the contestants in their tattoo competition's second season.
Debuting tonight, the show features Halvorsen and 15 other hopefuls vying for a $100,000 grand prize and feature story in Inked magazine through a competition that unfolds like an eccentric mix of Chopped, Big Brother and Sons of Anarchy.
The group spent 11 weeks this summer filming the show, living together in a New York City space while tackling challenges such as tattooing in a morgue and putting body art on "virgins" — people getting their first tattoos who had no idea how painful the process could be.
"(Show producers) said I brought a different face to tattooing, which made me feel really good," said Halvorsen, billed as "T.J. Hal" on the show, whose upper back, shoulder and leg tattoos are easily covered by shirts and pants. (The artist says he won't even do face or finger tattoos without a long conversation with the client about how they can be "job killers.")
"A lot of my buddies from the comic book industry are now becoming tattoo artists," he added. "It's the one industry where an artist can do whatever they want, make good money and draw every day."
The show, hosted by Jane's Addiction guitarist and longtime tattoo hound Dave Navarro, manipulates its contestants to create great TV
As much as he and his business partner once ragged on tattoo-based reality shows such as Miami Ink and L.A. Ink on TLC or Best Ink on Oxygen, Halvorsen had to admit they also have supercharged the popularity of tattooing and made stars of some artists.
So, when Ink Master advertised for contestants in its first season, Halvorsen applied — traveling to Miami for auditions and callbacks. Already, he has taken advantage of exposure from the show to appear at tattoo conventions, hoping to draw customers from all around.
"The tattoo reality shows are the best and worst things that can happen to the industry. You can turn on TV and watch a dude get tattooed (but) by the same point, it kind of loses its seriousness," he said. "Everybody 20 years ago got tattoos because Mommy and Daddy didn't like it. What happens in 20 years when Mommy and Daddy have a ton of tattoos?"
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A host of tattoo artists and clients also have complained online about tattoo-centered reality TV shows for a different reason: They suspect they are loaded with fake drama that makes the subculture look bad.
There's not much room for that in the first episode of Ink Master's new season, where we mostly see a collection of wildly disparate artists struggle with the show's challenges and bounce off one another's personalities.
Judged by Navarro along with tattoo experts Oliver Peck and Chris Nunez, the show's debut mostly focuses on keeping the artists off balance, while offering critiques that sound a bit arbitrary to novice ears. (Peck chides one contestant for not providing "texture.")
"I think they had enough characters. We brought the drama ourselves," said Halvorsen, who acknowledged producers sometimes tried to push contestants into talking trash about other competitors with leading questions. "You put six people into a house with two bathrooms … that's enough to make drama right there. I felt like I was back in Iraq in a tent with 80 guys."
A native of New Jersey, Halvorsen learned to draw at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, landing jobs illustrating the Nightwing and Incredible Hulk books for D.C. and Marvel comics by age 20.
Six months after the 9/11 attacks, he joined the Army and learned how to tattoo while he was stationed in Colorado.
An explosion that killed two fellow soldiers during his third tour overseas led to a back injury, which eventually forced Halvorsen to leave the Army in 2006. He decided to team up with a longtime tattoo client who also performs piercings and open a business where his ailing grandparents lived: the Tampa Bay area.
"If that (explosion) hadn't happened, I wouldn't have this," he said, noting that he was among the lucky ones who survived the blast, though back problems occasionally resurface. "Like I said on the show, I have to live my life to the fullest for the guys who can't."
Halvorsen's shop in St. Petersburg is funky and well-kept at once, filled with portfolio books showing off each artist's past designs, along with tattoo magazines and even a few comics.
The process he describes of developing involved tattoos for clients — consulting with them, drawing a sketch, putting it on stencil paper and applying it over multiple sessions — is drastically compressed for the show, where sleep-deprived artists have six hours to ink a tattoo.
"This canvas, instead of just sitting there, it moves, screams, bleeds, cries, plus you can interact with it, talk to it, learn their stories and bond with them," he said. "I think it's the ultimate compliment that somebody wants your art on them for the rest of their lives."