Ink Master Winner Bobby Johnson: Skating, Prison Tattoos and the Competition
Local tattoo artist Bobby Johnson has made it farther than he ever expected, not only finding his way onto this year’s season of Ink Master, but winning the competition, though he was not all that interested in tattoos when he was younger. For a young Johnson, it was all about skating and spending time with his friends. When his uncle Frank came back from prison during Johnson’s teen years, the first thing he did was offer Johnson and his cousin prison tattoos. This was the first time Johnson had really considered getting a tattoo and, out of impulse, he said yes. His uncle taught him how to make a tattoo machine out of a guitar string, cassette player and a pen upon learning that Johnson enjoyed drawing. He remembers using this machine to make his first tattoos but recalls that they were horrible—this process of building the machine with his uncle ignited Johnson’s interest in becoming a tattoo artist.
“Skateboarding had a big to do with my tattooing, because my first tattoo was [inspired by pro skater] Adrian Lopez’s skull and cross bones,” Johnson says, gesturing to the space below the bend in each of his elbows. “I just thought [tattoos] were the coolest thing.”
“I just thought [tattoos] were the coolest thing.”
Johnson first became involved with an actual tattoo shop when he was just 17. At the time he went to a shop with some of his friends and the artist tattooing them invited him back after the shop had closed and let him use some of his professional gear to tattoo himself. “It was crazy,” Johnson says. “And it sucked. It came out awful.” That same artist offered him an apprenticeship that quickly fell through, but Johnson already knew that he ultimately wanted to tattoo forever.
After his apprenticeship ended and he got a job at a refinery, Johnson’s tattoo coverage on his own body expanded rapidly and he began intensive artistic research. Johnson would go to the local Barnes & Noble and scour through both tattoo and skating magazines such as Thrasher and Juxtapoz Magazine looking for inspiration for his drawings and to learn about various tattoo styles. Incidentally, one of his other foundational magazines was SLUG. “Actually, when I got into tattoo shops … I would look through [SLUG’s] ads and google the shops and I would get inspired from those shops,” he says.
Johnson attributes a lot of his style to Czech painter and illustrator Alfons Mucha. Mucha’s influence is evident in Johnson’s recent work—the distinct black outlines and soft dimensional colors of Johnson’s Neo-traditional style closely resemble Mucha’s art nouveau work. “I’ve always been attracted to things that are timeless,” he says. “I think that’s why Alfons is probably the master because his artwork and style will hold up forever, and it stands out.”
Johnson’s journey onto Ink Master took a lot longer than one would expect. He was approached online around the show’s eighth or ninth season but after beginning the process, he dropped out because he didn’t feel ready. Each year, the casting agency would check in with Johnson and for a while he turned them down, even suggesting other tattoo artists that he thought would be a better fit than him, some of whom actually ended up on the show.
When he got the call this year, he knew he was finally ready to take the competition on. Johnson largely focused on the logistic preparations, so he didn’t have time to consider how he would perform in the competition, who he’d be competing against or how the competition itself would alter his own view of tattooing.
When I asked what it was like to have his art judged on TV, Johnson let out a sigh. “Getting your work judged there is one thing,” he says. “It sucks. They don’t show everything on [Ink Master], but they really really pick [the tattoos] apart. It’s brutal—everyone is up there for 40 minutes and then they show eight seconds on TV.” Ink Master’s narrative agenda and selective editing meant that feedback from the judges skewed to appear more negative in the final cut, even if the actual critique was much more positive. Johnson’s TV persona received polarizing attention from audiences, not only concerning his tattoos but also about his personality. He felt lucky to be both hated and loved—it meant he was making an impression with his craft as well as him as a person.
“It’s brutal—everyone is up there for 40 minutes and then they show eight seconds on TV.”
Johnson says that he learned far more about tattooing from his fellow contestants than he did from the direct judging. He specifically mentions Freddie Albrighton, Jon Mesa and Charlene Ngo as artists that he learned from because their approach was so different than his. Johnson believes that these artists leaned into their own intuition, whereas he leans more into drafting and thinking things over until they’re perfect. The other competitors also just had pure skill and style differences that taught Johnson how to approach the simple things in new ways. In the end, one of the most important things to come of Ink Master for Johnson was a close friendship with another artist named Bryan Black. When they met on the show, they instantly hit it off, and so the producers quickly paired them up together into a group dubbed “The Good Time Boys.” “We talk every day,” says Johnson. “We became best friends.”
Ink Master finished filming in June, meaning that Johnson has known the results of the show for half a year at this point, but when I mentioned the finale, he was sure to say as little as possible. He said he had to get good at deflecting any questions about the results of the show. When I asked how it felt to wrap up a big project like that, Johnson says “I won’t ever not feel lucky, not only for the opportunity but [because] the experience is so cool. You get so close to everyone else that’s there.”
“I won’t ever not feel lucky, not only for the opportunity but [because] the experience is so cool. You get so close to everyone else that’s there.”
Stream the Ink Master season finale on Paramount Plus to watch Bobby Johnson’s victory, and check out more of his art work and tattoos @glendalebully on Instagram. If you are interested in learning more about Johnson or potentially booking with him, check out his website glendalebully.com.