The Ink Master - Steven Tefft

Published: 26 March, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 223, April, 2013

As much as everyone seems to enjoy bashing reality TV shows these days, whether they be related to tattooing, cooking, singing, or any other topic under the sun, let’s face it, they can, contrary to what the pessimists preach, be entertaining. They can also introduce you to some interesting and, yes, talented folks who you might’ve never discovered if left to your own devices. Enter Spike TV’s Ink Master and – case in point – season two winner, Steven Tefft…

Best known for his realistic portraits and dark, twisted, horror-inspired, nightmare-inducing imagery, all finely executed in black and grey, it was a year ago when tattooer Steven Tefft decided to pack up his machines and leave behind his own Connecticut shop, 12 Tattoos, to take the chance of a lifetime.

Bracing the unforgiving eye of reality TV cameras while competing against 16 fellow tattoo artists from across the States, including the amazing Jesse Smith, widely known for his cartoon-like style, Tatu Baby, aka Miami’s fiercest female artist, and the incredibly talented Lalo Yunda from none other than New York City’s Sacred Tattoo, Tefft’s journey to being crowned Ink Master of the successful show’s second season was by no means an easy feat.

Competing in a variety of weekly challenges that included not only tattooing, but also the creation of art and flash in a gamut of styles on a variety of canvases, the self-described former scratcher consistently showcased the passion and dedication that helped him become the respected artist he is today, wowing the judges with his creativity and technique. Which is not to say he didn’t get his fair share of criticism about a lack of adaptability and his unfaltering dedication to his beloved horror style, but more on that later.    

Facing Chris Núñez, Oliver Peck and Dave Navarro, along with a variety of guest judges that included tattoo legends, Freddy Negrete and Bob Tyrell, each artist achieved great highs and experienced terrible lows and, at the end of the season, it was Tefft who managed to make it out of the lion pit alive, taking home the cash prize and coveted Ink Master title.

Now that the cameras are no longer rolling and Tefft is back at his shop, doing what he has been for the past 17 years, we sat down with the champion to get the dirt on his reality TV show days and, more importantly, to talk about all things tattoo.

From Scratcher to True Artist

Attracted to art from a young age for the simple reason of it being visually stimulating, Tefft’s affinity for tattoos started early on and was further fed and propelled by his studies towards an associate’s degree in fine art.

But liking something is one thing; learning and trying to master it, on the other hand, is a whole different challenge, and it can be said that the start of Tefft’s journey to becoming the respected artist he is today wasn’t necessarily the smoothest.

“My brother’s friend lent me some money to buy some mail-order equipment, and I started kinda scratching on my friends,” says Tefft. “But I realised a little later that to be a great tattoo artist I needed to learn my craft. I went to a local tattoo shop and got hired as a worker/ apprentice. He showed me some techniques, and from there I got tattooed by people I looked up to – Shane O’Neill, Paul Booth, Mike Rubendall, and Eric Merrill – and watched them and started asking them questions.

“I was working a full-time crappy job and tattooing part-time,” he says of his early years trying to break into the industry. “I then decided I couldn’t pursue my lifelong dream only doing it part-time, so I quit my job and started tattooing full-time. It was the best decision I ever made.” Although certainly not the easiest.

“When I started tattooing, it wasn’t cool; you were still thought of as a lowlife,” he remembers. “My parents at that time were not thrilled about me pursuing a career in tattooing.”

The Birth of 12 Tattoos

“The owner of the shop I was working at for 13 years started putting money ahead of the art and became more interested in what we made than what quality of work we were putting out,” says Tefft of the moment when he decided it was time for a change of environment and for him to make a truly big move. So, grabbing the bull by the horns, he opened up his own studio, 12 Tattoos, in the small military town of Groton, Connecticut.

“I knew I was ready because I had managed the other shop for ten years, but yes, it still was a leap of faith,” says Tefft. “The toughest thing is actually being a boss to people you consider friends, plus the fact they’re artists with different mentalities, moods and feelings. I’ve worked with these artists for years and three of them I apprenticed.” Citing “their versatility and hunger to constantly push their art and skill” as his artists’ greatest strengths, it may be said that Tefft is doing something right in his position as boss, even if it may not be his favorite role to play. And as it turns out, he’s also quite the teacher.  

“I don’t have an apprentice now, but I have apprenticed five people and I am proud to say they all have great careers and are really good tattoo artists,” he says.

The Ink Master Journey

“I received an email, then the audition was short and sweet; they looked at my portfolio and asked me about my personality and attitude,” says Tefft of his foray into the realm of reality TV. And when the offer to be part of the show’s second season finally came through, he jumped at the opportunity without much hesitation, although he laughingly admits, “I had no idea what I was in for.”

As he explains it, all the suspense and drama that viewers were privy to was, in fact, not a result of skilful editing. Instead, “the people on the show were portrayed exactly how they were. It’s a very stressful situation and people reacted very differently; it was all real.”

Lucky for him, other than some hiccups mid-season, things turned out quite all right, although some of the challenges still give him nightmares. “The American traditional challenge [was the worst]. I feel like no matter what we did, we couldn't do it right, that we could never show it the respect that style deserved in the judges’ eyes.”

Finding himself in the bottom two is also a moment he could likely have lived without, as that’s when he began doubting his chances of making it to the final – anyone who saw the traditional Japanese challenge will know it wasn’t looking pretty for Tefft. “My client wanted nothing to do with Japanese traditional, so I knew I was going to be in trouble with the judges, but my client comes first; it’s his body and vision.”

It wasn’t all bad, though. “My favorite was the single needle challenge,” says Tefft. “There was a time in the early ’90s when everybody was using lots of single needle, so I had a chance to show the other artists some old school skills… and beat Oliver Peck!” he laughs.

As for the critiques of not being able to adapt to all the different styles enough, as well as all the constructive criticism, the judges weren’t afraid to dish out after each challenge. Tefft admits he now sees where they were coming from and has taken it all in and used it to grow as a tattooist.

“I understand what they said; we all, as artists, have our own style and should always try to put that into our tattoos, otherwise you should just become a flash artist. The tattoos that I got critiqued harshly on didn’t have enough of my style in them; I went away from what I wanted to do and it showed.

“[The judges] really kept repeating the importance of durability or stay power with tattoos; that colour outlines will eventually fall apart, and to not be afraid to use heavy black, even in your colour tattoos – I use what they explained to me in every tattoo now.”

The Master's Future

“Yes, it has changed [things] a lot,” says Tefft of his exciting win. “I really put a lot of thought and care into every tattoo now, knowing it will be judged by the world very closely. I always did, but it’s really important now. Ink Master is truly an honour and one of the hardest [titles] you could ever earn.”

Putting the cash prize towards expanding his business, Tefft says the things he’s now most looking forward to are “more conventions, maybe another studio and I would love to do more TV.” But his ultimate goal as a tattooist is to “accomplish being one of the great tattoo artists of the world; to give every client an amazing tattoo and an amazing experience; and to change people with the art that we are so fortunate to do.”

Judge Chris Núñez

The world was first introduced to Chris Núñez through TLC’s Miami Ink where, alongside Ami James, Chris Garver, Darren Brass, and Yoji Harada, he helped make history as part of the original reality TV tattoo show. That’s right, he’s one of the artists behind the explosion of tattooing in mainstream media. Nowadays, when he’s not judging Ink Master, he can be found at his new Miami shop, HandCrafted Tattoo and Art Gallery.

Judge Dave Navarro

Judging as a collector rather than a tattoo artist, Dave Navarro brings a different perspective to the Ink Master judges’ panel. Perhaps best known as the guitarist of Jane’s Addiction, Navarro is no stranger to the rocker lifestyle and all the ink that comes with it. A proud owner of some really great pieces, including a stunning sacred heart with thorns courtesy of Freddy Negrete, he knows what looks good and is never shy to call out crap when he sees it.

Judge Oliver Peck

If you’re in the market for a traditional American tattoo with a twist, Oliver Peck is your guy. Working out of Dallas, Texas’ Elm Street Tattoo when he’s not on the move, he’s also recently taken control of True Tattoo in Los Angeles and works alongside some of the coolest and best artists in the industry. If you catch him on Ink Master, you’ll soon learn how seriously he takes tattooing and that he ain’t scared of dishing out the truth. Oh yeah, he’s also Miss Von D’s ex-husband, but he’d probably rather we not talk about that.

12 Tattoos

565 Long Hill Rd 
Groton, CT
06340, USA


Text: Barbara Pavone