In today's busy world, who has time to keep up with more than one tattoo-parlor-themed reality show on basic cable? This week saw the premiere of two such series, A & E's Inked(Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET)and The Learning Channel's Miami Ink(Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET). Though extreme aficionados of the art may be willing to devote two hours of their workweek to watching total strangers get winged skulls carved into their calves, I'm assuming that your average viewer would appreciate a convenient breakdown: When time is tight, which tattoo show is more worth watching for the guy or gal on the go?
Location: Both shows are filmed in TV-friendly party towns full of ponytailed dudes and surgically augmented dolls: Inked in Las Vegas, Miami Ink in the South Beach area of Miami. But Huntington & Hart, the tattoo parlor featured in Inked, is located in the glitzy, mall-like atmosphere of the Palms Casino, while the modest storefront of the Miami Ink parlor allows for a better sense of the neighborhood's scruffy street life. Advantage: Miami Ink.
Theme Song: Miami Ink wins this one hands down with a version of Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation," which remains one of the catchiest brat anthems of all time (even if hearing it does evoke sad memories of that song's greatest TV usage ever, as the opening theme to the short-lived and much-missed series Freaks and Geeks.) Inked has an original theme song with a faux-punk attitude, ending with the shouted affirmation, "I'm inked till the end!" (Or at least until you think better of that Celtic armband.) Advantage: Miami Ink.
Takeaway lesson for the week:Miami Ink has this gem to offer: Before inscribing a sentiment on your flesh in perpetuity, be sure to give it a quick proofread. One Italian-American client asks for the Italian words "per sempre" (forever), only to submit a misspelled version reading "pre sempre," which the head tattoo artist, Ami, promptly inks onto his forearm. To me, this was a perfect tattoo joke: to be stuck forever with a tattoo representing your own flawed idea of "forever"! But Ami takes the screw-up very seriously indeed, and with some serious darkening and widening of the two inverted letters, "forever" is salvaged from the ash heap of history.
The closest Inked comes to any such moral lesson is the moment when John Huntington, the co-owner of the Huntington & Hart tattoo parlor, enters into a tense buyout struggle with his partner Carey Hart. Driving down the Las Vegas strip, Huntington warns the camera, "That old saying, 'Never, ever go into business with your friends'? It's the absolute, absolute truth. Don't do it." Fair enough, but I can get that advice from my parents anytime. As a writer, I'm much more interested in a cautionary tale about the importance of copy-editing. Advantage: Miami Ink.
Hapless, mistreated apprentice: Both shows boast one of these. The second half hour episode of this week's Inked premiere was devoted to the travails of Dizzle, a 14-year-old assistant at Huntington & Hart who's been temporarily suspended from the shop for bad behavior and sloppy work. As he rides his motorcycle home that day, the troubled boy confides in voiceover that his mother's meth addiction has forced him to move in with his aunt and uncle. At the end of the episode, Dizzle is talked through his first-ever tattoo, a simple skull design he stencils on his own calf. Glowing under his mentors' approving gazes, Dizzle proclaims, "This is here forever," adding after a pause, "Unless I feel like getting it lasered. But I don't."
Miami Ink features an even more put-upon subordinate than Dizzle: Yoji Harada, a painfully polite young Japanese man who scurries to and fro at the beck and call of his imperious boss Ami. "Yoji is nothing," Ami scoffs dismissively at one point. "He has some time to go before we can call him Yoji-something, but right now he's Yoji-nothing." There's a certain sadistic fascination in watching Ami toy with Yoji the way Montgomery Burns does with Waylon Smithers, but ultimately, it's more fun to root for an underdog with some spine. Advantage: Inked.
Three out of four ain't bad. But all scorecards aside, the reason Miami Ink wins out over Inked has to do with the show's emphasis on the actual craft of tattooing. You could sit through a season of Inked without ever learning how a drawing on paper becomes a permanent image on skin. But Miami Ink kicks off its first episode with a step-by-step breakdown of how the surfing legend Sonny Garcia goes from imagining his dream tattoo—a realistic map of all eight Hawaiian islands, drawn in topographical relief—to emerging from the shop with it emblazoned on his torso.
Inked is essentially a standard workplace reality show whose daily dramas happen to revolve around an unusual place of work. But Miami Ink has something different to offer: Almost in spite of itself, the show captures something of the melancholy of the tattoo, the way this art form combines our yearning for permanence with the transience of our all-too-mortal flesh. As Virginia Heffernan pointed out in her review of Miami Ink in this week's Times, the show is lent a strange dignity by its obsessive focus on "the themes of caprice, permanence, regret." It even achieves, by moments, a tone of poetic fatalism, as when Ami tells one client's wife, "Tattoos last a lot longer than romance."