Tattoo artist injected into national spotlight

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On "Ink Master," beauty might be skin deep, but it's often spectacular.

Sixteen tattoo artists, including Pittsburgh's Sarah Miller, were featured in the premiere Tuesday night, with back-to-back episodes kicking off Season 2 of the Spike TV competitive reality show.

It was filmed over the summer in New York City but counts down to a live finale in December.

"One of the reasons I wanted to go on the show was to basically see what I could do," said Troy Hill resident Ms. Miller, 27, who is managing partner of the Wyld Chyld studio on Brookline Boulevard.

"I knew I was going to be working under extreme circumstances where I wasn't going to be getting any sleep and was expected to do amazing designs in a very short amount of time."

Yet she couldn't prepare for anything resembling her first challenge: creating a cityscape called "Land of Bacon" on a "tattoo virgin's" upper back. Other artists had been assigned first-time clients whose requests ranged from the standard snakes and tigers.

Despite her client feeling woozy a couple of times -- stopping to allow recovery breaks cut into her six-hour work window -- Ms. Miller managed a meat tableau that included the George Washington Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.

There would have been a fried-egg sunrise, but she ran out of time.

Ms. Miller said this aspect of the competition surprised her: when clients requested simple, Americana-type designs from some of the better-known contestants.

"You're going to a world-famous artist that charges $200, $250 an hour, and they are booked for two or three years, and you're going to get a ROSE?"

The client might always be right, but that doesn't mean the judges are going to approve of the final product. Judges Chris Nunez and Oliver Peck, along with judge/host Dave Navarro, were pretty harsh on the contestants, even by reality TV standards.

They were uncomplimentary of her "Land of Bacon" work, but downright harsh with many others' work. Part of the problem with judging tattoos as art is the wide array of aesthetics -- there are wildly varying schools ranging from sublime black and gray to cartoony.

For example, in the first episode, one of the artists was called out for using brown as a border instead of black.

"That [brown] is completely legitimate," Ms. Miller said, adding it was futile trying to guess what the judges wanted.

"There were some things that they said [where] they did a compete 180 on the next week."

Ms. Miller sports 31 tattoos, about two-thirds of which are self-applied. "I used to be a gymnast, so that really helped. But I'm not that flexible anymore," she said, laughing.

Only one is visible when she's in street clothes, a black/gray portrait on her art of her grandmother, Helen Zauderer, an inspiration who helped her through college.

Having grown up in New York, she originally set out to become a graphic novelist. Ms. Miller wound up at the Art Institute in Pittsburgh, where she studied classical art, graphic design and illustration and eventually worked in marketing.

Six years ago, sharing an apartment with Ashley Claypool, a tattoo artist, she also got involved in ink.

"I love doing people; I just like doing figures," said Ms. Miller, who specializes in portraiture. "I love doing something that evokes emotions, that has interest, something that tells a story, more than just abstract art on the way."

The Wyld Chyld studio in Brookline is a spacious venue filled with the expected (tattoo magazines in the waiting area, body piercing accessories for sale) and the surprising (tiny cute rubber duckies on a shelf overlooking her wood-paneled office).

Last week, as she created a logo of the metal band Behemoth on the ankle of Clarissa Badini, 18, of McKees Rocks, Ms. Miller talked above the high-pitched buzz of the instruments as music from AC/DC, The Beatles and ZZ Top played in the background.

Ms. Badini tapped away on her cell phone, seemingly oblivious to whatever discomfort came of the tiny needles repeatedly piercing her skin.

The artist recalled the first time she ever inked someone ("It didn't go the way I wanted it to go. It was very awkward ...") and how she was strictly a black/gray purist until discovering a brand called Eternal Ink.

"They have something like 97 colors now," she said. "Having this entire set really opened up my horizons."

Her work can be viewed at

If "Land of Bacon" was among Ms. Miller's oddest commissions, then the best is something she did on a later episode of "Ink Master." That day, she was in the zone: "Do you ever have what feels like you're in this cosmic place, where everything falls into place and no matter what you do, the outcome is guaranteed?"

Ms. Miller is a fan of reality television, including the art construction shows such as "Project Runway" and "Face Off." But she also loves "Toddlers & Tiaras."

Becoming part of the reality landscape took some adjustment, especially living in one of those over-lit fake-looking residences with the others. There was a working cooktop, but, inexplicably, the oven was DOA.

"I liked the house, it was very big and spacious and I think there were something like over 3,000 light bulbs in the house ... I loved the way they had the walls painted."

Of course, Ms. Miller isn't at liberty to say how well she did on the program, but she does expect the experience will make her long days in the studio even longer: "I'm booked up through January, and once this show hits, I'm not sure how I'm going to be able to breathe."

Just don't ask her to ink any roses.

"You have to go outside your comfort zone and say, 'This is who I am, this is who I will be beyond this.' That's one of the things I love about realism in tattoos -- it's constantly pushing the boundaries of what's considered to be art."


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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