After six seasons of judging all manner of tattoos on Ink Master, and a lifetime lived as a well-respected rock star, Dave Navarro has seen innumerable tattoos. But talking to Navarro reveals a man who cares more about the craft itself than critiquing what’s out in the real world. We sat down with Dave to discuss the show’s upcoming season, what he watches in his spare time, and what’s next for the Jane’s Addiction guitarist.
What do you look for when you are evaluating contestants’ work? What do you think it means to be an “Ink Master?”
We’re basically looking for someone who can handle all the different styles of tattooing and handle their canvases in a professional manner. We’re also looking for someone who is just an all around great artist. There are a lot of factors that go into play when we are looking for an Ink Master. We really scrutinize with a very watchful eye.
Primarily being a great artist is the key. There are a lot of great artists that we see who are great technicians, who can put ink into the skin amazingly well, yet when it comes to pencil and paper, they aren’t as strong. So we look for someone who can do all of those things. Someone who can draw well, and someone who’s a great artist on paper in addition to being a great technician.
What are some of your favorite artists you’ve seen over the course of the show?
That’s a tough question because our favorites have by and large won the seasons, so you can pretty much figure out who they are. As far as specifics, I’m the only the judge on the show that’s not a tattoo artist. So I’m just inspired and impressed by all of them, even the ones that go home early, because I love being around people who are dedicated to their craft and who are creative individuals. For me, it’s not even a favoritism game. It’s more of a way to be in another environment that isn’t my own creative environment, but is still creative. I get to be a fan.
Are there any particular works on the show that stood out to you, or that you think of still?
Nothing that comes to mind. Like I said, my love for what they do is a pretty generalized appreciation.
But speaking of that, there are a lot of times where our favorite tattoo of the day doesn’t necessarily win best tattoo of the day because it somehow doesn’t fit the criteria of what we’re looking for in a particular challenge. So if we’re looking for… let’s say it’s a shading challenge, and we’re looking for smooth shading. The winner of that challenge may not have our favorite tattoo as fans, but it hit that criteria best. It’s never been about our favorite tattoo; it’s always been about the specific criteria that we look for.
A lot of times, I will look the other way on shaky lines because I love the piece so much, much like one would with any type of art. Lou Reed is one of my favorite singers. Would he win an opera competition? Probably not. It’s not so much what speaks to us personally as much as what speaks to the challenge of that day.
When it comes to the different tattoo styles that are out there, are there any styles that you are more drawn to personally, or anything that resonates with you more?
Not necessarily. I’ve been around the industry for 30 years, and all types of tattooing and genres of tattooing impress me. If something is done well, it’s done well, and it’s hard to argue with. The fact of the matter is these people are permanently tattooing human beings who will wear these things in their skin forever, so there’s a different sensibility than on a canvas.
But I have all styles on me, and I appreciate all styles. It’s the same thing with music and films. I don’t have a particular favorite type of film. It depends on what I’m in the mood for. I look at art that way in terms of there are no absolutes, there are no favorites, and there are no bests. That’s why in a competition setting like this there are specific criteria that we can use in terms of judging. Otherwise, we’d just become a popularity contest, which it is not.
Obviously, you’ve been in this world of tattoos a while. Are there any trends lately or anything coming out that is really striking you?
Once again, I don’t have favorites or trends or specifics. Like I said, art is subjective. Art is mood worthy. An American traditional tattoo will hit me on one day, and then the next day a black and grey tattoo will hit me. Luckily, we have plenty of skin to have all styles.
If you had to have a past contestant from the show to tattoo you, who would it be?
Honestly, I have the artists that I’m comfortable with and the ones that I love working with. That’s a very personal, intimate, social thing, and as a host, in terms of the show, I don’t really have that kind of relationship with the contestants. We try and stay as distant as possible so we can have a fair sensibility in terms of critiques. We don’t know what goes on in their house when they are living in the loft. We don’t know what their inter-dynamics are until the show airs. Even though I know how the challenges go, when the show airs, I watch it because I have no idea what’s going on in their lives while they are shooting.
You said you have several artists that you work with and feel comfortable with for your own personal tattoos. What do you look for in starting those relationships? How did those people come to you?
I don’t even know. Those relationships are years old. They are bonded friendships that go deeper than just the artistry— for me, anyway. I’ve got some tattoos that aren’t so great, but I love them, and I love the people who gave them to me. And for that reason I’ll continue to see those people. It’s such a personal thing that it’s difficult for me to give an answer that will speak to everybody. Not every artist is for everybody, and not every style is for everybody. And that’s what I think makes it kind of fun. And that’s probably why it’s still evolving and becoming a huger industry because everybody has an opportunity to express themselves in whatever manner they want.
Have you found that since the show has started, people have been more apt to approach you, showing off their tattoos?
People definitely say hello. I think we make it pretty clear that this is a competition, and we’re looking for someone to win $100,000 and earn the title of Ink Master. But in the real world, I don’t scrutinize anybody’s tattoos. Whatever they like is whatever they like. If someone gets a new tattoo and shows it to me, I say “Hey that’s cool. What do you want to do now?” I don’t sit there and look at the line work because their artist isn’t on our show competing.
So you aren’t as critical in your daily life?
Not at all. People ask me what I think, and I’m just like “Yeah that’s cool. Are you happy with it?” And they say yes. And I say, “Then you’re happy with it.”
The one thing I will say after being on the show for six season is I have so much respect for the industry, and seeing just how much goes into all of this. I think we try to show that to America in terms of the artistry, and the work and the attention to detail, and what these artists have put into this craft. It used to be an industry thought that you would walk in and pick something off a wall and put it on and that was that, but it’s far from the case now. I really love that we have given the world an opportunity to see that.
Have you had a lot of people approach you that have Jane’s Addiction tattoos over the years?
I’ve seen a few. The show hasn’t impacted that really. I’ve been seeing that for many years. It’s always such an honor that someone would dedicate their body to work that the four of us did. I love seeing that. There will be a time or two where we’ll be playing a show, and someone will hold up their arm or their back and show us a Jane’s Addiction tattoo, and we think that’s just amazing. We love it.
When you have time, what TV shows do you watch?
I gravitate more towards drama and documentary. I don’t watch a ton of reality. I watch our show because I want to see what’s happening when we’re not with the cast, but for the most part I watch a lot of foreign television, I watch a lot of foreign crime drama. I did watch Mad Men. I watched Better Call Saul, I watched Breaking Bad. I watched those shows. I like a dramatic series that takes its time that really paces itself out that really draws you in. Top of the Lake, Salamander (a French TV Show), The Killing—things of that nature that are slow. Very rarely is it network television. And then I pretty much focus on documentary films as well.
What can you tell us about other projects you have coming up at the moment?
People always ask me that, and I always feel like, “Aren’t I doing enough?” I think that pretty much covers a lot of stuff! But I’m also on tour with Jane’s Addiction when we’re not shooting, so I still have my own creative avenues. It’s fun to be on the show and watch people compete and excel at their craft, but it wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t have my own to go out there and do, so I’m pretty happy to do that. We just finished a leg of touring in the United States, and we’re going back out in July. Between Jane’s Addiction, and Ink Master, and I’m in another band called Royal Machines, and I also just finished a documentary film myself—between those projects I’m pretty full up of things to do, which is why I like to binge watch dramatic series of television when I’m not working. It really is my escape, you know.
Can you tell us anything else about the documentary that you worked on?
It’s a feature-length film that I worked on with my friend Todd Newman. It’s called Mourning Son, and it’s about the murder of my mother, and the impact it had on me. It deals with trauma and loss. So that has been a huge undertaking. We just finished that, and it took about five years to put together, and we’re in talks with distribution right now and ready to make that public. The thing about that film is that I funded and worked on it with my partner Todd, just the two of us. So it took a lot of time and a lot of effort and a lot of money. We shot and filmed everything, so that was a huge undertaking emotionally, and just physically an enormous project for us. I think there’s something in there for everybody because everybody’s dealt with loss of one kind or another. It focuses mainly on trauma and getting past trauma and not letting it dictate the rest of your life. The truth is having the movie become available is the success. I don’t expect to sweep the Oscars and make a financial killing. It’s not about that. A lot of it was just about the cathartic process of making it and just getting it done and trying something new and making a film. It’s no easy task.
Don’t miss the premiere of Ink Master on June 23 at 10/9c on Spike (Ch. 241).