Tattoo artist inks in his future, and TV stint hasn’t hurt
David Bell was “a little bummed” by the way he got kicked off a reality show that awards $100,000 to the person voted best tattoo artist.
But, hey, he knew it was coming. The Stafford County resident admits he did a “not-so-great” tattoo during a competition on the show.
He doesn’t want to whine about it, but he says he was in so much back pain—the result of a motorcycle accident four years ago—that he had to drop his tattoo gun and seek medical help.
That’s not what viewers of the series “Ink Master,” on Spike TV, saw. Episode 3 started with Bell visiting a medical center, showed him rushing through the work and ended with judges telling him he didn’t have what it takes to win.
“I know it’s TV, but the way they edited it is bull” Bell said, except he used the curse word.
In that regard, the show imitates real life. The series bleeps out the four-letter bombs that tattoo artists drop frequently, resulting in dialogue that sounds more like an alarm going off than a conversation.
On the third episode, each artist had to tattoo a geometric design on his or her “human canvas,” and Bell’s guy wanted a spiral.
Judges, fellow contestants and others who got tattoos during the segment criticized Bell for the way he “chewed up” the skin on his client’s right arm, saying his work was bad, aesthetically and technically.
One of the “canvases” even said he was “butchered,” a word no tattoo artist wants associated with his name.
Did being on the show damage Bell’s reputation? Was it so bad that he wanted to close his shop, TLA Tattoo Studio, in Occoquan, and never come near another customer?
“Oh, God, no,” Bell said, two days after the episode aired. “I’m busier now than ever.”
‘HE’S VERY FRIENDLY’
Bell is 41, although he looks younger, and he’s been a professional tattoo artist for 20 years.
His portrait on the show’s website makes him look almost antisocial, but he is just the opposite in person.
“He’s very friendly,” said Jennifer Camacho of Lake Ridge.
She was having him tattoo a dandelion, blowing in the breeze, on her arm, and she said he made her feel comfortable as they discussed the idea.
“He’s obviously very generous with his customers and co-workers,” said Jordan Bruch, his apprentice for two years. “He creates that environment that people are welcome here.”
Bell’s ocean-blue eyes peer out from a face that’s a canvas for tattoos. They run down his cheek and throat, along his forehead and scalp and across the rest of his body. There are so many of them, melded together, it’s hard to pick out distinct images.
When he was younger, he tattooed everywhere he could reach, then let other artists do the rest.
On a cool March day in the shop, he wore a long-sleeve flannel shirt buttoned up to the collar, with long shorts that hung perilously low. The bill of his cap was turned up, along with the eclectic mix of rock music playing in the background.
It’s no secret that tattoo artists tend to be a little more extreme with piercings, body art and wildly colored hair than the average crew of office workers. But even among the 17 artists in the competition, Bell stood out as one of the most heavily tattooed.
Despite his short time on the show, he said it was a great experience. Contestants really liked each other, even though they’re depicted as arch rivals, he said.
He hasn’t been too thrilled with the way the show highlighted the negative and left out a lot of positive interaction, he said.
Still, being around others who express their artistic side with sharp needles and ink was invigorating.
“It reminded me of why I wanted to be a tattoo artist,” he said.
FOUND TRUE LOVE IN EAST
Bell split his younger days between Southern California and Arizona. Later, he tattooed in Hollywood and got addicted to the lifestyle.
“Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” he said. “You can only do that for so long before you have to get out of there.”
He moved to Florida and worked there for a while until he came to Northern Virginia in 2006. He “hated-hated-hated” the rush-rush-rush, and it was a shock to his system, until he met a local girl.
He got a playful gleam in his eyes when he recalled the first thing he noticed about her, and let’s just say it wasn’t her smile.
She thought he was a creep, the way he kept staring. The two met again the following year at the same convention, spent some time together and fell in love.
David and Nicola Bell married five years ago. Her name is above his right eyebrow.
He’s crazy in love with her and her three daughters. Likewise, he’s thrilled that she set him up in business in Occoquan, above an ice cream and coffee shop.
She picked the name, TLA, which stands for True Love Always.
Bell tries to downplay the sentimental definition, smirking as he jokes that it stands for something like “Total Latin Assassins.”
Nicola Bell is at the shop on weekends, and she takes care of the finances.
“I’d like to say I run the creative side of the business, but the truth is, she runs everything,” he said.
A WEST COAST STYLE
Bell is known for his West Coast style of tattooing, which includes a lot of detail in black and gray work and precision lettering.
That’s what caught the eye of Chris Rantamaki, a vice president with Spike TV who was involved with the casting for “Ink Master.” More than 15,000 artists applied for Season 4, he said.
“The No. 1 criteria is always the artwork,” Rantamaki said, adding that “David’s artwork stood out. He brings to the show a West Coast tattoo style that we’ve never had in a contestant before.”
When Bell’s run on the show ended, some viewers said online that Bell got his due. But even more posted comments, such as the one from August McNeal, who wrote it was a shame the “country didn’t get to see more of your work because you are a talented artist. It’s their loss.”
Bell has been working with the “canvas” who got the fateful spiral tattoo. The young man will visit Occoquan from New York twice to get it finished.
Bell hopes to take him, and his completed tattoo, to the live show finale in May in New York City. He wants judges and other artists to see how good the much-maligned tattoo really looks.
“I’m gonna bring him back so I can rub their faces in it,” he said.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425
ABOUT THE SHOW
“Ink Master” is a show on Spike TV that pits tattoo artists against each other in a series of challenges. It airs each Tuesday at 10 p.m.
David Bell says he’s tattooed everyone from White House Secret Service agents to his stepdaughters’ schoolteachers at his shop, TLA Tattoo Studio in Occoquan.
Tattoos are more acceptable than even 10 years ago, he said, when only “gangsters, thugs and hookers” got inked. He has a “heavy, heavy military” clientele, along with professionals such as doctors and lawyers.
Statistics from the Pew Research Center confirm that tattoos have come out of the closet. One in seven Americans of all ages has at least one tattoo, according to a 2013 study.
That’s 45 million people with a fairy or butterfly, girlfriend’s name or tribal image, American flag or Japanese symbol tattooed on themselves.
There are 21,000 tattoo parlors in the country, and Americans spend about $1.65 billion a year on tattoos, the study said.
Thirty-one percent of people said their tattoos make them feel sexy, while 29 percent said it made them feel rebellious. Only 5 percent said a tattoo made them feel more intelligent.