With “Ink Master: Grudge Match” (10 p.m. Tuesday, Paramount Network), Las Vegan DJ Tambe is making his fourth appearance in the franchise. That’s a pretty remarkable achievement considering the tattoo-competition series didn’t even want him in the first place.
After missing the cut for the show’s second season in 2013, he went on A&E’s short-lived rival competition, “Best Ink,” where he was the runner-up.
“That kinda kick-started my TV career,” says Tambe, 38. It took a few years, but he eventually made it on “Ink Master” en route to becoming the show’s first two-time champ in 2017 and 2018.
Now he’s joining the judging panel for “Grudge Match,” alongside his friend and fellow Las Vegas-based tattoo artist Cleen Rock One.
“I’m ready for whatever they ask me for,” Tambe says of the “Ink Master” producers. “I’m totally into this type of stuff, so I’ll do it anytime they ask me.”
‘All up from there’
Growing up in Rochester, New York, Tambe had some leftover ink from art class, so he started giving himself and his friends hand-poked tattoos. He soon made his own tattoo machine and expanded his clientele.
“I was a young skater, punk, hip-hop kid,” he recalls. “Had older friends. Some of them had tattoos already. Just that scene alone made me kinda wanna get involved. I’ve been drawing since I fell out of my mother.”
At 17, he went into a local shop armed with some sketches, then spent six hours tattooing a friend as an audition for the owner.
“He ended up putting me on skin the next day, and there was a line out the door,” Tambe says. “That’s kinda where my career started, doing $25 tattoos, as many as I can remember, every day of my life.”
In Rochester, though, he says he was “super heavy into drugs,” including heroin and crack, and had to get out of town. His “big Italian family” intervened and sent him to rehab in Arizona for two months.
Shortly after that, around 2006, he moved to Las Vegas and got a job at Bad Apple Tattoo, where, despite having opened his own shops in Arizona and Tennessee, he still works. Bad Apple’s now-shuttered second location was across from a strip club, which led to a relapse.
“Then I went to jail for a little bit. After that, that was it,” Tambe says. “That was 11 years ago. After that, sittin’ in there, I didn’t wanna go there ever again. That kinda straightened me up. Met my wife 11 years ago. She straightened me out, too. It was all up from there.”
‘He’s a teddy bear’
“Grudge Match” gives past “Ink Master” contestants the chance to call out rivals they feel have slighted them, then challenge them to a two-stage competition. There’s a 90-minute speed round that challenges the artists to perform faster than they ever have — which is exactly what you want to hear when you’re on the receiving end of a tattoo — followed by a six-hour job to show off their true skills.
After having competed as part of a two-person team, as a coach, and as a returning solo artist, it’s Tambe’s first time judging the works of others. Along with Season 8 champ Ryan Ashley, he’s joined by his friend Cleen — aka James Steinke — whom he met at an art show seven years ago.
“I mean, I’ve known of Cleen for a long time. I’ve been tattooing for 20-something years, and he was in the magazines when I was starting out. His name’s always been around,” Tambe says. “I’ve always looked up to him. We just hit it off. … He’s a teddy bear, that dude.”
‘Changed my whole life’
With two locals serving as judges and a rich history of other competitors from the valley, Las Vegas tattoo artists clearly have made their mark on “Ink Master,”
“I think Vegas makes for good TV, period,” Tambe says. “A lot of characters out here. A lot of personality. … What is there, 400-something shops out here? It’s ridiculous. There’s just tons of tattooers. I think it’s just the excitement, and it brings a character out of you, Vegas.”
Spend even a couple of minutes speaking with Tambe, and it’s easy to see why he makes himself available whenever “Ink Master” calls.
“Paramount and ‘Ink Master’ have changed my whole life. … I know that huge group of people is always there for me.
“The amount of kids and people that hit me up and say I inspire them, like, that’s crazy for me,” Tambe continues. “To even be in that scene and be in that position, it’s nuts. Because, like I said, I was sittin’ in jail. I was smokin’ (expletive) rock. To inspire kids and to be in this position now? That’s what they did for me.”