Ink Master Winner Bobby Johnson From Skating to Prison Tattoos, Unveiling His Artistic Journey


Local tattoo artist Bobby Johnson has made it farther than he ever expected, not only finding his way onto this year’s season of Ink Master but winning the competition. However, he was not interested in tattoos when he was younger. For a young Johnson, it was all about skating and spending time with his friends. When his uncle Frank came back from prison during Johnson’s teen years, the first thing he did was offer Johnson and his cousin prison tattoos. This was the first time Johnson had considered getting a tattoo, and, out of impulse, he said yes. Upon learning that Johnson enjoyed drawing, his uncle taught him how to make a tattoo machine from a guitar string, a cassette player and a pen. He remembers using this machine to make his first tattoos but recalls that they were horrible. Building the machine with his uncle ignited Johnson’s interest in becoming a tattoo artist. 

“Skateboarding had a big to do with my tattooing because my first tattoo was [inspired by pro skater] Adrian Lopez’s skull and cross bones,” Johnson says, gesturing to the space below the bend in each of his elbows. “I just thought [tattoos] were the coolest thing.” 

“I just thought [tattoos] were the coolest thing.”

Johnson first became involved with an actual tattoo shop when he was just 17. When he went to a shop with friends, the artist tattooing them invited him back after the shop had closed and let him use some of his professional gear to tattoo himself. “It was crazy,” Johnson says. “And it sucked. It came out awful.” That same artist offered him an apprenticeship that quickly fell through, but Johnson already knew that he ultimately wanted to tattoo forever.

After his apprenticeship ended and he got a job at a refinery, Johnson’s tattoo coverage on his own body expanded rapidly, and he began intensive artistic research. Johnson would go to the local Barnes & Noble and scour through tattoo and skating magazines such as Thrasher and Juxtapoz Magazine, looking for inspiration for his drawings and learning about various tattoo styles. Incidentally, one of his other foundational magazines was SLUG. “When I got into tattoo shops … I would look through [SLUG’s] ads and google the shops, and I would get inspired from those shops,” he says. 

Johnson attributes his style to Czech painter and illustrator Alfons Mucha. Mucha’s influence is evident in Johnson’s recent work—the distinct black outlines and soft dimensional colours of Johnson’s Neo-traditional style closely resemble Mucha’s art nouveau work. “I’ve always been attracted to timeless things,” he says. “I think Alfons is probably the master because his artwork and style will hold up forever, and it stands out.”

Johnson’s journey onto Ink Master took much longer than expected. He was approached online around the show’s eighth or ninth season, but after beginning the process, he dropped out because he didn’t feel ready. Each year, the casting agency would check in with Johnson, and he turned them down for a while, even suggesting other tattoo artists that he thought would be a better fit than him, some of whom ended up on the show.

When he got the call this year,  he knew he was finally ready to take the competition on. Johnson primarily focused on the logistic preparations, so he didn’t have time to consider how he would perform in the competition, who he’d be competing against or how the competition would alter his view of tattooing.

Johnson sighed when I asked what it was like to have his art judged on TV. “Getting your work judged there is one thing,” he says. “It sucks. They don’t show everything on [Ink Master], but they pick [the tattoos] apart. It’s brutal—everyone is up there for 40 minutes, and then they show eight seconds on TV.” Ink Master’s narrative agenda and selective editing meant that feedback from the judges skewed to appear more damaging in the final cut, even if the actual critique was much more positive. Johnson’s TV persona received polarizing attention from audiences, not only concerning his tattoos but also about his personality. He felt lucky to be both hated and loved—it meant he was making an impression with his craft and as a person.

“It’s brutal—everyone is up there for 40 minutes, and then they show eight seconds on TV.”

Johnson says he learned far more about tattooing from his fellow contestants than from the direct judging. He explicitly mentions Freddie Albrighton, Jon Mesa and Charlene Ngo as artists he learned from because their approaches differed. Johnson believes these artists leaned into their intuition, whereas he leaned more into drafting and thinking things over until they were perfect. The other competitors also had pure skill and style differences that taught Johnson to approach simple things in new ways. In the end, one of the most important things to come of Ink Master for Johnson was a close friendship with another artist named Bryan Black. When they met on the show, they instantly hit it off, so the producers quickly paired them into a group dubbed “The Good Time Boys.” “We talk every day,” says Johnson. “We became best friends.”

Ink Master finished filming in June, meaning that Johnson has known the show’s results for half a year, but when I mentioned the finale, he was sure to say as little as possible. He said he had to get good at deflecting any questions about the show’s results. When I asked how it felt to wrap up a big project like that, Johnson said, “I won’t ever feel lucky, not only for the opportunity but [because] the experience is so cool. You get so close to everyone else that’s there.”

“I won’t ever feel lucky, not only for the opportunity but [because] the experience is so cool. You get so close to everyone else that’s there.”

Stream the Ink Master season finale on Paramount Plus to watch Bobby Johnson’s victory, and check out more of his artwork and tattoos @glendalebully on Instagram. If you want to learn more about Johnson or potentially book with him, check out his website,

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