In the same way some people compulsively watch Kardashian programming even though they fully admit that being taped having sex should in no way be a prerequisite to having everything and everyone else in your bloodline taped as well, I often find myself watching tattoo-based reality shows.
The way I see it, of all the genre-specific reality-guilty pleasures to have--bathroom renovation shows, exotic animal wranglers, Wars ranging from “Storage” to “Cupcake” (the war to end all wars, I’m sure)--a tattoo show isn’t as bad as it gets. That HGTV show with the soap star-looking brothers who buy and repair homes that I just call House Hunks is probably the worst, but that’s besides the point.
Black Ink Crew is part of VH1’s current mini-attempt to be become what can crassly be described as “Black Bravo,” since they, too, are following the two-outta-three title formula of location, occupation, and marital relation, then making a show out of it. So far, they’ve pretty much skipped the location option and stuck to the other two (Basketball Wives, Love & Hip-Hop, Wicked Single, since being “wicked” anything is kind of a job), and they’ve also skipped the Bravo bonus round of having the name of the show be at least partially inaccurate. After all, most of the “housewives” have businesses and are in most ways fake, but that has nothing to do with Black Ink Crew, which, in so many ways, keeps it all too real.
The show is about a tattoo shop in Harlem, and its main draw is the likability of many of its cast members. There is one token crazy person in the form of the shop’s ex-receptionist, Alex, but her mental illness goes so far beyond your average reality show agitator that she really belongs on A&E. But almost everyone else, from the shop’s sometimes-manager, Sassy, to the confoundingly named tattoo artist O’Shit--as in, “top of the mornin’ to ya, Patty O’Shit”--is appealing on some level. Duchess, a crazy-pretty southern tattoo artist now involved with the shop’s owner, Ceasar, is especially confounding since she’s got a relatable vulnerability and a terrifying temper at the same time, like a fuzzy, kewpie-eyed cobra.
The problem with the show, first and foremost, is the same as it is with most reality shows, tattoo shows in particular: it suffers from that infuriating, quasi-lobotomy structure, where the action is frequently interrupted by confessionals explaining exactly what the viewer has just seen. For example, a customer comes in and says, “I want a tattoo of a fish.” We then cut to a confessional of the artist, who explains, almost as if he were creating a radio play of what we’ve just seen moments before, how the guy came in and how he wants a tattoo of a fish and how he’s going to give him said tattoo, so we don’t die of shock when it happens a nanosecond later.
There aren’t that many tattoos actually given on Black Ink Crew, but there is plenty of that needless exposition. What there isn’t, however, is a weekly imaginary crisis and resolution, like most other shows have, e.g., will Buddy overcome the side of his doorway to get the giant cake into the wedding (he will!), will Nene’s party be ruined by a fight (it will, just as it should!), or, who will win the cupcake wars (vanilla, sleep well at night!). On Black Ink Crew, nobody can get their shit together, which is equal parts enduring and irritating; as stupid as those invented high stakes situations are on other shows, they’d be slightly more stupid if Buddy couldn’t overcome his cursed doorway and ended up demoted to Cake Night Manager.
The staff at Black Ink fucks up on a near-weekly basis, for incredibly stupid reasons, like O’Shit tanks his weekend subbing for Ceasar as boss because he got pulled over while driving his girlfriend’s car and she didn’t mention the gun she had under the front seat, and O’Shit hadn’t heard “99 Problems” enough to know the laws around search and seizure. O’Shit had already been fired once before and lost his home and custody of his daughter, and now he might go to jail because Black Ink Crew doesn’t seem to respect The Black Album. When a show features people being stupid, even if they’re not bad people, but also treats the viewer like they’re stupid (“When I look at this tattoo, I’m going to think of fish”), it’s hard to stomach.
I know most reality shows fall under the I Will Watch Anything banner, but for the reasons described above, Black Ink Crew can feel especially challenging. I’ll still keep watching, however, if only because I fear what Duchess will do to me if I stop.