Ink Master interview: Cleen Rock One talks season 11, coaching, and his career path

Cleen -Cleen Rock One is an Ink Master icon – there’s no getting around it. He is returning to season 11 after being on the fifth, seventh, and ninth seasons of the show, and is renowned as a new-school artist and being one of the show’s most-outspoken characters. He’s been able to leverage the series into a brand for himself (his tattoo shop in Las Vegas is even called “Golden Skull Tattoo”) and with that, changed his career dramatically where he has more flexibility and freedom to live his life. He’s a pensive guy who straddles the line between who he is and the presentation of him on the show.

This season, Cleen’s role is a little bit different. Alongside two-season veteran Christian Buckingham, he is working to lead a team of first-time artists towards the end of the competition and the grand prize. Not only that, but he and Christian have their own $100,000 that they will be battling for. It’s a different style of game play and with that there are different expectations, and these are among the things that we spoke with Cleen about in this exclusive CarterMatt interview. It’s a look at both Cleen the artist and Ink Master star, but then also the person that exists outside the show and away from the cameras.

CarterMatt – How do you feel leading up to the premiere of some of these seasons? You know a lot about what happens, but you don’t know about how you’re going to be presented.

Cleen Rock One – Yeah, I’m always a little nervous that I’m gonna just look like an a–hole. It’s … whatever, good or bad. I’m still on TV, I guess.

Do you think that there is a different presentation of you versus how you are in real life? I don’t mean that in the sense that you’re being edited incorrectly, but do people come up to you expecting you to be the same Cleen Rock One they’ve seen on the show?

100%. I’m super-chill. I hear it everyday with people being like ‘oh my god, you’re so nice,’ then I’m just always like ‘yeah, of course.’ I think I just come across as cocky, confident, s–t talking dude on TV.

I think it’s just that Ink Master is a super-competitive environment where adrenaline runs high and inevitably, you’re gonna be more competitive than when you’re doing a tattoo at your shop or at a convention.

Oh yeah. I would never sit there and judge somebody’s tattoo like we do. I would never do that.

Back when you first started in this industry, I can’t imagine you thought your life would it be what it is now. Did you have have any aspirations for what you thought it could be?

I don’t know. I just thought I was going to do tattoos and work on hot rods. That’s still what I do now. I probably tattoo the least amount now. The whole TV thing is cool. I love it.

I would presume that a big difference now would be that you would be totally booked up now, whereas before you would take on more of things as they’d come in.

Well, I’ve been tattooing for 22 years and long before the internet, I was in every tattoo magazine. Back in the 2000’s, I was booked for a year solid. That sucked. That’s not fun at all. You’re constantly grinding and you’re drawing every single night before. Then, when your kids get sick you have to cancel on them because you’re sick and then you have to reschedule and you end up having to tattoo on your days off because they’re pissed off. They are like ‘I’ve been waiting six months to get tattooed, and now I have to reschedule?’

Now, I can tell you that I have zero tattoos on my books. I’ve been doing walk-ins. The last two tattoos that I’ve done were just walk-ins. I was just at the shop, somebody walked in and wanted a picture. They asked ‘are you tattooing?’ and I was like ‘could be, what do you want?’. They [tell me] and I’m like ‘cool, let’s do it.’

Is that fun to just be in the moment?

It’s fun not being nailed to the man. When you make an appointment six months in advance your life has to be there for that person in six months. That sucks. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in six months. I could be riding my bike on the beach up and down the coast. I could be drag-racing somewhere. My life doesn’t resolve around tattooing — it does because it makes me money, but I have other things going on. I book out a month in advance, maybe, and that’s it.

Ink Master has changed my life because I’m now internet-famous. You get famous, but that doesn’t pay. You get tons of followers on Instagram and everybody knows you, and you go to the airport and stop to take fifty pictures. You sign autographs and that’s awesome, but I don’t have Brad Pitt money. That’s what I’m shooting for.

This is a different season for you than the ones before. You’re not going to be eliminated midway through and you don’t have to worry about any of that. You have this promise that either you or Christian is going to walk out of there with $100,000.

I think an interesting comparison to the the season’s theme, this rivalry is professional wrestling where you’re all these larger-than-life characters going at each other.

That’s it. 100%. I tell people that every day. Like, everybody wants to talk s–t about St. Marq from the show, saying that he’s such an a–hole, but who else on the whole entire series do you remember that got kicked off sixth? How about on season 5? Who stood next to me in the finale? Me, Jason Clay Dunn, and another guy. I ask people that and they can’t remember [the third guy]. The guy made it all the way to the finale and nobody remembers his name! Nobody talks about him. He’s never mentioned and he’s done. Disappeared. St. Marq played a character to make sure everybody remembered him and it worked. You’re still talking about St. Marq and he’s the only person in the history of the show who got kicked off sixth and you still talk about him. St. Marq did his job.

It is like pro wrestling in that I’m trying to give the camera what they want, but there is truth to the tattooing. If you f–k the tattoo, you’re going home. But, then again, I see a lot of good tattooers get sent home over ones I feel should’ve been sent home. It’s TV, so I just let it unfold any way that I let it unfold. In the past I would be like ‘I can’t believe this, I can’t believe that, like, what the f–k?’ but now I’m just like ‘f–k it.’ You can do the best tattoo you’ve ever done and the judges could still]rip it apart, but then you can do a really sh–ty tattoo that you think is mediocre and they praise you like you just invented black ink.

Now that I’ve been on there, I get it, but going back there and being a coach was a lot harder. In season 5, everyone wanted to just make good TV. We f—ed around, had a lot of fun, and that’s just what it was. In season 7, it was half and half. The veterans all knew the show, but the new guys were all super-serious about it. Season 9 was pretty fun, but to get back to the coach thing, it was hard because I didn’t have anything to argue about other than what my team was producing. Sometimes, my team would produce something that I couldn’t argue about — it was pretty f—ed up (laughs). Then, they would get mad at me because I’m not defending them, but their ass is on the line. It was definitely a lot harder being a coach.

When you are looking around at some of the art and the talent this season, what inspires you? Is there something that you gravitate towards?

If I see someone with a tattoo, you can tell a good quality one from just a street shop. It’s a tough question, and I don’t really know how to answer it. Quality is quality. I have styles that I like more than others.

Well, I would gather from just talking to you that you are able to recognize quality, and maybe just seeing some of that and some of their creativity helps in turn to fuel you.

I get a lot of my influence outside of tattooing, just because I feel like the whole industry is just really repetitive. There’s nothing original about tattooing. Everything that has been done in tattooing is just copy, copy copy. I know there are people who are like ‘oh my god, this person is so original,’ but I’m just like ‘not really. You kind of copied the style from this guy.’ For example, I love Robert Williams. I think he’s an awesome painter and he has a lot of painting that I just like in terms of style and subject matter. I like a lot of low-brow art.

What was the overall experience like this season? Was it what you expected going it?

Yeah. You’re away from your family and your everyday life, and you’re there to do a job and try to make good TV. There were a lot of times I didn’t feel like I was making good TV (laughs), like I didn’t f—king fight or argue with anybody that day. I felt like I wasn’t the super-aggro guy people always want. It was just really hard to get into the mode that I’m usually in.

I know there are a lot of people who follow your social media and keep up with you now. Do you like that part of the experience?

I like interacting with my fans and it’s great. Here’s what’s difficult — I’m a super-humble dude and I honestly don’t think my tattoos are that good. I just think they’re mediocre, decent tattoos. But, people put me on this pedestal where they say ‘you’re the best in the world!’ (laughs) and I’m like ‘do you not have the internet? What is going on here? Why do you think I’m the best?’. But, after talking to them, I realize that their mind just clicks with my artwork, which is just essentially what I do. I know guys who aren’t the best tattooers in the world, but when I look at the art that they do, because of the originality of it and because of the subject matter, I think that they’re the best in the world. Then I tell myself ‘now I get it.’ They like that what I do and what I produce is right up their alley. I get that, but sometimes I question them since there are people who do this s–t way better than me.

Related Check out more Ink Master interviews, including our interview with Christian


Thanks to Cleen Rock One for such a fun, candid interview! Remember that Ink Master season 11 (subtitled Ink Master: Grudge Match) premieres on the Paramount Network Tuesday night at 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

Let us know in the comments if you’re rooting for Cleen on Ink Master this season!

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