Entering Ink Master season 11, Christian Buckingham has the reputation as one of the best artists to never win. He also happens to be one of the most strategic players in the history of the series. He isn’t afraid to think outside the box, make alliances, or do what he can to get an advantage.
With him being a coach this time around it’s fair to say that things could change. Christian now has the tough task of trying to guide along a group of other artists on their road to victory and at times, that is going to be a challenge. That is something that Christian himself told us in a new exclusive CarterMatt interview previewing the season, in addition to discussing his life, his career, his competition with Cleen Rock One, and also his philosophy now on being a part of the franchise after what is now his third appearance.
CarterMatt – Back when you were first starting out in this industry, could you ever even fathom your life being what it is right now?
Christian Buckingham – It’s kind of the opposite of what I came up on. I came up in a real old-school biker shop and change in tattooing was very much frowned upon. Up until about five years ago, I wouldn’t have even thought about going on TV for tattooing. As a matter of fact, I even slapped one of my apprentices for saying that he wanted to be on TV years ago (laughs).
So what changed for you then?
I think the industry changed. You get older, you start looking at things differently, and I realized that I didn’t want to be some outlaw rebel kid my whole life. I think the changes in the industry ended up being really positive. It became more artistic, it became more open to the public, more professional, and the more that started happening, the more I liked it and the more I realized those old days are gone and you can either adapt or die. You see that a lot — you see a lot of old-timers not adapting and they’re just over.
It’s fine by me. I like things a lot better now. People don’t have guns in tattoo shops anymore and people aren’t running drugs out of the back (laughs). It’s a really positive thing now.
I think one of the things that’s really interesting about you is that I feel like we could put you on any different competition show out there, even ones that aren’t about tattooing, and I feel like you’d figure it out. You have a mind for all of the inner machinations and strategy and whatnot. Is that something that you ever imagined being a part of your skill set?
Oh yeah! One of the things that attracted me to Ink Master is that I’m a massive Survivor fan. I’ve watched every single season. I love playing chess and I love strategy games. With Ink Master, it occurred to me that nobody ever utilizes those tools in the competition. They just go in and tattoo, but there are all these tools set up to your advantage and people just go in and don’t see that. This is just Survivor with tattoos and I found that really appealing.
When people approach you on the street, which I’m assuming they do since you’re fairly recognizable, do they expect the Ink Master persona of Christian, the guy who is super-aggressive and hyper-competitive? Or, do they think that you’re not exactly who they expect you to be just because of the projection that they see on TV?
I get it both ways. I get a lot of people who come up and think I’m going to be some a–hole and they say ‘oh, you’re actually really nice in real life.’ Then, there are the other people who think that I just tell it like it is on TV, and that’s how I am in real life. I don’t think I’m that different in real life; I just yell at people because I’m trying to take $100 grand from you.
Ink Master is like athletics in that way where you’re in the moment and you’re doing things with a big amount of money at the end of it. Obviously, you’re going to act a little different than you would be at your shop.
Sure, absolutely. But I’m also still pretty outspoken and blunt in person. That isn’t all that different in real life.
What was the process like for setting all this up? This time around, what did they come to you with? Was it just the pitch of Cleen vs. Christian?
The fans kind of started a social-media campaign. We were just seeing all of these people saying ‘hey, when are we going to see these guys compete?’ and Cleen and I fed into that a little bit. I had a feeling there was going to be something. Personally, I just felt like we were going to do a one-hour special, especially after season 9, where people really wanted to see me and Cleen go head to head in the finale.
The fan response was so big that they said ‘hey, you know what? Let’s just do a full season.’ When they approached us about it, I was like ‘yeah, of course.’ Why wouldn’t I?
Do you love the sort of professional-wrestling aspect part of this, where you and Cleen get to constantly go at each other and cutting each other promos? Is that a fun experience to play?
(Laughs) Yeah, totally. I like Cleen and I think he’s a great guy. I do think of him as a friend, but we are competitive and we’re like that anyway. We get into it! It’s just like watching boxers or anyone else when they are in a competitive setting. But in real life? Yeah, I’d go out for sushi with Cleen any time — and I’ll buy, after I kick his ass (laughs).
What’s interesting about this premise is that you’re in the middle of having to be entertaining, but also try to evaluate art and figure out what sort of people you want to gravitate to. When you see people in an environment, whether it be the first challenge on Ink Master or in real life, what appeals to you? Are there things you draw inspiration from and do some of those things fuel your own creativity?
I like people who think outside the box, but really art is art and tattooing is a little bit different. One thing I don’t love about the industry today is that everyone is an art snob and it’s all about their signature. My outside art is very different from what I tattoo. I tattoo what my client wants. It’s about the client, not me. If I want to have some sort of signature as an artist, I’m more interested in doing that outside tattooing. I’ll tattoo a name on somebody, I don’t care. I do what’s best for a client and what they want. I’m not trying to just show the world who I am, and that’s something that in tattooing today is being lost a little bit. With tattooers, it’s more about them and not as much about a client.
So what really inspires me today are people who are humble in the industry and work hard. I like artists who are big names, but not afraid to do a small tattoo. That’s real tattooing in its essence — a guy who is booked out for six months, but is not afraid to do a butterfly on somebody. I think that’s cool.
Has your clientele changed significantly? I know you were successful before the show, but do you get a lot of people coming in now because they saw you on the show?
Oh yeah. 80% of my clientele is probably people flying in from out of state and out of country. A lot of fans, which is great. They’re awesome and I love tattooing them.
And you like a lot of the interactivity that comes with that and being recognizable?
Sure, you can get recognized everywhere you go, but it’s fun. It’s cool when I’m hanging out with my grandson at the mall and someone stops me. He thinks it’s super-cool. We get just the perfect level of famous — I can go out and have dinner with my wife and not get mobbed, but I get a free beer here and there (laughs).
Is there a protective sort of nature to this season, where you’ve got these people working with you as their mentor and you want to stand up for them?
Yeah. I think that was one of the hardest things for me. You’re super-loyal to your team and you want to fight for them no matter what. That’s just what you do; you want to fight for them in that setting. I’ll say that there were a couple of times where I would’ve made a different choice if that person wasn’t on my team. I don’t feel like 100% of the time I was fighting for the best tattoo, and I struggled with that a little bit ethically. I looked at things a couple of times and wondered if I was standing up for the right guy. That was an interesting dynamic this season — being responsible for other people and speaking up for a tattoo you knew wasn’t deserving. That threw a lot of interesting twists in.
One of the other twists this season that probably appeals the most to you is the money either you or Cleen can win at the end of this. Is that something you thought about or is it something that you just kicked down the road, since it didn’t really matter until you get to the finale?
Yeah, I totally did. I wasn’t worried about that. I was more worried about trying to be a good coach and the people who were on my team. I wanted to make sure that the people on my team were going to have the best experience possible, because I knew me and Cleen were going head to head either way. Worst-case scenario, I have some disadvantages but I still get the chance to tattoo no matter what.
I know you were a coach in the tattooing sense, but did you find yourself also being a coach in the sense of teaching everyone about how there were going to be some really long days on the show and how they could prepare for it?
I think that was more of what we were coaching — how to deal with the pressure, how the system works, and what you can expect and how to deal with it. These people all know how to tattoo, and even if they didn’t you’re not going to teach somebody how to be a better tattooer in a couple of weeks.
Is there anything you learned from being there that you didn’t have a chance to previously?
For sure. It was actually kind of weird, man. I think it’s really easy to get caught up in the TV hoopla, but I see a lot of people who have been a part of it and it changes them. I didn’t want to be changed. The truth is this time I’m excited for the season, but I’m going to sit at home, watch it with my wife, and enjoy it with my family, and I’m not doing a lot of promotional stuff. I think I’ve realized that I’ve gotten what I need from all of this and I’m going to go back to my roots a little bit and get a little more grounded.
I just see a lot of people who let it go to their head. I don’t want to be that guy. I’ve enjoyed the whole ride and it’s great, but to tell you the truth, instead of just catering to bigger and bigger clients, now I’m just setting aside one day a week to just do walk-ins and do little tattoos. Make fans happy, and just go back to being a regular tattooer.
Of course, there is a part of me that would love to see you on another show or be like ‘let’s get Christian on Survivor’, but everything that you just said makes perfect sense.
I think you have to be careful. I see a lot of people who want to go back all the time and what it is is that you’re craving the attention. If you’re going for the fun and the experience of it, that’s a healthy thing. But, if you’re going because you’re unhappy not having the attention that you had, that’s unhealthy. I see that a lot. Every time I go out there are former contestants who say ‘hey, put in a good word. I want to get back on.’ It’s not a career move because they’re already successful. You get this little taste of celebrity and you’re a big deal for a minute, but that goes away pretty quickly. I think if you don’t have a healthy life outside of the show it can be unhealthy for people.
For me, I have a great life. My kids are all grown up, I’ve been married eighteen years, and I’m not craving attention. I’ve done Ink Master because I enjoy the experience and for me, after this I’m not saying I would never do anything again or I wouldn’t do Survivor. I just want to take some time and remember where I come from and get myself grounded. I want to remember that I’m doing things for fun and experience rather than just because I need it. You know what I mean?
Yeah, I do, and I think that’s better in the long run than somebody who is just begging to go on next season.
So as we wrap up and we look towards this season, whether they are longtime fans of Ink Master or they just like you, what are they going to see?
I think they’ll see a different side of me. I know that I generally come across as really competitive and aggressive and that’s real true, but I’m also a big family man and a really loyal person. I think the cool thing about this year was that I got really attached to my team and I cared about them a lot. I think that will definitely come across.
We want to give a special thank you to Christian for sharing his time with us and for a great interview. Remember that Ink Master season 11 (subtitled Ink Master: Grudge Match) will premiere on the Paramount Network Tuesday night at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time.
Let us know in the comments if you’re rooting for Christian and his team on Ink Master this season!
Meanwhile, be sure to like CarterMatt on Facebook to check out even more updates regarding the show. (Photo: Paramount Network.)