Philadelphia-area tattoo artist competing on 'Ink Masters'

At the Willow Grove shop, O'Neill (right) works on Pupo's arm. Before turning to tattoo artistry, O'Neill attended the University of the Arts and worked as an illustrator.
At the Willow Grove shop, O'Neill (right) works on Pupo's arm. Before turning to tattoo artistry, O'Neill attended the University of the Arts and worked as an illustrator.
Posted: January 17, 2012

If you're looking to put an indelible Chinese character on your shoulder blade, or the simulacrum of a strand of barbed wire around your bicep, pretty much any tattoo parlor will do.

But if you want a lifelike portrait of Polish military hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko on your chest, or a stunning recreation of comedy/tragedy theater masks on your forearm, you'll want to seek out master artisan Shane O'Neill at one of his two shops, in Willow Grove or Middletown, Del.

At the moment, there's an eight-month waiting list for O'Neill's services. That delay will doubtless grow longer after the debut Tuesday night of Ink Master on Spike.

O'Neill is one of 10 elite tattoo artists competing in this new reality show hosted by satanic rocker Dave Navarro.

The contestants live together in a house in New York and take part in a series of skill challenges, many of them involving live subjects (the show refers to them as "human canvases.") Someone is eliminated in each episode until the winner is crowned Ink Master and awarded $100,000.

The program is another indication of just how accepted body art has become in this country in the last few decades.

"When I started out 40 years ago," says "Shanghai Kate" Hellenbrand, 70, a legendary figure in the field now based in Austin, Tex., "drunken sailors and fallen women were the only people who got tattoos. Now, everybody is getting them. The fastest-growing demographic is people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s."

The tattoo demimonde has been mapped out often on basic cable, on shows including Miami Ink and Inked, but this is the first time a competitive twist, à la Top Chef, has been introduced to the mix.

"It was a no-brainer for us," says Chris Rantamaki, VP of original series at Spike.

"Our whole channel is built on two guys walking into a ring, punching each other in the head and seeing who comes out," he says, referring to Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts. "So, stakes are big for us. People getting their appearance permanently altered? It's hard to imagine stakes bigger than that."

Ink Master was taped last summer. It's now a cold afternoon in January and O'Neill, 40, is parrying questions designed to reveal how close he came to winning.

"You're not going to get it out of me," he says, laughing. He gestures with the tattoo machine in his hand at the staff and hangers-on at his Willow Grove shop and says, "These guys kept plying me with drinks over the New Years, trying to get me to tell, but I wouldn't."

During the entire interview, O'Neill is laboring intently over a client's sizable forearm, grafting a Mexican death skull onto the image of a pinup model's face. The constantly whirring needle, used to break the skin so the ink can penetrate, makes it sound as if there is an enormous, very determined mosquito in the room.

Most commissions can be completed in one marathon sitting, but if someone flies in from out of town (as happens with increasing frequency) with an ambitious design, it may be broken down over two or even three sessions.

And to think, it's a career O'Neill stumbled upon quite by accident.

Growing up the oldest of three children in a broken home in Alden, he showed artistic promise from an early age. After finishing at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne, he had decided on a pragmatic career in custom cabinetmaking.

But family and friends were adamant that he would not be doing justice to his considerable talent and persuaded him to enroll at the University of the Arts in Center City.

After graduating in 1994, he went to work as an illustrator in Langhorne. A few years later, his brother and a couple of friends asked him to give them tattoos. They secured the equipment.

"I was good at anything artistic, so they assumed I would be able to pick up the tool and be good at it," he says. "It's a really bad assumption, but it worked out."

Despite his unexpected aptitude, O'Neill had an infant daughter and little desire to enter into what he then considered to be the seedy realm of tattooing.

But after three years of working with the deadline stress and relative isolation of illustrating, O'Neill found himself attracted to the conviviality and relaxed atmosphere of the tattoo parlor. He apprenticed himself at a shop in Norwood.

"In the beginning I was doing a lot of black and gray horror stuff, which was very popular then," he says, applying and blotting ink from his client's arm. "But I was always drawn to realism.

"Every tattoo I gave 100 percent and quickly got a good reputation. It steamrolled from there."

He wasn't above a canny bit of self-promotion. He stockpiled 30 photos of his most impressive work, including numerous of his vivid signature portraits, and sent them off to the influential Skin Art magazine.

A splashy article followed, and O'Neill was an overnight star.

"It blew up more than I thought," he says. "It was hard for me to get a booth at [tattoo] conventions back then. All of a sudden, I was on the circuit. They were calling me to offer me space."

His flair for portraiture has become so renowned that some people are eager make themselves into walking O'Neill galleries.

"One kid I did a leg sleeve for that had Steve Irwin [the Crocodile Hunter], Bob Roth [TV painting teacher], Abe Lincoln, Julius Caesar, and Hugh Hefner. It seemed so random, but these are people he really respects for various reasons.

"There's this girl who loves movies and music who sends me lists with ideas that are always cool," O'Neill enthuses. "I did Albert Einstein for her and Steve Buscemi from The Big Fish and John Turturro as Jesus [complete with bowling ball] from The Big Lebowski. I did a portrait of Vincent Price on her thigh, and now she wants Humphrey Bogart next to it."

Sure, O'Neill can do living likenesses that will make your eyes pop out. But does he have the stuff to win Ink Master?

Loose lips get tattooed.


To see a video of tattoo artist Shane O'Neill at work and hear him talk about tattooing, go to www.philly.com/phillyink


Contact television writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552, dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or @daveondemand_tv on Twitter. Read his blog, "Dave on Demand," at www.philly.com/dod.

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