Running Diary: Tattoo Highway, Episode 1

The truth is, until I interviewed L.A. Ink’s Kim Saigh a while back, I had never watched any of the tattoo-based reality shows. Whoops. I wasn’t boycotting them or anything—it just came down to the fact that I plain didn’t have the time in my day. I mean, really, between six hours every morning of SportsCenter, the mandatory Coronation Street marathon and praying five times daily to my DVDs of The Wire, where was I supposed to squeeze in the exploits of Kat Von D or whoever?

When I finally got around to watching some episodes, however, for work, my verdict was…they were mostly harmless. As Saigh and I discussed (and which has come up several times since then), my main gripe with this kind of programming is the message, whether intentional or not, is that not only must every tattoo have a particularly “deep” meaning, but that certain events or situations must be commemorated with a tattoo. Someone dies? Get a tattoo. Your boyfriend leaves you for, I don’t know, a grizzly bear? Get a tattoo. You quit drinking booze, only to have a meteorite fall to earth and lodge itself in your brain? Oh, you better believe that’s a tattoo.

With all that said, A&E just premiered a brand new tattoo reality show, Tattoo Highway starring Thomas Pendleton (formerly of Inked), which we poked a little fun at when it was first announced:

The bus angle worked wonders for Bret Michaels and his skank-banging, so it should really come as no surprise that others are picking up on this as the next big thing. I see big, big things for the future of reality television—big, bus-related things.


[The network is] shamelessly hyping what is by far the worst part of these tattoos shows—namely, that great tattoos must have some big and important story behind them—but man, how exciting does he think a husband and wife going on a road trip is going to be, vocation notwithstanding? Are they going to be chased by land pirates? Did Dennis Hopper plant a bomb on the bottom of the bus that’ll explode if the speed falls below 50 mph?

Me-ow, right? Well, I decided that if I’m going to be a dick about it, I may as well give the damn thing a shot. We’re a week behind, so let’s get caught up with a good old-fashioned running diary of the premiere! (The third and fourth episodes aired last night, so we’ll try to cover those on the weekend so we’re all on the same page for next week.) Will it be funny? Will we cry? Who knows! We can guarantee one thing, though: Get ready for a whole lot of words.

00:30 — I’m trying to come into this free of expectations and prejudices, but in the 30 seconds it’s taken to go over the introduction to the episode (the series premiere, keep in mind), Thomas has been called a flirt, has been seen cursing out his old high school and told an old man he can mix the man’s wife’s ashes into tattoo ink. A&E! REAL LIFE. DRAMA.

00:45 — “I hear peoples’ stories all day long, but I’m an artist. I want to see it! I want to experience it! I want to taste it! I want to buy it a nice steak dinner! I want to light some candles and give it a body massage, with expensive oils!” Uh, never mind that last bit.

01:00 — Just in case anyone missed it, the plot of the show is that Pendleton and his wife, Monica, have repurposed a tour bus to turn it into a tattoo shop on wheels, essentially, and are going to drive all over the damn place, going wherever the best tattoo-worthy stories are. “Some stories don’t make it to the shop,” he says, “so I bring the shop to them.” Well, that’s thoughtful. Nice young man, this Pendleton.

02:00 — First stop: Reno, Nevada! This is Pendleton’s hometown, and as luck would have it his old school chum, Chris, runs the tattoo shop Sinnister Ink there. Chris graciously lets Pendleton drive his bus right on into his life (a.k.a. the shop’s parking lot). Here we meet Nikki, the show’s first client! She’s about to get tattooed by Krystin, one of the shop’s artists. Nikki would like 10 stars on her foot to pay tribute to her 10 brothers and sisters, please, because she wants them to reach for the stars, etc.

02:15 — Nikki’s mother, Dawn, is there! All of her girls but one are tattooed, and, according to Dawn, “They all mean something.” As for Dawn? Her tattoos are just random. And that’s why nobody is parking a bus on her driveway.

Tommy from the shop mentions that getting tattooed on your feet is a “status tattoo, not many people get tattooed on their feet.” This seems like something he wouldn’t have said had he not been on camera.

03:00 — Even though this isn’t Nikki’s first tattoo, she’s nervous because she expects it to hurt more than usual. And this Pendleton guy? He’s just standing around, breaking balls, telling Nikki that Krystin doesn’t like tall blonde girls (which Nikki is) because Krystin “is jealous of them, she’s short with dreadlocks.” This show is so racist already.

Krystin counters, however, with the saucy revelation that she likes flirting with girls! They’re softer, their skin isn’t as beat up as dudes’, etc. (Krystin has obviously never experienced the milky white eggshell-smoothness that is your editor’s thighs, dear readers.) Nikki laughs and laughs, while her mother cries and cries, probably.

03:45 — Still with the sexy flirt talking, geez. Now they’re making fun of guys, who apparently don’t know how to flirt beyond asking to see tits and talking about their dicks, a tack that has honestly never failed me with all the girls I’ve imagined picking up. Also, apparently both Thomas and Monica are just big old flirts, and Monica may be the most fun person to flirt with on the crew. Everybody on this show will be pregnant or dead by the time this bus leaves Nevada, mark my words.

05:20 — Nikki’s tattoo is finished! Hey, a smattering of pink and blue stars on her foot. It’s a pretty piece, and she is now married to the bus, or something. (What are the laws about flirting in Nevada?)

05:40 — And just like that, the bus is back on the road. The crew is going to visit Pendleton’s old high school, where, apparently, he was beat up by a bunch of rednecks soon after his family moved to Reno when he was younger. Maybe he wasn’t flirting with them enough?

07:30 — We’re introduced to Pendleton’s brother, Mark, who was similarly troubled during the high school years. Their family had no money, the kids barely went to school, their parents were (ominously) “preoccupied with their own stuff,” and so on. A&E has literally not had a single happy person on their network since they canceled Evening at the Improv, besides that one episode of Intervention with the nymphomaniac. Probably a lot of happy people in that one.

It turns out Pendleton was so traumatized by his own high school years that he doesn’t even like to hear about his own wife’s childhood. “I don’t want to hear about your past,” he says. “You’re not even curious to hear about how I turned out to be such a wonderful person?” she asks. “You hooked up with me,” says our charming hero through a mouthful of snack food, “I straightened your ass out.” She decides to wait until they receive their first A&E checks before punching him in the brain.

09:00 — Pendleton, standing in front of his old high school: “I killed my academic career right here in this parking lot, and I came here to visit the burial site.” Well congratulations, now the cops know where to look for it, ya big dummy.

Anyway, much anxiety and hatred toward school! He and his brother curse up a storm while reminiscing over walking those halls, dressed in Goodwill clothing, gettin’ cold whooped by the local “cowboys” because they were artists. Their solution? He and his friends would paint leather jackets and skateboards and whatnot for the football players and punks and other tough guys, who would then in turn protect them. Hey, not a bad idea. “Artwork saved my ass,” he says, “so I left with my artwork.”

09:30 — “If I had my way, I would get rich, buy this place and then burn it to the ground. I perceived it differently when I was a kid, but I’m a man now, so I can stand here and say, ‘fuck you.’ Fuck this school.” Tattoo Highway does not have the most education-positive message ever.

10:45 — Now the guys all make snowballs and throw them at the school, to show that they are adults who have moved on with their lives. “I put a rock in mine,” one of them says.

11:00 — Next stop? Hawthorne, Nevada! They’re visiting a man named Trooper who recently lost his wife. “Reno depressed the hell out of everybody, so this ought to cheer us all up,” says Pendleton. Hey, deadpan! This show’s got potential yet.

11:15 — Welcome to Hawthorne! “How many people do you think live here?” one bus-member asks another. The answer? A shot of a dog standing by itself in the middle of the street. That sounds about right.

11:30 — “Probably not much of a chance for Trooper to get out to a tattoo shop in a big city, so we brought the tattoo shop to him,” Pendleton says as they pull up in front of Trooper’s home. God bless this bus.

12:15 — So, the thing is, for all the artifice and hamming we’ve seen so far, Trooper, his daughter and his sister are all about as earnest as you can find, on television or otherwise, and are legitimately hurting. When Trooper says he wants a portrait of his wife of 22 years, now deceased, on his heart, it would require one magnificent asshole to be too cynical about it. Trooper says practically nothing, looks like he’s about a second away from tears at any given moment, and seems truly damaged. Damn it, A&E, do you have any idea how hard it is to make dick jokes when you’re bringing out real emotions like this?

12:30 — And the picture of his wife that he wants turned into a tattoo is taped to the box that holds the urn that carries his wife’s ashes. Oh boy.

13:00 — Trooper’s daughter suggests incorporating some of her mother’s interests into the piece as well (gardening, etc.), and offers up some floral paintings she’d done on wooden boxes. Jackpot! Also, very sad.

13:30 — “Damn, that’s emotional,” Pendleton says in the back room of the house where he’s setting up to draw the design, and then, uh, actually breaks down crying himself? Huh. Did not see this coming.

“Either it’s wrong or it’s right,” he says about portraits. “They’re gonna have to trust me, because it’s just going to look like line-work until the shading’s in there.”

14:30 — More honest-to-God weeping from Pendleton, who, I have to say, is winning me over more than I expected. “The first thing when you hear someone’s wife has died is you think about your own wife,” he says. And maybe let her talk a little about her past?

15:05 — Still crying, he has Tommy hold the box with the ashes. Tommy, ever the cold-blooded pragmatist, suggests mixing some ashes in with the ink, which is a pretty popular idea! “We can literally tattoo her into him,” Pendleton says, “which is something I’ve always wanted to do.” Trying really hard to not be too cynical here, but…you’ve always wanted to tattoo with human remains? I guess I have friends who think I’m gross for liking sweetbreads, but still.

15:30 — “It would be dope if we put some of these ashes in the black,” Pendleton says. See? That just sounds silly.

16:45 — Hey, Trooper digs the design! But will he be on board with the ashes? “It’s pushing the tattoo envelope a little bit,” Pendleton mentions to the camera. Come on, man. You’re talking about human goddamn ashes. You really don’t need to sell the public on how extreme that shit is.

17:05 — How do you persuade an aging widower to add some of his wife’s ashes into his tattoo ink? “Tattoo inks are made up of all natural elements,” Pendleton explains to Trooper. “In, uh, prison, for their tattoos, they mix up ash to make ink….” Bam. Nailed it.

17:25 — Trooper grins from ear to ear! The man loves the idea. “Let’s go play with some ashes,” the others maybe think to themselves.

17:55 — “I’ve never had my hands on cremated human before,” Tommy says, “so we had no idea what it was going to consist of.” If you’d told me 20 minutes ago I’d be quoting that line from a show about a traveling tattoo bus…yeah, I probably would have believed you.

18:20 — Some parts of the ashes are more crumbly than others, just so you know.

18:50 — Tattooing begins! And then this happens:

“Just looking at the picture of your wife, it looks like she loved to sing. Was she a singer?” Pendleton asks.

“Oh, no,” Trooper says, “not at all.”

“Well, she looks like a singer,” Pendleton says. That’s the kind of editing that wins awards, people.

19:00 — Also, there is some sort of horrifying monkey doll holding the ashes box/wife picture.

19:50 — Monica asks if there’s a secret for staying together for 22 years. “Stay faithful to one another,” Trooper says. This duo of wretched flirt-sluts is doomed.

20:45 — Pendleton finishes up the tattoo, explains about swelling and gets another big sweet smile from Trooper, who, according to his sister, has said more over the course of this episode than he usually says in a day. Private man, this Trooper.

21:20 — Pendleton: “Putting her ashes in the tattoo ink was the best thing we could have done for that guy, and me and my crew will stand behind that.” Some goofy discussion aside, hard to disagree with that.

21:40 — “It’s as close as I can get to mixing my ashes with hers,” Trooper says as a nation bawls.

Overall? This show could be a whole lot worse. Pendleton, for a guy who rides around on a tour bus, carries surprisingly little of the “rock star” vibe. And, hey, when you’re watching a reality show, a little unintentional comedy goes a long way, and we got our fill here. It’s still hokey, but, one episode in? Have to say it’s preferable to some of the other tattoo shows. THE FUTURE IS HERE, folks, AND IT’S COMING ON A BUS. Check back soon for more running diaries!