'Ink Master: Shop Wars' Finale Recap & Season Review

Season 9 of Ink Master, dubbed Shop Wars, has come to an end. What better time than now to look back on the season as a whole and then dive into the finale?

Shop Wars brought a welcome twist to Ink Master following the bias-riddled Peck vs. Nunez season 8. This time, contestants competed in pairs from the same tattoo shop for the $200,000 grand prize and title of Master Shop. So far so good. The season also brought back returning contestants, one new pair a week until they exhausted their roster. Not only is this an unfair format that leaves the final veteran team in a cushy spot coming in halfway into the competition, the returning contestants chosen were also a bit of a clusterfuck. Bubba Irwin? King Ruck? Made Rich? Boneface? Lalo AND Picasso? These guys are a mix of long forgotten or wish to forget. They were lumped in with the likes of Tommy Helm, WHO HAD HIS OWN TATTOO SHOW, and Cleen Rock One, the judges’ forever-robbed golden boy. With a cast filled with several veteran tattooers known to buckle under the competition’s pressure AND a field of newbies who have to survive nine more weeks of tattooing than Cleen’s team, I began to fear this was all a setup. Cleen or Tommy were destined to win this season, no question.

But then something crazy happened.

Those newbie artists? Several of them were REALLY FUCKING GOOD. Artistic Skin Designs’ Dane and April were early frontrunners that could have gone all the way. Unkindness Art’s Erin Chance was probably the best tattooer of the entire season, held back by a weaker partner. Even some of those forgotten returning players managed to surprise. Who would have guessed Bubba Freakin’ Irwin would be in the finals of an Ink Master season? His partner, DJ Tambe, is another new player who could easily win a regular season by himself and Bubba is more than holding his own.

And then the craziness continued.

Tommy Helm? The guy who had his own tattoo show that used to air after episodes of Ink Master? He came back into the competition rusty and never found his footing, finishing in sixth place. Cleen Rock One? After a botched Buddha hand (which admittedly matches the reference) and much protestation from Chris Nunez, he went out in fifth place.

Some truly amazing artists have come through the doors of Ink Masters, but many crack under the pressure of the strict guidelines. Most seasons have clear frontrunners and a large pool of also rans. This season, any of Golden Skull, Unkindness Art, Artistic Skin Designs, Empire State, Old Town Ink, Black Cobra, or Basilica Tattoos could be a justifiable winner. The competition has never been this stacked, which made for a very compelling season.

Going into finale night, we have our top three teams: Black Cobra’s Matt O’Baugh and Katie McGowan, Basilica Tattoos’ Christian Buckingham and Noelin Wheeler, and Old Town Ink’s Bubba Irwin and DJ Tambe. Another good call was made by the show in letting the artists have more control over their final canvases. Seasons past have let opponents call the shots, which often times leads to unappealing, if well applicated results. “I want you to tattoo a black and grey rainbow coming out of a piece of shit, trash polka style.”

It truly feels like coming into finale night that past wrongs have been righted and a satisfying ending is in sight. So did Shop Wars stick the landing?

This year’s finale setup was similar to previous years. America got to vote on Twitter one team to be sent to the final two based on a six hour thigh piece finished live. Then the judges would send the final team to the final two based on their 35-hour black and grey back piece.

I was nervous about this initial fan vote screwing over a good tattoo because of a popularity contest, but Matt and Katie of Black Cobra won the vote with what I thought was the best of the six hour pieces.

That means we were left with Old Town Ink and Basilica Tattoos in the judging for best black and grey back pieces. Black Cobra should be very thankful America had already voted them into the top 2 because their back piece was clearly the weakest of the three. Peck and Nunez butted heads over which of Old Town and Basilica should advance. Peck argued for Basilica’s application. Nunez argued for Old Town’s appeal and risk. It came down to perennial tiebreaker Dave Navarro to make a final decision. Bubba and DJ of Old Town Ink were then awarded a spot in the final 2.

Despite being eliminated, Basilica still revealed their 35 hour color back piece. For fans worried about the best team being robbed due to the finale’s odd structure, rest assured that Basilica’s piece was probably the worst of three and didn’t look to have a shot at winning. 

Now we had our final two. Old Town Ink vs. Black Cobra. If we’re scoring who won the previous two tattoos, Black Cobra won round 1 and Old Town won round 2, so this was a pretty even match-up. Old Town’s piece was a giant dragon that not only covered their canvas's entire back and butt, it also extended onto one of his thighs. It was an expertly applied, massive undertaking, but some anatomy issues in the neck and scales were holding it back. Black Cobra’s piece was a giant bird that was also expertly applied, but the anatomy of the wings held it back. So we have two giant, expertly applied back pieces with similar anatomy issues. How do you decide the winner? Peck brings up the point of the dragon anatomy being something harder to see flaws in for the average person, while a bird’s wings are obvious to everyone. I’ve personally been a fan of Old Town all season, so I went into the finale biased, but I personally liked Black Cobra’s tattoo a little more. The application and color palette were more appealing to me than Old Town’s. That said, when it came down to judging both back pieces from each team, I had to be rooting for Old Town Ink on this one. The judges ended up agreeing unanimously, crowning Old Town Ink the winners of Ink Masters: Shop Wars.

What did YOU think of these final tattoos? Did the right team win? What did you think of the season as a whole? Sound off in the comments below!