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Tattoo Highway Brings Realness Back to Reality TV

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No kind of reality show would surprise us these days. I mean, we’ve pretty much seen them all; many of them are entertaining in a shabby way (Celebrity Rehab) but most of them, to the extent I’ve seen most of them, are wince-inducing. They tend to be so degrading to their participants — who indeed are willing, no doubt — that one has to look away (see Rock of Love). I don’t take a high minded approach to reality TV. It’s voyeurism at its most pronounced, but then so is television in general.

Television and reality shows are not fully voyeuristic, because the stars/participants willingly allow us, indeed want us, to watch. So it’s permissive voyeurism. Nonetheless, we like to watch: we like to watch people grind their way through often humiliating circumstances because, for a moment, it enlarges our self-opinions. Of course, if most of us had the opportunity we’d sign on, and likely be just as goofy and degrading as those we grimace at.

And I certainly don’t take a high-minded view of tattoos, having been tatted quite a few times myself. I wish I could say I got them multiple years ago, way ahead of the hip curve, so to speak. But that’s not the case: lots of people beat me to it, and that makes me a follower, at least in the area of tattoos. But there are lots of us: just about every man or woman I run into or see in public, and age is generally not an issue, has some sort of tattoo. It’s the thing to do. And if some smarmy magazine says that tattoos are “so yesterday,” well, I’d invite the magazine staff to leave its headquarters for a moment or two and hit the streets.

Some are repellent. Others are stunning. Where the distinction between seductive and simply unappealing is most apparent, in my observation, has to do with female tattoos. If you’re a woman and you get it wrong, it can be so very wrong. Men, for reasons I really can’t explain (except perhaps it’s an innate bias) have more latitude when it comes to getting inked. There’s more margin for error.

Maybe my belief will be challenged by what promises to be an interesting (and I don’t mean to use that word in the often neutral, neutered way it is used) new television series from A&E, Tattoo Highway. Here’s the premise: Thomas Pendelton, a famous ink-man, and his wife, Monica, and a business partner, take to the highway in a fully equipped and renovated tour bus — taking the tattoo parlor to the populace, so to speak. Thus the show will have to do with the realities of running, and running across country to anywhere and everywhere, as a mobile tattoo parlor, which will only result, I believe, in genuine human drama.

Make no mistake: Pendelton is an artist, and artists’ lives tend to have a special dimension to them; this should make for entertaining and dramatic viewing.

At first blush this may not sound compelling. But think about it. Every time I go to my favorite local parlor, there is almost always someone there who is getting tatted for the first time. And if you are interested, as I usually am, you can get a good story as to why the tattoo, what design is at issue, and how the person “feels” about it. Feeling, in this case, encompasses the actual fear of the pain of the needle, plus the emotional fear of uncertainty: should I really do this?

Now imagine my tattoo parlor in big and small towns all across the U.S, and you have the germ of some diverse and undoubtedly complex human drama.

Having had the briefest preview of the first season’s episodes of Tattoo Highway, I can say that I plan to tune in, and you should as well. I believe you’ll find a kind of realness to a reality show that is largely missing from what the original concept of the reality series was in the first place. Pendelton’s artistry, and the traveling company’s destinations (first stop, Las Vegas), are likely to make this a series high on your list of weekly “can’t miss” shows. I think if you do check in, you’ll keep coming back.

It’s Tattoo Highway, and it begins on A&E on May 27 at 10:00pm eastern time.

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