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Sebastian Murphy - Motown Ink Master
America proved its love affair with the art of tattooing by tuning into Spike TV's "Ink Master" and making season two's live finale the number-one original series on all of cable. This show brings some of the best tattoo artists from all over the country together to compete for a $100,000 prize and the title of "Ink Master."
While the show's controversy and demanding challenges make for entertaining television, where this series was most beneficial to the Black tattoo community was bringing proof to the national spotlight that Black tattoo artists with extreme skill and talent exist. After weeks of competition, Sebastian Murphy, a tattoo artist from Detroit, Michigan, found himself on the live finale stage in front of host and judge Dave Navarro and fellow judges Chris Nunez and Oliver Peck.

Sebastian confidently stood next to his last two competitors while a clip of his final piece, a 24-hour master tattoo was displayed. Although he did not take home the grand prize, finishing in third place--with his 3-D bloody zombie realistically clawing its way out of his canvas's back--showed the world that, with 15 years of experience under his belt, his talent is undeniable and his technique is already at the level of a true Ink Master.

Long before Sebastian's time on "Ink Master," he was a teenager with a passion for art and possessed a mature work ethic way beyond his years. He spent much of his time airbrushing at a flea market in Michigan to earn money and drawing up designs for some of the tattoo artists who also set up shop there. When the fad of airbrushing died down, he found himself without a job and homeless. It would be some time before an opportunity would bring some hope. When one of the tattoo artists from the flea market offered to teach Sebastian how to tattoo, he was determined to move forward and take him up on his offer.  

Sebastian would end up hitting another roadblock after walking seven miles to the flea market, only to be told by that artist, "I never said I'd teach you how to tattoo." Another artist at the shop recognized the potential in Sebastian and offered to teach him how to tattoo. Sebastian spent the next six months back at the flea market, drawing up custom designs for customers and selling them at $10 apiece. He would also watch the artists at work, and this is where his ability to focus on details was nurtured, later becoming one of Sebastian's biggest strengths as a tattoo artist.
Detail is now known as his signature style. On "Ink Master," he even admitted that his slightly obsessive attention to detail led him to count all the light bulbs in his room at the Ink Master house where the contestants resided during the competition. There were 76 light bulbs.  

By age 19, Sebastian's commitment and artistic talent scored him his first tattooing equipment and he began practicing on one of his first clients, an orange. Throughout the "Ink Master" competition, Sebastian's technical mastery was always praised by the judges and it was his beginning lessons on a piece of fruit where Sebastian learned how to blend with straight black ink and a three liner. His goal was to consistently make sure his lines were always real clean.  
"It's hard to hold onto an orange, much less balance a needle on it. There are parts of the body that are so thin and small that it's hard to put your hand on and tattoo it at the same that orange helps. It actually functions as skin. You can't split it and you can scar it."

In one of the episodes, Sebastian showed off how insanely technical he is in a micro tattoo challenge. The contestants were faced with tattooing a Jagermeister micro tattoo on their human canvases. Instead of using the drawing given by the judges, he used the actual logo on the bottle as a reference, which had way more detail. To Sebastian, smooth lines are the basics of tattooing.

"When you have the fundamentals down, people can come to you for anything." Even though Sebastian prefers working in black and gray and photo-realism, he describes himself as a "ninja duplicator," meaning he can duplicate any style of tattooing.

When Sebastian first started tattooing, there were only about five Black tattoo artists in the metro Detroit area. Competition among these Black artists was often cutthroat. Instead of supporting one another, it was common to be often taught incorrect skills. Fortunately, Sebastian found support in his brother-in-law, who believed in his tattoo career and made sure to stay on top of him about his work by becoming one of his first human canvases. Sadly, he passed away a year before Sebastian won his very first trophy tattoo, but his belief in Sebastian helped him stay away from the negative behavior that surrounded the only few Black artists back then.  

Now, Sebastian is considered one of the OGs of tattooing in his community. He isn't selfish about his success or interested in contributing to the crabs-in-the-barrel mentality. He aims to let the world know that "Black folks can tattoo," and that they are in the same league as their white counterparts. He mentors up-and-coming young Black tattoo artists and helps steer them away from being all about the money, sharing with them positive insight: "If you care about the artwork, the money will come."

Sebastian is a genuine guy and not about cutting other artists whom he respects down. While others would often argue and fight with one another, Sebastian stayed under the radar but, respectfully, did not present the image of your stereotypical angry, loud Black man on TV. His primary goal may have been to win the competition; he genuinely also wanted to use his time there to make connections with the other artists that he would have never known otherwise. He ended up forming good relationships with many of his fellow competitors, especially Clint Cummingswhich he excitedly shares is now his boyand was offered a guest spot at Clint's shop in Texas, whenever he visits.

Not being much of a traveler before, Sebastian tells me, "I can pick up and now tattoo anywhere I go"; perhaps proving that Ink Master offers more than just a chance at fame and money. There were also two other Black competitors, La Ron Givens and Kay Kutta. To show comradery, they would walk around the house and fist bump each other, sharing a bond of representing a community of artists who don't get much positive shine. Sebastian felt that if it weren't for Ron's broken wrist, he would never have actually gone as far as he did in the competition. With his participation in the show and how far he went, Sebastian hopes to change the negative image of Black artists and encourage people to feel confident in working with Black artists.

Sebastian's Contact Info:

Photography of Sebastian done inside tattoo shop by:
Carlos West of Carlos Jason Videography (
Photography of Sebastian outside by: Jeremy Doneghy (
Article by Mika Henderson

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