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Ryan Ashley Malarkey exclusive: From oddities and tattoos to finding hidden geniuses on Ink Master: Angels

Ryan Ashley Malarkey, the first female winner of Ink Master. Pic credit: @ryanashleymalarkey/Instagram

Spike megahit Ink Master constantly delivers the goods with larger-than-life personalities and amazing tattoos, all created during stressful but spectacular challenges.

On Season 8 of the show last year, the women — Ryan Ashley, Kelly Doty, Nikki Simpson and Gia Rose — all bonded along the way.

Without realizing it, these fab four gave producers a launchpad for the big upcoming Ink Master spinoff: Ink Master: Angels.

The result of Season 8? The series’ first female winner was crowned.

Ryan Ashley Malarkey, a small-town Pennsylvania girl whose inner artistic bent and admirable work ethic — undoubtedly helped by her arrestingly beautiful appearance — was propelled by the big win to the head of Spike’s new girl-power squad.

But if you ask Ashley, her praise immediately goes towards the other women who are on the path with her: women like Kelly, Nikki and Gia.

Ink Master: Angels starts next week and follows last night’s Ink Master: Shop Wars season finale, which was won by Bubba Irwin and DJ Tambe of Old Town Ink.

It takes talented artists across the USA and challenges them to rise to the occasion — all in a bid to become one of the next Ink Master competitors.

Ryan Ashley is more than a tattoo artist and beauty, she’s also an astute businesswoman, whose idea to take her and her partner Josh Balz’ personal oddities collection and create a business out of it has paid off.

Her retail empire — selling unusual items via The Strange & Unusual Oddities Parlor — is expanding.

Apparently, the cookie-cutter big-box retailers, Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barns, cannot compete with baboon busts, preserved bug collections or occult trappings like tarot cards, crystals, skulls, bones and articulations — just some of the things she and Josh have on display at the two stores they own.

A baboon bust on display at The Strange & Unusual Oddities Parlor
A baboon bust on display at The Strange & Unusual Oddities Parlor

We spoke to Spike TV’s newest star about Ink Master: Angels, tattoos as art and how she got to where she is today…

Monsters and Critics: I know there was a waiting game, that they wanted you for the Ink Master season prior to Season 8, and you had to iron out your schedule with your partner Josh Balz?

Ryan Ashley Malarkey: Josh and I are kicking butt and, actually, the reason I didn’t do seasons prior…I was supposed to do Season 7 and I had to unfortunately back out last minute because I was in the process, in the middle, of opening my second oddities parlor. I own two oddities parlors in Pennsylvania.

We opened our first oddities parlor…to be honest with you, my boyfriend and I opened it because I was leaving the tattoo studio that I was at and I wanted a private studio that was not a tattoo shop. I wanted an art studio that was calm and quiet, and I just really focused on my art and tattoos.

We’re big oddities collectors of weird things. And we were like, ‘You know what, we have so much stuff. Our collection is so big.’ At this point, Josh and I had been dating for three months. We said, ‘Let’s open a business together.’

I can have a studio and we could open an oddities parlor at the same time, showcase our collection, and it just snowballed. We opened our second location two years later, which was right in the middle of the Ink Master competition.

So, when I had to turn it down, I thought, ‘What am I doing? I can’t believe I’m giving up this opportunity.’ Then when they wanted me to come back for Season 8, I realized that everything really does happen for a reason, because if I didn’t do Season 8, I wouldn’t have met the other girls.

I wouldn’t have developed the friendships that I have with them. And I feel like all the stars lined up for us and we were meant to meet at that time in our season. We were meant to be together and band together and it was really just up to the stars.

M&C: Tell me about Gian Karle Cruz, I know he’s from Puerto Rico. Did you maintain a friendship with him, and how is he after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico? Have you talked to him?

Kelly Doty, Ryan Ashley and Gian Karle Cruz
Ryan Ashley with Kelly Doty and Gian Karle Cruz, who were the trio in the Ink Master Season 8 finale

RAM: Actually, Gian, Kelly, and I became very close before our finale. We hung out a lot in-between takes during our finale. We have been very good friends since. My boyfriend adores him. I adore Gian’s wife. They’ve been begging us to come down to Puerto Rico.

Actually, I just got a text from him a few days ago that said, ‘Ryan, call me when you get a minute.’ And I haven’t called him back yet because I haven’t had a minute, honestly. Gian’s a survivor. He’s a smart little guy. He’s one of the best dudes I’ve ever met.

M&C: Your oddities shop…how do you come across a giraffe’s foot for sale?

RAM: Okay. A lot of people…when they see what we sell, a lot of taxidermy and stuff, they think it’s awful and cruel and all of this. But our first priority is sourcing things ethically, making sure nothing was killed cruelly for the purpose of taxidermy.

We’re not about that at all. Really, what we’re about is preserving life and having respect for these animals that die naturally. A lot of the mounts that we have, that we’re not sure really where they came from, are vintage. They’re old. We have mounts from the 1920s, the 1940s.

What I love about taxidermy is that it’s one of the oldest art forms of humanity. Taxidermy stretches back so far and I just have such an appreciation for the art itself. And it doesn’t have to be cruel. It doesn’t have to be sourced maliciously.

Josh and I took on business partners that we opened the Philadelphia store with. One of our partners, her name is Christy, she goes by Cloven Hoof, she’s a taxidermist who does all sorts of small animals.

One of Cloven Hoof’s deceased little furries made into a king in the afterlife

It’s funny, she only does animals that die naturally or [are] sourced ethically. And I have clients that are like, ‘Hey, my new puppy caught a rabbit in the yard and killed it and I don’t know what to do with it. I feel so bad.’ And I’ll take it.

I take these dead animals from my clients, like a psycho, and give them to Christy, my partner, and she makes these beautiful creations out of them so they can be adored for years and years and years to come.

So really, it’s just a form of showing appreciation for the beauty of everything. Nature…I have to say, growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, I love nature first and foremost. I have such an appreciation for wildlife and the beauty of our planet and all of that. Not to sound corny, but it’s really true.

M&C: You have “1993” tattooed on your left hand. Is that the year you were born? What does it signify?

RAM: Oh my gosh, I wish I was 24-years-old. That would be lovely. On the inside of my fingers on my right hand, I have my mom’s signature and my baby sister…well, she’s not a baby anymore…my sister’s signature and my sister was born in 1993. My mom was born in 1961.

So I’ve dedicated my hands, what I see most, the things that I could never cover, to the two women that have been with me my whole life from day one. It’s always been my mom, my sister, and I.

M&C: That’s wonderful. I love that. Who did your ink? You couldn’t have possibly done your neck and your upper chest…

RAM: No. I like to be a collector and I find black and gray artists that I adore and try to get tattooed by them. My neck and my chest were done by a friend of mine. His name is Bob Lewis. He’s an artist that works in Pennsylvania here with me.

When I was apprenticing, he was working at the studio that I was apprenticing at. He was not my mentor, but I have to say that he taught me just as much, or more than my mentor did. For no reason other than just to share his art and share his knowledge. And he tattooed my neck, my chest.

I’ve also gotten tattoos done by T.J. Poole, Ron Russo, Tyler [Palsick]. I just made an appointment with Josh Duffy to get my whole back and my whole butt tattooed as one big session.

But I try to just be a collector and save space for the artists that I appreciate all over the world.

M&C: Let’s talk about Josh’s head, those amazing gears. Can you talk about that tattoo and how it was conceptualized?

RAM: Actually, his head tattoo still isn’t finished, which is absurd considering we started it years ago. He’s really into gears and pistons and motors and steampunk. We were talking about tattooing his whole head and making it look really 3-D, like the inter-workings of his mind or this clockwork, almost.

Every time I start tattooing him, he gives me only a few hours, and then he’s like, ‘I’m over it. I’m over it.’ And now…[I’m] not bulls****ing you, I get 30,000 emails requesting tattoos and, that being said, all of the time, I’ll be like, ‘Josh, let me tattoo you for a couple of hours.’ He’s like, ‘Nah, I don’t feel like it today.’ And I’m like, ‘Josh! Please.’

M&C: That’s funny. Alright, so you’re the first female Ink Master winner. But women have been kind of kicking ass in the tattoo world for a while. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

RAM: I’m shocked that I’m the first female winner, honestly, because I would have put money on that Sarah Miller [from Season 2] would have won.

When she didn’t win, I was like, ‘God, who, if Sarah Miller can’t do it, who can do it?’ Then, when she competed on Season 7, the season I was supposed to be on, I was shocked again she didn’t win.

Megan Jean [Morris] also competed that season — and I’m a huge Megan Jean fan, I think she is just the s**t — I can’t believe she didn’t win.

So by the time our season came around, I was like, ‘You know what, I’m doing this. I’m doing this for Sarah. I’m doing it for Megan. I’m doing it for all the ladies. This is ridiculous.’ But, yeah, women have been kicking ass in the tattoo industry for a really long time.

Every opportunity I get to sort of divert the spotlight from me and kind of shine it a little bit on all of these other women that have paved the way, that have come so close, that are equally as deserving as I am [I do so].

I really try to take that opportunity and show them the respect and recognition that they really deserve.

M&C: Tell me about the new show, Ink Master: Angels, and the four of you together. Just lay out how the show is going to work…

RAM: So basically what we’re doing is the four of us are traveling the entire country, and we’re going from city to city finding the best artists that our country has.

We’re allowing three artists from each city to show their stuff, compete against each other, and it allows these artists to put their work on a national platform and get recognition and show the world what they’ve got. Because a lot of these artists that are competing are undiscovered geniuses.

There are tattooers that are known in our industry and then there are so many tattooers that are so good, but nobody knows about. We’re trying to find those artists.

And, eventually, the three competitors in each city are narrowed down to one and the person that reigns victorious in that city gets to choose one of us to call out and compete again.

So not only are we just judging, yes, we’re judging…but we’re not standing on our pedestals saying, ‘You’re good. You’re good. You suck.’ We are also throwing ourselves in the ring.

We’re putting ourselves out there and we’re competing alongside these artists as their peers. Seeing if they can beat us, because if they can [and] if they prove to us that they can get through all of the hoops and beat one of us, they win a spot on Ink Master.

They get to go into it as a seasoned competitor. It’s going to be amazing.

M&C: Anything that you can tease for the fans, like what to expect or what to look for? Or a little juicy teaser on the upcoming series?

RAM: All I can say is that we had expectations as to how things were going to play out. We had our own predictions, and we were wrong so many times. There were so many things that happened along the way that were so unexpected.

You think you know how it’s going to go and s**t just hits the fan and turns the other direction. We were shocked while filming. I think America’s going to be shocked. We were impressed. We laughed a lot.

You just have to tune in and watch and see for yourself. It’s going to be a great show!

M&C: You love the black and shades of gray. It’s where you vibrate and it’s what you wear. Yet your winning tattoo for Ink Master was vibrant in color…

RAM: Yeah.

M&C: Why do you personally resonate with the blacks and the grays and the more neutral palettes?

RAM: Well, I always refer to the allegory of…you can dress up in any outfits that you want to dress up in and if people don’t know you, they’ll look at you and be like, ‘Oh, that looks nice.’

But if you know yourself and for the people that know you, you [already understand] what you like to wear. You know what you feel comfortable in. You know what you look best in.

And for me as an artist, I can take a swing at any style and do a Ryan tattoo in color, or Japanese, or traditional. But what I feel most connected to as an artist is the intricate, ornate black and gray.

I get so many inquiries from different people requesting all kinds of crazy stuff from me — color and things that aren’t what I love to do — on a daily basis. I always say ‘it’s not about the money to me’. You can pay me a million dollars, that doesn’t mean anything if there’s a better artist for that client, for that tattoo.

I’m always open with people and honest. I’ll say, ‘I’d love to do this full-color rosebush for you, but if you want the best tattoo you can get, you have to choose one of these other artists because they connect with your vision and they understand what you want and have a personal connection to it…because it’s art.’

And with art, you always want to do, not just what pays the bills, [but] you want to do what you feel most connected to. Because that’s what being an artist is.

M&C: Switching gears…you’re a classic beauty with model-esque symmetry in your face and you have an arresting overall presence. Have you ever been contacted by the mainstream fashion editors or people?

RAM: Thank you. Not yet. Before I tattooed, I worked in the fashion industry, so I have this appreciation for high fashion and [haute] couture as art.

I don’t want to be a model and do all that s**t, but I’d love to be a muse for a couture designer. You know how a lot of the couture designers develop collections around a specific person? I would love that.

I was just talking the other day about how, if I’m going to go big, I want to be on the cover of Vogue. But I don’t want to be on the cover of Vogue because of my aesthetics. I want to be on the cover of Vogue because I’m a strong, well-rounded, successful woman that worked for what I have.

And I want to be recognized not just because of what I look like, but because of what I’ve done and the work that I’ve put in. I want to make sure that I’m the most well-rounded that I can be and just not rely on what I look like for any sort of success or recognition.

Ink Master: Angels premieres Tuesday, October 3 at 10 pm ET/PT on Spike.

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