If you’re a fan of the defunct A&E hit Inked, you remember the last time you saw Hart & Huntington Tattoo Company’s former part owner Thomas Pendelton on your TV screen.
Frustrated by the trendy Vegas inkery’s increasingly circus-like atmosphere — overrun with flaky employees, minor celebs and major chaos — Pendelton stormed out to reclaim his tattooed Cinderella, former shop manager Monica Rizzolo, and he never looked back.
The duo married, had twin daughters (there are since two more children) and launched a successful textile, art and jewelry business they call Ministry of Ink.
Then Juma Entertainment came calling.
Tapping into Thomas’ lifelong aversion to putting down roots, the former Inked executive producers convinced the Pendelton family to hit the road in a tricked out — and troublesome — vintage tour bus turned state-of-the-art tatt parlor for A&E’s new reality series, Tattoo Highway, premiering May 27.
Channel Guide: I was a big fan of Inked, so I’ve had your show on my radar for quite a while –since it was called The Pendleton project. Has the show been a work in progress to the final format?
Thomas Pendleton: [Laughing] When I did Inked, I became friends with one of the producers. And after the first season of Inked, Monica and I ended up getting back together and I just wanted to get out of Vegas. But I had stayed in touch with one of the producers from Juma. And it was kind of Juma’s idea that I should do something else, because I had a pretty good following from Inked.
The concept came from my traveling around a lot as a kid — I never really planted roots anywhere — so the idea of opening a tattoo shop and going to it everyday is just not my style. But I had the concept of building a tattoo parlor on a bus…
The first time “traveling tattoo parlor” came up at home — what was that like?
Monica’s down for anything! She was more worried about going back and filming again, rather than tattooing. What bothered her was going back and exposing our lives on camera again. Because it didn’t work out for us very well the first time. [laughs]
The producers I’m still with friends with, they left shortly after Inked started, and the other producers I didn’t know. So Monica and I would be in a room and they would hide cameras in the room and try and capture stuff they didn’t think they would capture otherwise.
It was just weird. It was Vegas. And everything right down to the filming translated to that whole Vegas vibe … that grimy, kind of desperate feeling.
When we started working with this production company, it was totally different. We had the same vision as the production company.
After you left Hart and Huntington, it did sound for a while like you were seriously considering leaving tattooing altogether. Even though so many people know you as a tattoo artist, do you consider it just part of your artistic expression?
I love tattooing. Every time I tattoo, it blows me away that I can lay a line in somebody’s skin and it stays there. When I was a few years into tattooing, a guy came in who had one of my tattoos on his arm and I thought in my head, “Man that guy still has that!”
And then it dawned on me: Well, yeah, he still has that. He’s going to have that for the rest of his life! [Laughs]
In a shop, you’re banging out as many tattoos as you can, trying to make money and pay the bills … and for me tattooing isn’t about that. I made money doing so many other things. And I kept tattooing pure and kept it about the customer. So being able to travel and go from town to town, it was cool. Because being able to pull into town and it was all about that person we were in town to see.
You’re also using some pretty interesting mediums with which to ink folks — invisible ink, human ashes …
It is funny! We’re tattooing — one of the world’s oldest art forms — and we’re on this old piece of @#$% tour bus, but we’re using the Internet and all the newest forms and communication and tattooing out there.
The guy who taught me to tattoo [California legend Rick Walters] always said when he died, he was going to get ground up and turned into tattoo ink and we could all get tattooed with him. So that kinda stuck with me. And when we tattooed that guy — his name was Trooper — it was amazing to see how much pain that guy was in and how much he missed his wife. So tattooing the portrait as cool, but actually physically putting his wife into his skin was that next step.
Unfortunately, what I was doing isn’t exactly legal, so it was kind of that renegade outlaw — it really had that old west vibe where we would roll into town and we would do what we had to do and then we would get out of town.
Once you rolled into a particular city, how did you go about choosing your clients? I am guessing you didn’t necessarily want to spend your days tattooing roses on college girls’ tailbones?
What we were doing on the road was so personal. Like when we went to a whorehouse out in Reno. It was crazy! I mean some of my crew was completely disgusted by the women, which I totally understand. But I live my life in a way where I try not to judge anybody. They’re not hurting anybody.
My tattoo partner Tommy was miserable there. He hated it. He hated the women and the whole place. He looked at it like, “We’re slumming because we’re tattooing these people.” I looked at it like we’re showing these women, who are pretty much stuck in this place drinking all day, a completely different lifestyle and way of thinking just by talking with them for a few hours.
The bus design is killer — can you give me a reader’s digest version of original design to finished product?
It was pink when we bought it — we bought it off a traveling gospel group from Arkansas. None of us had ever driven a bus before! I wiped out a mailbox on the way off the property, but that was the only damage.
I really wanted it to have the vibe of the shop that I learned how to tattoo in, and that was Bert Grimm’s down in Long Beach. Our bus is kind of like a Tijuana taxi, it’s got a bunch of tschotkes all over it and it’s got that old-school circus, gypsy, old navy tattoo vibe on the inside.
Some people looked at it like it was our pirate ship.
I especially love the longhorn skull on the front …
That thing shoots nitrous out of its nose!
Anything you were hoping for that didn’t translate onto wheels?
I was hoping the motor would be a little better. [Laughs] Most hills we did from 15mph to 30mph — on a good day. It was brutal!
We broke down in every state. In a couple states, we actually had to have it towed. Two days into filming, we broke down in Utah and did not think it was going to get going again. We thought that was it, that production was done and everything.
When we pulled into Reno, they were literally closing the roads behind us because of a snowstorm. We were going 15mph up all the hills trying to get to Reno — and my producers were gone. They were all up in their hotel rooms. Every once in a while I would call somebody and they’d be, like, “Just call us if you make it!”
So this time, your reality show was really real…
It was as real as it gets. I paid for the hotel rooms. I paid for the gas. This was all on me.
It wasn’t like I got some fat budget for a show. I paid to get that bus built; me and my wife did the inside with one other person. It was all on me.
But I think what was cool about that — I mean it sucked and it was hard — but I think it translated into the show and made it a little more gritty.
We are literally tattooing America — and America is not these celebrities! We’re tattooing the dudes that are broke, that are bargaining with us to get their tattoo. That to me is way more fun than sitting in a casino and have some pseudo-celebrity walk in and throw his !@#$ around.
We tattooed Apache Indians in Silver Creek New Mexico and they took us out and showed us where Geronimo had made his last stand. We went out there with a guy’s mom, an 80-year-old Apache woman, and we wound up tattooing her forehead. They showed us their history on their land and then we had a ceremony inside a teepee. These guys were the real deal.
And the next day we were at this multibillionaire’s ranch in El Paso, Texas, and the guy had like 800,000 acres — his ranch spanned over 6 counties or eight counties in two states. In New Mexico and Arizona. And I said to him, “Hey I was with Apaches last night and they say they want their land back.”
And he laughed and said “Tell ’em they can buy it off me.” That’s America right there!