UnCommonwealth: Meade man takes tattooing talent to reality show

Tray Benham, right, a tattoo artist in Brandenburg, is a  contestant on the upcoming season of the reality show Ink Master.
Tray Benham, right, a tattoo artist in Brandenburg, is a contestant on the upcoming season of the reality show Ink Master.

In 2000, a strange little summer show debuted. It was called Survivor, and it pretty much invented today's reality television genre the way J.R. getting shot invented the TV cliffhanger.

Since then, Kentucky has been represented, but not exactly profusely, in reality television. We have no American Idols, no Real Housewives -- even Honey Boo Boo is from Georgia, y'all.

Sure, we don't have the royalty of reality TV, the tabloid-hogging Teen Moms — even though one of the Teen Moms, Leah Messer Simms Calvert of West Virginia, held her second wedding in April in Catlettsburg. (Her first marriage broke up after discord over a trailer bathroom and a truck.)

True, Kentucky boasts Ernie Brown Jr. of Gravel Switch, aka the Turtle Man of Animal Planet's Call of the Wildman and Joe Costello of Richmond, the beret-wearing sand artist who finished fifth on the just-concluded season of America's Got Talent. Michael Curtis, founder of the clogging group All That, a favorite of judge Sharon Osbourne on the same show, is from Paris.

The Bluegrass State has produced several contestants on The Amazing Race, chief among them the lovable duos of coal miner David Conley and his wife, Mary, of Stone; and former Miss Kentucky Mallory Ervin and her dad, Gary, of Morganfield.

Two contestants from this season's cast of Project Runway, Alicia Hardesty and Gunnar Deatherage of Louisville, have already been eliminated.

Kentucky native and chef Joe Arvin appeared on the recently concluded season of Big Brother, where he wore University of Kentucky T-shirts around his fellow "houseguests."

But we do not have a Kentucky personality who dominates a genre the way that, say, American Idol's Carrie Underwood (Oklahoma) and Kelly Clarkson (Texas) came to dominate pop music charts.

Meet Tray "Big Daddy" Benham, Kentucky's next swing at the reality-show pitch. He will be a contestant on Spike TV's Ink Master, hosted by tattooed rocker Dave Navarro. (This is not to be confused with the oh-so-perky Best Ink on Oxygen, hosted by American Idol alum Kimberly Caldwell.)

Benham is from Brandenburg, the same Meade County town that gave us Hardesty of Project Runway. The two have not met.

Benham, 38 and a divorced father of three, has been tattooing for 20 years and has two locations of his Big Daddy's Tattoo, in Elizabethtown and Radcliff.

He intended to study commercial art at Murray State University. But he and some friends were goofing around with tattoos, and the one given to Benham turned out unfortunate.

Discouraged, Benham took his original drawing to a tattoo parlor for a fix. The owner was impressed, calling Benham a "killer artist," and Benham wound up working there.

He calls his tattoo style "more of a new school artist," a style that came around in the mid-'90s and is defined by traditional tattooing "with a little bit of graffiti, a twist to it."

He used to work more with black and gray tattoos but now considers himself "more of a color artist."

He credits the black and gray work with helping him with shading: "You understand moving from dark to light better," he said.

Having started in the business as the result of someone else's misstep, Benham frets over kitchen tattooers who "haven't been trained, haven't been apprenticed" and don't use sterile equipment.

"I've been here in Kentucky for 20 years," Benham said. "People say, 'You're the best; you should be on TV.' I just wanted to represent Kentucky, stand up and show the world what we're doing.

"People think that for style or music, you've got to go to the West Coast, but here in the Midwest it's overlooked. ... There's a lot of really good artists out here. We're a little hidden jewel."

Filming for the second season of Ink Masters, which pits 16 tattoo artists against one another, took place in June and July in New York. The show premieres at 10 p.m. Oct. 9. A live finale will take place in December featuring the three finalists. The winner gets $100,000.

Benham said he liked the twists of this year's challenges, one of which involved going to a barbershop and buzz-cutting tattoos into people's hair.

"This year I'd say kills last year," Benham said. "It's extreme."

The most celebrated Kentucky reality contestant from the dawn of the genre might have been Rodger Bingham, a former Crittenden schoolteacher who was dubbed "Kentucky Joe" on the second season of Survivor.

In the Australian Outback version of the show, he allied himself with the then-unknown Elisabeth Hasselbeck, née Filarski, now a host of ABC's The View.

Bingham got a job with the state agriculture department in 2004. He was fired "without cause" earlier this year.

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