Mor than skin deep
Tommy Helm. Picture: Supplied

In life, everyone has done something they regret. Something stupid. Something they wish they could undo.

When that something is a tattoo, however, it's a permanent, lifelong visual reminder of that boo-boo. Imagine a divorcee with a portrait of an ex she never wants to see again. Or a father whose children's names are spelt incorrectly. Or an offensive image that now upsets family, friends or colleagues. Then there are the homemade tatts that need fixing.

With thousands of tattoo fails in all shapes and sizes, who ya gonna call? Enter tattoo artist Tommy Helm, the star and co-host of Tattoo Nightmares, which recently returned for season three on 7mate.

"About 75 per cent of people come in saying 'I was drunk and got this tattoo'," chuckles Helm, an ink wizard with an uncanny ability to re-image disastrous tattoo fails with beautiful new tattoos.

"It could be a bad decision or a really bad tattoo. But if it's affecting the person wearing it, that's all that matters. We fix it for them."

With 20 years' experience, Helm owns Empire State Studios, a renowned tattoo shop in Long Beach, New York. With his co-hosts Big Gus and Jasmine Rodriguez, he covers up, camouflages and redesigns the tattoo nightmares of his regretful and often foolhardly patrons.

"Of course, there's that morbid curiosity in wanting to see this terrible image someone is living with," the 40-year-old said of the surprisingly popular and high-rating show's obvious drawcard.

"Hey, I watch NASCAR for the car crashes too. That's human nature, I guess. And, admittedly, some cover-ups are so intense that I don't know if I can pull them off until the end.

"That's what attracts most people to the show."

But while a large part of the zippy half- hour show is about laughing at another's expense, it's the personal stories behind the tattoos - why they got them, why they want them gone and what they want to replace them - that make it more than merely car-crash TV.

"I worked on a gentleman who had an old gang tattoo," explains Helm, who is surprisingly polite, thoughtful and well-spoken for a bald guy inked from top-to-toe.

"He shared one of the most heartfelt stories I'd ever heard. He was abused and actually brutalised by his gang and left for dead. He carried that tattoo on his back for 30 years until he came to me on the show.

"It was the heaviest tattoo I've ever done but the cover-up - an old piano in the desert - came out awesome. I got emails from his wife and child thanking me for helping him, so that was really moving."

Helm, who was given his own show after impressing on one season of Ink Master, said that confessional aspect of people turning their lives around and righting wrongs made Tattoo Nightmares more than skin deep.

"We've all made a bad decisions - half this nation has bad tattoos - and everyone can relate to that," he said.

"So I actually think it's a very positive show. On top of that, I think people like to watch an artist at work and to see the creative process behind a beautiful art form."

While the trio of ink-masters also help to disguise scars, burns, birthmarks or blemishes, they can only help their clients so much, such as the man with the ugly naked lady on his stomach who wants to replace it with . . . a chimpanzee and its baby.

"Even then, he was stoked with the result, and that makes it worth it," Helm says.

"Every time I make someone happy with what they're going to wear for the rest of their lives, I get psyched about that."

The West Australian

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