When you’re sick with a summer cold, sometimes the energy to change the channel completely escapes you. During those times, you just end up watching things that you ordinarily wouldn’t. My feelings towards reality TV have already been documented, at least in terms of competition shows, in another column. I was stuck at home, trying to keep my eyelids propped open around a blistering headache and wishing that the cold medicine would kick in and do some good. I was in misery and the most that I could bring myself to accomplish was avoiding another rerun of Dr. Phil or Matlock.

There were some reruns of “Law & Order” running on a channel, which makes me suspect that there is some unwritten law of syndication that dictates that at any given time there must be an episode of a “Law & Order” spin-off and an episode of one of the “C.S.I.” shows running on at least one channel. I did not want to have a crime show going in the background. My dreams were weird enough.

I fumbled my way clumsily through a rapidly less engrossing roster of news and talk shows until I hit a channel that had some guy I thought maybe looked like Dave Navarro talking to a short, long-haired guy about tattoos. I didn’t have the first clue what it was that I was actually watching, but it was way more interesting than anything else I’d found thus far.

It turned out that I had managed to correctly identify Dave Navarro and the long-haired short guy was named Oliver Peck. They weren’t just talking about tattoos, they were judging tattoos. By that point, I was feeling too foggy to even think about changing the channel.

It quickly dawned on me that I was, in fact, watching a reality competition show. There were sixteen artists, purported to be some of the best in the country, tattooing willing “canvases” for a chance to win $100,000. By then, it was much too late for me to change the channel. I wanted to find out what was going to happen.

While tattoos are becoming more mainstream by the day, there’s still a certain percentage of the population that attaches a very real stigma to them. Some will call them art, some will call them trash. The acceptability of a tattoo varies widely, depending not only on subject matter but on placement, as well as the bearer’s chosen occupation. Certain walks of life are most definitely associated with tattoos, as are certain levels of behavior. I’m offering no opinion on whether any of that is right or wrong. I’ve seen enviable tattoos and I’ve seen horrible ones. Art certainly exists within the medium. So do mistakes.

As with any reality show, you’ve got a group of people selected to share close quarters in a high-pressure environment. The tattoo artists all have personalities that seem to be larger than life. All of them project a confidence across the board that doesn’t often happen in other reality shows. There’s not one person on the first episode that believes they’re going home. Of course, someone does and that’s the point that they all seem to start seeing that they could be the next one to be sent away.

The element of the show that really gives it an edge to me is the fact that every time the contestants compete they’re putting an actual tattoo on an actual human being. The human canvases (to use the show’s terminology) are taking a huge gamble. They may be getting an incredible tattoo from the next big thing in tattoos or they may be setting themselves up for a permanent disappointment. The people who have been tattooed form a jury who vote on the worst tattoo of the day. It must be an awful feeling to look at a fresh tattoo and realize that this thing that is now on your skin is hideous and was so messed up that a committee of people are glad it’s not on them.

I don’t think I have ever seen a show where the contestants were so willing to argue with the judges and get defensive about their work. Most of the artists have a particular specialty and they are supposed to expand their skills over the course of the show in other tattoo styles. Some of the rules are clearly defined concerning the styles and some aren’t. While I watched, I noticed that the artists who stubbornly clung to the type of tattoos they were most accustomed to doing were the ones who seemed to get sent home the soonest. That’s actually a decision that I would agree with, since proclaiming someone an “Ink Master” indicates a range and versatility they should be able to back up with their work.

Sometime amidst the “Ink Master” programming, they ran out of season three episodes and started airing episodes of a show called “Tattoo Nightmares”. Idly, I found myself wondering how many of the people who’d gotten really bad tattoos on “Ink Master” were going to end up on “Tattoo Nightmares. There were a surprising number of mistakes on “Ink Master” and there were tattoos that could be charitably called ugly.

“Tattoo Nightmares” stars Jasmine Rodriguez, Big Gus, and Tommy Helm. All three of them are tattoo artists who do cover-up work. The show features a constantly changing cast of people who come in to get bad ink fixed. They share their stories and it’s a parade of terrible ideas that have left permanent marks on the people telling them. It’s also a cautionary tell of everything you should avoid should you ever decide to go under the needle yourself. There are stories of people tattooing themselves, stories about people letting friends tattoo them, and, even more scary, the ones of seemingly professional tattooists who weren’t so much sketchy as they were complete scumbags. The before images of the tattoos are some of the worst examples of tattoo work I’ve ever seen made humiliatingly public.

The show may make light of the situation, but all of the artists show great empathy with their clients. These are people living with vivid, daily reminders of a mistake and so many of those cases have impacted the lives of those people significantly. It’s the kind of show that can help reinforce that a tattooist may be an artist, but they are practicing on living, breathing people and what you do to them affects them, sometimes very profoundly. Sometimes, a tattoo nightmare is actually because someone didn’t do research on the image that they wanted or because they chose to get an image that was distasteful or otherwise inappropriate because it seemed like a good idea at the time. The content of the stories behind the tattoos is as varied as the people coming in to get the tattoos altered.

I find that “Tattoo Nightmares” holds more appeal to me than “Ink Master.” Despite the fact that the whole premise of the show is the darker side of the tattoo industry, when things have gone horribly wrong, they’re trying to turn it into something positive. They are also educating people about how to shop for a tattoo artist and providing valuable information on how cover-up artists do their work. It may not be an in-depth course on how to fix tattoos, but it certainly gives even laymen a baseline of terminology and design technique to help them make better choices and, hopefully, avoid ending up with a tattoo nightmare of their own.

Just for the sake of comparison, I checked out A & E’s show “Bad Ink”. Like “Tattoo Nightmares”, the show is supposed to be about people who have regrettable tattoos getting cover-up work. It takes place in Las Vegas and centers on Dirk and Ruckus, a tattoo artist and his friend, who go around the city looking for people who have bad tattoos. The show is much less about the stories behind the tattoos and the people getting the cover-ups than it is about Dirk and Ruckus bantering with each other. They’re pretty funny guys and it’s fairly entertaining to listen to them talk, but I noticed right away that they don’t show much of the tattoo work being done.

Dirk is the tattoist, Ruckus is the friend. They definitely seem to have a talent for getting people to show them tattoos. When the tattoo is being covered, though, they always seem to show long shots of Dirk tattooing. There aren’t any close-ups, really, until the finished product. “Bad Ink” also doesn’t really take time to discuss common tattoo mistakes, nor does it really deal with any of the technical aspects of cover-up tattoo work. What it does have is Dirk and Ruckus talking, a lot.

I can say this, if I went into a tattoo shop and saw a room like the empty one that Dirk gave to Ruckus to turn into his office space, I’d be turning right back around and finding a different artist. That room was scary. It was more than scary. It was practically nightmarish.

There seems to be an awful lot of discussion on the internet about “Bad Ink” and how realistic it actually is. I’m not qualified to tell whether or not the before tattoos are legitimate. However, a little bit of research did reveal this little gem of information: The listing clearly asks for people willing to have tattoos drawn onto them for promo spots and the first episode. If that listing is legitimate, then it definitely makes me question the entire show. I would think, if this is truly legitimate, that they shouldn’t need to look for people who’ll let them draw tattoos on them. Surely there are plenty of people walking around who would be willing to show their real bad tattoos. There seems to be enough for another show to air on a different network with the same subject matter.

However real the shows may or may not be, I can definitely see the value in them. After all, making informed decisions can help anyone avoid regrets. Do I think I’ll be a regular viewer? Probably not. I did find myself entertained. I also found myself hoping that none of my loved ones ever end up with tattoos that they really wish they’d never gotten.