‘Ink Master’ competitor Chris May opens up on show, life as owner of local Proton Tattoo shop

Jessi Haish

“I was just lucky.”

That’s how a local reality TV star would describe the journey that’s brought him to where he is.

Chris May, owner of Proton Tattoo, 120 S. Fourth St., is a contestant on Spike TV’s “Ink Master,” a tattoo competition reality show. Although the episodes have already been filmed, May must watch the show unfold week by week without disclosing anything to friends and family. The experience has created another chapter for his life story, which includes being a comedian, family man and a tattoo artist for 16 years.

‘I Learned What it’s Like to be Completely Terrified’

May had a brief run-in with reality television before – he was nearly a competitor on Spike TV’s “Tattoo Nightmares” last year. He was part of a small group of people who could have been on the show, but the show’s creators decided to go with people who were local to save on costs. The experience led to the possibility of being a master instead of a nightmare.

Someone May spoke with about “Nightmares” emailed him about an “Ink Masters” casting call in Chicago. May gave it a shot.

“…And I got it,” May said. “It was weird, ’cause there were a lot of people who tried out for the show.”

“A lot” of people means about 28,000, according to May. The contestant pool was then narrowed down to 16.

Filming started the day after Easter, May said, and took place in Newark, N.J. It wasn’t quite what he expected.

“I learned what it’s like to be completely terrified,” May said. “It felt like any dream you had about going to school in your underwear mixed with like, showering with dudes in the locker room in junior high for the first time. You’re exposing yourself a lot. By going there you’re saying, ‘I’m one of the best.’ If you don’t show you’re one of the best, you’re going to look like a complete ass.”

May tried to do his best in other ways, too — like not drawing extra attention to himself.

“I didn’t wanna be like, talking any drama…just to get camera time,” May said. “I think that helps you get camera time, ’cause I watched the first episode and I’m like, I’m a background character, you know what I mean? I didn’t start up shit. I strictly went there to do tattooing to the best of my ability.”

‘Anybody Can Be on TV’

The attention has brought some buzz to the shop.

“Everyone around here is really excited,” May said. “We all grew up in small towns and it’s like, ‘You’re on television.’ It’s crazy.”

May is originally from Waterman, which has a population of less than 2,000 residents.

“[Being on television is] one of those things I said I was gonna do and it happened,” May said.

“If I got to go back [on the show] I’d do it again. It’s fun. It’s like an adventure, it’s something to talk about: things you did in your life. I did this, I did this, there was the time I was on a TV show, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I want chapters in my life. It’s cool to have chapters in your life.”

He doesn’t think the fame has gone to his head.

“When you think of TV, you think they want the younger people, the attractive people,” May said. “I’m 37 years old, have crooked teeth, bald…and I made it, which is a setup for one of my stupid jokes where I say a saw an episode of ‘Honey Boo Boo’ and I don’t feel so special. Anybody can be on TV.”

While word of the show has spread around town — which led to a premiere party for the first episode at Lord Stanley’s, 142 E. Lincoln Highway — May’s appearance on television has had a unique effect on his business at the shop.

“People post online and say ‘Oh, now you’re booked forever, I’ll never get in,’” May said. “I think a lot of people are thinking that ’cause not a lot of people are coming in asking for me, but for everyone else it’s business as usual. People must think we’re just throttled with business, but it’s really not the case.”

May wasn’t a fan of how the first episode, which aired July 16, turned out.

“I don’t like it,” May said. “I think it sucked. She shouldn’t have won.”

May was referring to first episode competition winner Katherine “Tatu Baby” Flores, who was brought back for season three after competing — and losing — last season.

“It’s just that she got brought back and it’s a big draw for the show,” May said. “I can’t help but call shenanigans, and it doesn’t stop there. I can’t say what happens next, but there’s plenty of times…I hope viewers are smart enough to go, ‘They’re kinda favoring that one.’”

May said he isn’t “salty” about his first episode performance because he thinks he did well, creating a koala tattoo as a prison tattoo coverup.

May said he would have done some things differently during his stint, like bringing a really comfortable pair of shoes to compete in.

‘Just Hating My Existence’

Years ago, May was a teenager with a love for tattoos. He frequented Skin of a Different Color in Aurora, and was a frequent customer of owner Craig Murphy. May brought in his own drawings for his tattoos, and Murphy saw talent, saying May had a knack for the design aspect. Murphy said May should try tattooing, but he was attending college and kept putting off the idea.

“I kept turning him down,” May said. “I didn’t know if it was a real job.”

One day, May gave in.

“I was going to Kish [Kishwaukee College] and working at Walmart and just hating my existence,” May said. “I called the guy up and he said, ‘Yeah, come on in.’ That’s how I got started.”

Fast forward to 2009, and May was moving his Proton Tattoo Shop from Cortland to DeKalb to do what he does best in a place he has worked hard to create.

“I always idolized these really cool shops that I looked up to when I was learning how to tattoo,” May said. “I always said if [the employees] opened our own shop I wanted it to be like that. A lot of times when you find a tattoo shop in a small town it’s people that don’t actually tattoo… I always wanted a really top-tier tattoo shop.”

May said when the shop moved, the employees wanted to be the best tattoo shop in DeKalb. He thinks his appearance on the show kind of proves that.

May believes he has accomplished what he wanted for his tattoo shop but now just fine tunes the business. He’s happy with where he’s at.

“I’ve seen tattoo shops come and go and others haven’t done as well as us,” May said. “We just do tattooing — we don’t sell balloons like the guy down the street. We do tattoos. It’s just one of those things that you don’t see anymore, just a good product.”

‘The Calm Before the Storm’

Now, May is looking forward.

“If I got to go back [on the show] I’d do it again,” May said. “It’s fun. It’s like an adventure, it’s something to talk about: things you did in your life. I did this, I did this, there was the time I was on a TV show, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I want chapters in my life. It’s cool to have chapters in your life.”

If this was a chapter in May’s life, he’d call it “the calm before the storm.”

“I get nervous because I’m really happy with my life right now and I’m nervous that something stupid is going to happen because everything is going so good,” May said. “I have a great family, I have great kids, I own my own house, I own my own business. You keep a close watch on your heart right now.”

May said “the storm” is the unknown.

“But all of this… I think if you’re a positive guy, you’re nice…it pays off,” May said.