Tattoo artist Steve Tefft has no problem inking a baby portrait, an angel or flower to suit the needs of his customers at 12 Tattoos and Body Piercing in Groton.
But judging by his body of work, and the images that cover his arms, he is most comfortable with his tattoo needle dipped in shades of grey and black, creating macabre works that usually involve a demon, skull or some other disturbing image.
"To me the black and greys are like an old photograph," Tefft said. "They're more emotional."
Tefft, 42, is putting his tattooing skills to the test as one of 16 contestants on the new season of the popular Spike TV competition reality series "Ink Master." Tefft was among 10,000 people to try out for the show, which was filmed in New Jersey over the course of several months this summer.
Tefft is barred from talking about what happened during filming but looks back on it as a great experience that pushed the limits of his abilities.
The show, which premiered on Oct. 9, pits artists against each other for a $100,000 grand prize and bragging rights as "Ink Master." Contestants compete in a series of challenges where they will create and execute a tattoo on demand. The celebrity judges, people like Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction fame, critique the tattoos on technique and style in such categories as photorealism, tribal, American traditional and pin-up.
"It was a lot of fun - a real test. You think you can do stuff no problem until you're really under pressure," Tefft said. "Your buddies may think you're great but when you look at all of the other artists - how do you stack up?"
Just how he landed a spot among some of the top up-and-coming tattoo artists in the business likely has a lot to do with his portfolio of work - but a hangover may have helped.
When he traveled to New York earlier this year for the show's casting call he lived up to his reputation as a party guy. He stayed out drinking until 6 a.m. and rolled in for an interview with three hours of sleep. He traded his overnight drinking stories with his interviewer.
"I really didn't know what to expect," Tefft said. "They look at your portfolio but also want to know what makes you different."
Along with an outgoing nonchalant attitude Tefft said he likes to dress up and prides himself on his wardrobe that includes many designer shirts that sometimes seem out of character to the mostly dark colors he wears in the shop.
Like all of his nine employees at 12 Tattoos at 565 Long Hill Road, Tefft said the artwork is what comes first when creating a tattoo or even covering up another artist's mistakes.
"I started when tattoo artists were scumbags," Tefft said. "I think things have changed a lot."
He said the artistry has evolved and there has been an explosion in the business. And while there are many talented artists in the business, he said the skill levels vary.
He's got a tip for anyone thinking about getting a tattoo.
"You should treat it like plastic surgery. If you were getting a nose job you'd do your homework and maybe check with a few different doctors first."
He's picky about his own tattoos and who does them. Coincidentally, one of the skulls on his arm was done years ago by last year's "Ink Master," winner Shane O'Neill.
He frequently talks to people in consultations and has no reservations about telling someone "you're going to hate it someday." One example, he said, was the two girls who came in to get their boyfriend's names tattooed on their hips. In the end he performed the work after making them wait a little extra time in the lobby. He says ultimately it's the customers choice, no matter what his opinion.
Tefft is originally from Wood River Junction, R.I., where he said he's always drawn and always been fascinated by the tattoos that adorned relatives, even the faded, sometimes nearly indecipherable ink blotches.
He set his course early on by earning a fine arts degree at a local community college while tattooing on the side.
His first work was a needle-and-ink cross he tattooed onto his own wrist when he was 13 or 14. The cross now lies among a host of demons and skulls that cover his arms.
His first work on another person was a Koi fish for his brother's friend - a tattoo that he said still holds up today. He's done thousands since.
Prior to opening his own shop, Tefft worked for more than a decade at Flats tattooing, a now rival shop.
Tefft said he made some good friends while taping the show and plans a series of visits. Ink Master culminates with a live finale in December.