Ah, what a simpler time it was back in 2007, when Kat Von D became a reality TV star on her show L..A Ink. It’s hard to imagine now, but Von D was wide-eyed and curvier in the way everyone is before they start seeing themselves regularly on TV. She’d walked away from TLC’s hit Miami Ink and been offered her own spin-off, this time centered around her own shop in the heart of Hollywood and the dramatic back stories behind her client’s tattoos. And, there was also the keyhole glimpse into Von D’s exciting L.A. life, palling around with black-clad rock stars and Jackass dudes.
Von D has successfully branded herself like every savvy reality TV star should—makeup, books, clothing line!—while making herself an easy tabloid punchline over the course of four seasons. That has a lot to do with her tumultuous engagement to one of the most certifiably loathed public figures out there, Cheater Extraordinaire Jesse James. Tonight, Von D’s run on TLC wraps up, though her shop and tattooing (and branding!) will certainly continue on.
The series finale limps along in the way the show has for the last two seasons, telling clunky stories that are as forced as they come. Also, L..A. Ink continues its tradition of giving the least compelling, extraneous characters endless screen time (see: season three’s awful Aubrey). Here, a strange, unkempt woman named Arianna—who apparently wrote to Kat about her life troubles and the inspiration she found in Kat—was inexplicably flown out to L.A. to become her “roommate” for the season. She’s clearly living rent free with the millionaire TV star and up to little else than watching Kat’s hairless cat while mumbling and murmuring into the camera for long stretches of the season.
A lot of this probably has to do with the fact that Von D has openly admitted that she regretted letting the L.A. Ink cameras follow her personal life so closely in earlier seasons. Those who tuned in will remember that the show depicted her struggles with alcohol, decision to become sober, struggles with friends, and several failed romantic relationships. Much of this was the reason the show became a hit. Von D is surprisingly likable as a central character, showing a vulnerability and sense of humor that one might assume is hidden away behind her wall of tattoos, makeup, and wild hair.
The sometimes-rocky relationships with her tattoo artists and staff—particularly tattoo artist Corey and her former friend Pixie—made for extremely watchable reality TV, too. But in recent seasons, it’s become obvious that Kat is barely participating in the show, allowing it to descend into a caricature of reality TV, where sound bites are sloppily stitched together alongside an endless stream of heartbreaking stories from customers. Without Von D’s personality to ground the show, it’s been like a balloon waiting to float away into the sky, up to reality TV show heaven.
In a surprising move, Kat did allow cameras to capture a good bit of her romance with James for this last season. The focus on their long distance relationship between Austin, where he’s based, and her shop in L.A. became a central plot arc for the season and the final drama it tried to end on. However, there’s no real way to know where things actually stand now. Clearly, the show’s editors had just as tough a time figuring out what was actually going on with their star, given the fact they pulled vague testimonials about the relationship that could clearly be from any point in the season and strung them together with news clips and Twitter screenshots of Von D’s account. It couldn’t be more obvious she firmly decided not to clarify her current situation with James—they were last reported to be re-engaged after breaking it off for one month—and that the show scrambled to find some kind of reasonable end note.
Von D probably has a lot to say about allowing cameras to follow her life for four years. It’s made her a very rich woman, no doubt, but an easily polarizing one, too. Dozens of L.A. Ink customers have told interesting and touching stories while getting permanent art inked into their skin by the truly talented Von D and her staff. Still, it feels like a show that should have waved goodbye seasons ago, rather than squeezing whatever drops it could out of its star and padding out the rest into a clunky, embarrassing drama. And for all the complaining about her private life being unfairly trotted out, it certainly feels like Von D and her fiancée wrap things up by laying the groundwork for the next step: a reality show about them both living and working in Austin. So stay tuned for Kat & Jesse’s Texas Tattoo & Car Stuff Shop… a working title!