Opportunity comes in many forms, regardless of the trade.

For mixed martial artists, it’s a cage surrounded by fans and the chance to exhibit athleticism and technique.

For tattoo artists, it’s an open piece of skin and the prospect of leaving a permanent mark on the subject’s life and body.

Ink Master’s Kyle Dunbar understands a little of both worlds. Hailing from Flint, Mich., Dunbar has been refining his tattooing skills for two decades. The parallels between his career and the growth of MMA are abundant—hard work, dedication and sacrifice. The self-taught artist found himself in the limelight on the third and fourth seasons of Spike TV’s reality show, much the way that up-and-coming fighters have on the network’s past MMA-themed series.

Dunbar (Facebook.com/inkbykyledunbar)

Dunbar (Facebook)

“It gives you the chance. Whether or not you succeed is up to you,” said Dunbar in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “It’s not necessarily an accurate portrayal of anyone’s abilities, but it’s a chance to showcase your work.”

Dunbar fell short on the show’s third season, finishing in fourth place. While he was not awarded the $100,000 cash prize he so desperately wanted, the exposure from the show afforded him new options.

“The show had a big impact. I can’t say I’m rich now, but I’ve got a lot more freedom,” explained Dunbar. “I don’t own the shop [Almighty Tattoo] anymore. I gave that to the first artist I ever hired. I still have a place I can work at, but I don’t have all the bills.

“I’ve been traveling. It’s allowed me to do what I want. I can learn more about tattoos by getting out on the road and working with better artists than myself.”

Despite the fact that Dunbar did not win the third season, Ink Master fans overwhelmingly voted Dunbar back for the show’s fourth installment. Whereas most reality show competitors would balk at the idea of going through the stress of another season, the Michigan artist relished the idea, especially after watching season-two artist Tatu Baby make the final three on her return stint on the show.

“I was excited. Maybe foolishly,” admitted Dunbar with a laugh. “I felt like I had a good chance. Watching Tatu Baby, she did pretty well with it. She may have done some bad tattoos, but they still liked her. I thought it might garner me some favor.”

Given his prior experience of living with 16 other artists and going through numerous challenges, many would think Dunbar would have an advantage on the current season. Yet, thus far, he has clashed with two of the show’s judges, Chris Nunez and Oliver Peck.

“I would’ve thought [it would’ve been easier], but it doesn’t seem to be adding up that way,” said Dunbar. “I get compliments here and there, but no real acknowledgment. Even if my tattoo is good, it’s like I’m a non-thought in the judges’ minds.

“It was a lot more stressful this time. But I don’t think Chris and I, nor Oliver and I, will ever really see eye-to-eye on tattoos. I think I pissed them off when I yelled at Ashley [Bennett], and I don’t think there’s any way of making up for that. It’s almost a personal matter.

“I’d liken the show to a wrestling match, where they’re the bad guys and I’m the good guy. They say a bunch of mean stuff about me and it makes the fans want me to win more.”

Even with the bumpy start to the current season, Dunbar’s fighting spirit hasn’t been broken. He’s taken everything in stride and cherished the show’s good moments. Last season, Spike brought in Bellator MMA commentator Jimmy Smith and former UFC fighter Frank Trigg for tattoos. After winning one of the show’s “flash” challenges, Dunbar was given his choice of canvases and the longtime MMA fan selected Smith.

Dunbar (Facebook.com/inkbykyledunbar)

Dunbar (Facebook)

“I got the chance to tattoo Jimmy Smith. That was really cool,” recalled Dunbar. “I watched Fight Quest, where he used to travel around the world and do different martial arts. He got the shit beat out of him. That was as good as any MMA show they’ve got out today.

“I recognized Frank Trigg immediately and I would’ve liked to have tattooed him, but he didn’t have an idea that worked for me. Once you meet Jimmy, he’s a magnetic type of personality.”

Dunbar’s passion for applying ink may be rivaled by his enthusiasm for combat sports. After forging a relationship with Smith on the reality show, Dunbar now has an open invite to Bellator events. Given his busy schedule, Dunbar has yet to attend an event in person, but that doesn’t mean he’s not well-versed on the sport and its history.

“I love MMA,” he declared. “I’ve been following it for years. I like watching as much as I can. I only get a small amount of time to watch.

“I was a fan of Urijah Faber in the WEC. I watched some shoot boxing back in the day when Dan Severn used to do it. I remember watching the first UFC event with Royce Gracie. That stuff is still mind-blowing even today. I loved watching Gracie against Kimo [Leopoldo]. It was amazing.”

Although Dunbar’s craft demands he’s hunched over a canvas with a tattoo machine buzzing most of the time, the fight fan is hardly just another armchair fighter.

“I’ve never trained in full MMA, but I trained in combat hapkido,” explained the artist.

“I would always hear about getting punched in the nose or puking. Neither one of those sounded very fun to me. The whole reason I was taking self-defense class is so that I don’t have to get punched in the nose,” he quipped with a laugh.

It’s a safe bet that Dunbar is less likely to get punched in the face with a needle in his hand than if he were wearing four-ounce gloves. However, with his passion for his art and the sport of MMA, maybe the opportunity just hasn’t presented itself yet.

Kyle would like to thank Villain Arts and Ink Life Tours. Follow Dunbar on Twitter: @InkbyKyleDunbar and on Facebook.

Catch Ink Master every Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ET on Spike TV.

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