Ink Master
“Ink Master” judges Oliver Peck, Dave Navarro and Chris Nunez decided on the top three to go to the live Season 7 finale. Spike

And then there were four. Season 7 of “Ink Master” has no doubt been the toughest competition so far. The Spike series pitted new tattoo artists against veterans to see who would come out on top, and the contestants were narrowed down to three in episode 12.

Last week’s forehead tattoo challenge left returning artists Cleen Rock One and James Vaughn in the running, along with newcomers Christian Buckingham and Anthony Michaels. With the live finale airing next week, judges Dave Navarro, Oliver Peck and Chris Nunez revealed the last challenge the contestants must complete before determining who will make the top 3.

Gone are the flash challenges and human canvas jury. This week, the artists must go head to head. And it’s finally the newcomers who get the advantage.

Anthony and Christian get to choose whom they want to face. On top of that, they also get to choose the style and subject. Anthony challenges Cleen, and decides to hit him with a black and grey realism piece. But he’s got rules that Cleen has to play by. His opponent must design a woman from the waist up, and he has to draw it by hand, not trace it. Meanwhile, Christian challenges James to tattoo a full body wolf in black and gray realism. Both Anthony and Christian feel that they’re getting revenge on the veterans.

“I’m going to embarrass James with this,” Christian tells the cameras. “He’s going to need psychiatric counseling when I’m done with him.”

The artists are randomly assigned human canvases and have six hours to complete the piece. Christian and Anthony confidently get to work, while Cleen feels the pressure of drawing a woman, something that he’s not comfortable doing free-hand. And unfortunately for him, it shows in his work.

While Cleen has smooth shading and good contrast, it can’t compete with Anthony’s piece. The judges love the “rich” black that he used in his tattoo, and are even more impressed because he has only five years in the industry behind him. Although Cleen’s piece isn’t terrible, they give Anthony the win for going for a “softer and more refined” approach.

As for James and Christian, Christian is no doubt the winner in this matchup. His detail and soft shaded background lands him the win and the spot alongside Anthony in the finale.

Fortunately for Cleen and James, there is still one spot open in the top three. The two veterans have to go up against each other for that final position, and the judges are allowing them to do a tattoo of their choosing. James, who originally competed in Season 1 of “Ink Master,” decides to do a Japanese-style design, which is what got sent him home last time. Despite mastering that style, he was eliminated in Season 1 because the judges felt he played it too safe. He’s determined not to make the same mistake twice and draws an elaborate Japanese foo dog and flower. Cleen, on the other hand, sticks with what he does best, new school. He designs a tattoo incorporating a snake, skull and dagger.

The stakes are high, but both men are confident. The bad news is that the judges aren’t fond of the drawings.

During the final critique, Peck commends Cleen for a smooth piece, but criticizes the way the dagger is hidden by the body of the snake. Nunez agrees, adding that the eyes ruin the snake’s head. James doesn’t make out much better. While Navarro likes the line work on the piece, overall the design is just too much.

Both tattoos have flaws, but in the end the judges come to an agreement. They send Cleen to the finale and eliminate James.

Ink Master
James Vaughn was eliminated on Season 7, episode 12, of “Ink Master.” Spike

Cleen may have landed the final spot in the live finale, but he still has to beat out Christian and Anthony. The judges reveal that the trio will be judged on 48 hours of tattooing, which is a new twist for “Ink Master.” Previously the Spike reality show required the top three competitors to complete a back piece in 35 hours. But that’s not the only twist.

The 48 hours must be divided equally between two pieces. The first piece is a chest tattoo, and the judges assign the artists a different style based on their weaknesses this season. Anthony must complete a full-color classic Japanese piece because his dragon tattoo earlier this season was a flop. Christian has to do a American traditional color tattoo as a comeback from his eagle design a few weeks ago. Cleen must design a fine line black and gray piece, which stems from his loss earlier in the episode against Anthony.

The second tattoo that has to be completed for the finale can be any style and subject of their choosing, except it has to be a sleeve. While that might sound easy to some, Cleen reveals that it’s actually pretty difficult. The arm is tricky, and he says 24 hours is not enough to complete it.

Christian, Anthony and Cleen will show off their two tattoos in the live “Ink Master” finale next Tuesday. And the judges are not the only ones they have to impress. Viewers will vote for the first artist to move onto the top two, and the previously eliminated Season 7 cast will return to judge and vote for the second artist to make it to that level.