L.A. Ink’s Kat Von D
Kat von D Pictures by Kevin Ou for DUB Magazine 2008 >> here
Kat Von D (born Katherine Von Drachenberg) is more than just a tattoo artist; she’s an icon. Known for her portraits and black-and-gray technique, a stint on TLC’s “Miami Ink” that later gave way to her own show “L.A. Ink” and her recognizable star tattoos by her right eye, the Mexican-born (with Argentinean and German origins) tattoo goddess is revolutionizing the male dominated tattoo realm and paving new roads one tattoo at a time by letting her awesome work speak for itself (she’s tattooed the likes of Eve and Ja Rule, to name a few).
Walking into the interview, the 26-year-old Kat looked more like a rock star than a tattoo artist with her raven black tousled hair, ’70s-inspired platforms, face-engulfing aviator glasses, huge Mexican flag belt buckle, and, of course, the prominent and numerous tattoos (on her back, arms, finger, shoulders, neck, face stomach, legs, hips…). Already in the third season of “L.A. Ink”, Kat seemed more like the girl next door rather than a famous reality TV star. After being bombarded with several requests for autographs and pictures, Kat never frowned at a request and only smiled as she signed. But this is how she wants to be, no matter how famous she gets. She wants her fans to see her as accessible, not some untouchable celebrity.
How did you first get interested in tattoos?
I was 14, just hanging out in the punk rock scene. I’ve been drawing all my life, and my punk rock friend, who tattooed out of his house with a ghetto hand-made machine, was like, ‘Kat, you should tattoo me,’ and I did it and realized it was what I wanted to do. It was a Misfits skull. I’ve been tattooing for 11 years now and worked at my first shop when I was 16. I’ve been doing it professionally ever since.
So, if you never would have started tattooing, what do you think you’d be doing right now?
I always loved make-up. That would have been fun, but I think that people are born to do certain things, and I was born to be a tattoo artist. I was lucky enough to find my niche.
What was your very first tattoo, and how old were you when you got it?
I did my first tattoo on myself when I was 14. It’s a “J” in Old English lettering on my ankle that stood for James, my first love who I dated for, like, three years. Now it just stands for ‘just kidding.’
It’s obvious you didn’t stop with the first one. How many tattoos do you actually have now?
I have no clue. It’s just become one big one over the years. I’ve been tattooed by more than 30 different artists from all over the world.
Who’s your favorite tattoo artist then?
Kore Flatmo, who is based in Cincinnati; he tattooed the eyeball on my hand. He has a good vision about what tattooing is all about.
You must have more than 20 tattoos. Which one is your favorite so far?
I love the stars on my face just because it’s my little trademark now. I’ve been a big Motley Crüe fan and “Starry Eyes” is my favorite song on my favorite album. I started off with one star and kept adding. Everybody would tell me ‘Stop, you’re tattooing your face’ and ‘You’re going to f*ck yourself up.’ Now, it’s more like a symbol of how you can still be a female all tattooed and still be feminine. Aside from my stars, I really like the portraits of my father; he’s my hero.
How do you go about choosing a tattoo?
I do a lot of stuff spontaneously, so if I were in France, I’d probably get the Eiffel Tower tattooed on me somewhere. When it comes to big stuff, I’ve gotten portraits of my family, and I have a lot of Beethoven tattoos (I play the piano and love playing Beethoven). I get things that I can grow old with and still love them.
Sounds like you have some crazy tattoo stories in general. Care to share one?
When the guys were filming Jackass 2 in New Orleans, Steve-O flew out to Miami to come and hang out and party. One night we got wasted and talked about how we are never going to have kids. When you’re drunk, you’re point of view is so amplified, and Steve-O was saying, ‘I’m going to get a tattoo of a baby with a no smoking sign over it. It’s going to represent freedom.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it tomorrow,’ but then the conversation became f*ck babies, and the next thing we know is he’s getting a dude f*cking a baby. In the morning, he was like, ‘Oh, my God. I just got a pedophile tattoo. I can’t even show my doctor.’ He was so embarrassed by it. When he realized the tattoo wasn’t funny, he went to some shop in L.A. and let them scribble over the baby, so it was just a man having sex with a big black blob. When he came back to Miami, Bam was like, ‘You can add a head and some legs, and it looks like the guy is having sex with an ostrich,’ so I tattooed it for him.
Now that’s a crazy story. Where’s the craziest place you’ve done a tattoo?
I take my tattoo stuff with me everywhere I go. I’ve tattooed people in random hotels, at people’s pads, while bands were on tour and, of course, in shops. When I did the Tom Green show, I told him to tattoo me and he said O.K. I told him to do it while on the show, and so I set up the tattoo gear on his hosting table, and he tattooed the name Logan on me. He was yelling at some camera dude named Logan, and I just told him to write it on my arm. The video is on my MySpace page.
You’ve worked at numerous shops across Southern California. Which shop has been the best experience (other than your own of course)?
Prior to opening up my shop or “Miami Ink,” I worked at True Tattoo in Hollywood. This was the first time in my career that I didn’t want to leave a shop. I was sad to leave because I was working with one of my closest tattoo friends, my boss Clay Decker. It was hard to say goodbye to that. He had always been supportive, but my shop is pretty close to him, so he’s like a sister shop to High Voltage.
Do you have a pre-tattoo ritual you do before working on someone?
I have to listen to music. I have everything on my iPod. It’s pretty diverse, and I always put it on shuffle. I have stuff on there ranging from hardcore metal like Slayer to Mexican music from Selena. Other than that, I always tattoo bare foot; it makes everybody feel at home. People think it’s unsanitary, but I think people nowadays are just scared to have contact with each other, especially in L.A. Being born in Mexico, I still carry around the custom of when you meet somebody, you hug and kiss them. I did a tattoo convention in my hometown of Nuevo Leon in Mexico, and after five hours of meeting fans, I went back to the hotel and saw that I had a huge hole in my make-up where everybody had kissed me on the cheek. When you do that, you exchange energy with that person and leave with a little bit of them. When we got back to the States, we did a convention in Arkansas, and I went to give someone a hug and they immediately stuck out their hand. I forgot that people here don’t do that.
Music and tattoos often go hand-in-hand with one another. Why do you think that is?
Music has always been about expressing yourself, and it’s the same with tattoos. If you’re an actor, a tattoo in the wrong place might f*uck with you getting certain roles, but if you’re a rock star on the road, you can do whatever the Hell you want. Tattoos influence music and music has always influenced tattoos.
So what rock stars and celebrities have you worked on?
Damn, there’s so many, and I always forget people. I need to keep a list in my phone. I’ve done tattoos for Bam Margera, Steve-O, Jeffree Star, Scott Ian, Nicole Richie, Eve, Ja Rule, Jenna Jameson, Eric Balfour and the list goes on.
With your stint on TLC’s “Miami Ink” and now your own show “L.A. Ink,” you’ve become quite famous. How did you end up on “Miami Ink” initially?
I was working at True Tattoo and the guys knew that the network was looking for a girl to be on the show. I knew that they had already scouted some girls, and I knew who they were. They were all hot, but they sucked. When they finally asked me to do it, I couldn’t say no. If I didn’t, they would have some hot chick with no substance to represent everything I’ve worked for since I was 14, and I couldn’t have that. I said yeah, signed my contract without reading it because I didn’t care about the money, and then it turned into a big nightmare. I think you have to suffer so you don’t have to suffer later. I’m even grateful for the bad stuff because I learned how not to treat people and how not to run a business.
How is your new shop, High Voltage, and “L.A. Ink” different from “Miami Ink?”
My work ethic has always been important to me. I grew up being taught loyalty. A shop should be like a family, and I have a great crew. It’s not like in Miami, where I was outnumbered. At High Voltage, we all learn from each other and have each other’s back, so it’s really the first time that I’m completely happy, and it shows on the new show; I’m more positive.
Did you ever think you’d be famous, and has fame changed you?
No, I never thought all this could happen. Even when I did my first tattoo, I’d never though I’d be a tattoo artist. I didn’t even know you could make a career out of it. As for changing me, I knew what I was signing up for, and with “L.A. Ink” I wanted to be honest. I couldn’t do that in Miami. I don’t mind being open about my family and problems. I think people can learn from it and have a connection with you because they know you’re real. People know I’m not perfect. I haven’t changed. My priorities are the same. The only way I’ve changed is that I’ve gotten more depressed because people have shown their true colors. As long as you remember where you came from and remember the purpose of everything, you can stay grounded.
So, how do you get around L.A.?
I have a black Cadillac CTS. Driving is a bitch in L.A., and it was compact enough and cool looking that I liked it. I don’t like European cars and feel weird not buying an American car. The cut is really sleek, and I had a vision to black it all out and make it look evil.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done in a car?
Well, once Bam and I squeezed into a Lamborghini with his parents. And, if you’ve watched his show on MTV, then you know that his parents aren’t exactly thin people. His mom drove around a school; it was so funny, and I still can’t believe we did that.
You’ve already accomplished so much at such a young age. What does the future hold for you?
Hopefully a vacation.
Written by Kristie Bertucci for DUB Magazine 2009