Tattoo artist Kat Von D has woven herself into pop culture consciousness while managing to attract those who exist on its fringe. Rock stars want to be her and clean cut housewives live vicariously through her. According to Kat herself, some of the most unlikely of viewers fervently tune in to her hit show, LA Ink, which chronicles her life and work as one of the world’s most celebrated tattoo artists. She knows this because they approach her on the street (and in the supermarket) asking for anecdotes about the many tattoos that adorn her highly decorated body, a body that was recently included in this year’s Maxim Hot 100.
At the age of twenty-six, Kat Von D is emerging as a full fledged brand and an icon for her lifestyle. She is reveling in the mainstreaming of tattoos and her contribution to what she considers a movement towards appreciation and acceptance of her type of self expression.
As an accidental celebrity who has been tattooing since the age of fourteen, Kat is humbled and amused by all of the attention LA Ink has brought her. Whenever I pose a question about her recent fame, she always deflects any notion of self importance and steers the conversation back to the art of tattooing; in fact, art in general. This impresses me.
During our conversation I find her to be part California love child, part punk rocker and part twenty-first century renaissance impresario. Kat’s demeanor is warm and disarming. She is genuinely sweet with a raspy voice and a propensity for speaking fast, with almost childlike enthusiasm. Most importantly, she tackled all of my questions head-on, like a linebacker in heat.
PR.com (Allison Kugel): Did you just start shooting the third season of LA Ink?
Kat Von D: Yeah, actually we just started two days ago. It’s kind of weird because we took a really long break. The first day of filming I was staring into the camera, like, ten times during an interview. It was weird, like, “Oh, I’ve gotta get used to this again.”
PR.com: What kinds of changes will there be in the third season of LA Ink, considering the way your company, High Voltage Tattoo, is evolving?
Kat Von D: If you saw the second season, I lost my main shop manager, Pixie, so I think it will be pretty apparent that I need help because so many things are growing, and so many things are happening. My team grew to be about ten tattooers. So, there’s a night crew and a day crew, and trying to manage that as well as all my projects that I have outside of tattooing, it’s kind of impossible without any help. I actually bring on a new cast member, a new shop manager. I’m pretty excited to introduce her. She’s been a good friend of mine for a long time.
PR.com: When you’re running a business and it’s also a television show, how much that we see is produced, and how much of it is a true documentary of what actually goes on?
Kat Von D: I think it’s pretty close to the truth from 9 to 9PM, because that’s when we film. It would be crazy to have the entire camera crew for 24 hours straight. Also I want to be open to the public at one point. When we do film for the three to four months we’re open from 9 to midnight and that’s when a lot of the crazy stuff happens too, and we miss some of those moments. It takes about a week to film a one hour episode. So, what the viewers get to see is a dwindled down [version]. They take the important story stuff and make a one hour episode out of it. So, you see the edited version and you miss out on the lengthier part of the process. But, it’s pretty close to true.
PR.com: You grew up in California. How did you wind up several years ago working in Miami, and how did the show Miami Ink first come together with TLC?
Kat Von D: It was interesting because at the time, before Miami [Ink], there really hadn’t been any tattoo shows. I was working at a shop in Hollywood for two of these guys and one of the guys was Chris Garver. I remember it was like, “Oh yeah, Chris is off to Miami filming some kind of pilot,” and I’m like, “What’s a pilot?” (Laughs) And I’m like, “For a tattoo show!?! That’s so boring!” I didn’t understand what it was going to be about, because all it is, is us sitting down with the, “raah, raah, raah, raah (imitating the buzzing noise of a tattoo needle).” You know what I mean? It’s just that buzzing noise. I didn’t understand the premise until the show actually came out. It was more based on the story behind each tattoo and the dynamics between the client and the [artist]. It was all guys and the network finally said, “We want a female. There’s too much testosterone.” Chris Garver called me and said, “Hey, we all want you to come down.” There’s not that many tattoo artists that are girls and that are also cool and don’t get offended, and who are actually good and have been tattooing a long time. The network approved me and I flew down there.
PR.com: How did you like living in Miami?
Kat Von D: I was there on the weekdays and then I would fly home on the weekends, so I never actually lived there. It was definitely a different vibe than L.A. I’m so used to living in Hollywood where it’s totally not a big deal to be tattooed. To be separated from that and put in South Beach, I got a lot of weird looks in a bathing suit (laughs). There was friction between myself and some of the other cast members. It didn’t end up pretty, and it was time for me to go home.
PR.com: Why do you think it appealed to TLC to want to do a show about tattoo artists in the first place?
Kat Von D: I think the age demographic thing was important, and TLC doing a lot more younger viewer friendly shows. I honestly believe nobody really knew how big it would get and how interested people would be. Once the show aired it was crazy! People loved it. It’s kind of like a car crash. People that would never get tattoos were tuning in because they could kind of live through either us or a client. Believe it or not, grandmas and soccer moms come up to me and say, “I love your show!”
PR.com: (Laughs) I guess they get to live vicariously through you. Before you were famous, had you encountered prejudice from people who would see your outward appearance and judge you, or treat you in a certain way because you’re heavily tattooed?
Kat Von D: Oh, most definitely. Four or five years ago going into a Dior store or, you know, you felt like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (laughs). People would stare, and it wasn’t because they were curious. Going to the mall was pretty hard. I think for a female especially, because it’s so much gnarlier than [on] a guy. On a guy it’s like, “Oh, he’s a wild one.” If it’s a girl it’s all the bad stigmas. You’re a hooker, you’re a drug addict, you were in jail (laughs). It was actually kind of fun, because I consider myself to be a pretty smart person and you talk to people and they’re like, “Wow! You actually have a brain!” Or, “You’re actually kind of nice and pretty conservative!”
PR.com: What is it about tattoos that you love so much, where you don’t mind having your skin almost completely covered?
Kat Von D: It’s a form of self expression. I’d been listening to music on my own without my parents input since I was twelve, and getting into the punk rock scene. It just really gave me the attitude where I don’t get tattooed for anybody else but me. I didn’t do this as an attention seeking act of rebelling. It was more, I actually just like this and I want to get tattooed, and I want it so much that I don’t care if other people treat me differently. If they do then they’re probably the people that I don’t want to hang out with, so it kind of filtered it out. But, now it’s backfired, because people really like the show and even people who haven’t watched it are indirectly affected, and they become more open minded. So, they come up to me and ask me about my tattoos. Now I have to constantly talk about my tattoos, like… at the grocery store. I’m not complaining, but before it wasn’t like that.
PR.com: Who does your tattoos? You can’t do them yourself, can you?
Kat Von D: No. I used to do it myself when I was a kid, practicing, but not anymore. It’s too hard for me to concentrate. I’ve collected them from over thirty or forty different artists from around the world.
PR.com: Did you ever foresee yourself being a television personality or a celebrity when you began tattooing?
Kat Von D: Fuck, no (laughs)! When I first started tattooing I didn’t even know it was a job. I did it because I loved it. I think that attitude helps keep me grounded, because some of the friction that happened in Miami (on the show Miami Ink) was due to the fact that people got a little too big for their britches and just started losing focus about what it is you do. I’m a tattooer. I’ve made a choice to document my career on TV. I know there’s good and bad things that come with it. I tattoo everyday and that’s why my voice is fucked up (explaining her hoarseness). I filmed yesterday from 9AM to 9PM. Then from 9PM to about 1:30AM last night, I tattooed.
PR.com: There was a clip from LA Ink on TLC’s website where you were meeting with your life coach and you were saying, “I hate being an adult!”
Kat Von D: (Laughs).
PR.com: Are you dealing with it better now then you were?
Kat Von D: Yeah, definitely. As my team gets bigger I have to find assistants to delegate certain responsibilities to. I’m OCD and I’m really a control freak so it’s hard for me to let go of some of those responsibilities, but I think I’m doing a pretty good job in trying to balance that. I just have to balance my work life and my social life, because since I stopped drinking my social life dwindled down to just tattooing (laughs).
PR.com: So, you don’t drink at all?
Kat Von D: No. I just had my one year and one month anniversary. I had totally forgotten. Somebody reminded me the other day.
PR.com: I don’t think people would ever expect that from you, that you don’t ever drink, not even socially.
Kat Von D: Especially because in the first season [of LA Ink] I was hammered so many times (laughs). When you’re on TV you have a responsibility. Some people choose to acknowledge that, and some don’t. I actually do care. It’s like with smoking on camera, kid’s thought it was cool, and I don’t want to be a part of that. With the drinking thing, eventually you’ve got to grow up and get your shit together, and I’m glad I did.
PR.com: You’ve said that music and art go hand and hand for you. How has music influenced your life and your work?
Kat Von D: It’s influenced every part of my life from how I dress, to how I talk, to how I tattoo. Probably the tattoos I get most excited about are music influenced. If I meet somebody who’s a fan of an obscure band and they want to get a lyric or a portrait of the singer, I’m like, “Yeah!” I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we tattoo long hours, and during those hours we listen to music all day. My iPod is pretty crazy and elaborate.
PR.com: What’s your favorite music to listen to while you’re tattooing?
Kat Von D: Everything from mellow to metal to 1950s R&B and DooWop; that’s some of my favorite music. If you get tattooed by me you’ll probably hear everything from Selena to Slayer.
PR.com: How did you meet Nikki Sixx (Kat’s boyfriend and bassist for Motley Crue)?
Kat Von D: I met him through a mutual friend, Scott Ian, from Anthrax. His girlfriend is Pearl Aday. I had been going through a divorce. A little over a year ago I separated from my husband, and Nikki had just separated from his ex-wife (former Baywatch actress Donna D’Errico) a year prior to that. So, [Pearl] was like, “I really think you guys would be a great match.” I’m like, “Well… we both have baggage (laughs). I don’t think it’s a good idea.” They tried to set us up on a blind date, and I am not into blind dates. So, we actually just became friends, and it was great. [Then] Nikki and I connected and it was totally unexpected. To this day I always thank Scott and Pearl for trying to hook us up and for actually introducing us.
PR.com: What do a rock musician and a tattoo artist do for fun, as a couple?
Kat Von D: We’re totally big nerds (laughs)! Sometimes I lay in bed with him and we do something totally geeky and I’m like, “Oh my God, if people knew.” But, I think that we have a similar lifestyle so it’s easy for us to understand each other. He’s on tour right now and it totally sucks not seeing each other, but it puts me on the other side of the fence. Every relationship I’ve had, I’ve always been the one traveling and flying here for this or that. Now it’s blown up so much with having the TV show, so we understand each other and it makes for a good relationship.
PR.com: Tell me about your new makeup like with Sephora.
Kat Von D: I was working on a line with Sephora for quite some time, for about six months, before it launched. I love makeup and I’ve been wearing it since I was a kid. For me makeup shopping is like candy shopping. It’s hard to find colors that really push the envelope, so when they approached me about it I was like, “Let’s make something different!” I wasn’t too sure how the public would respond. A lot of people, even though they do like me, they think I look different, and I don’t think everybody should look like me. I tried to find a good balance between wearing something that’s wearable in public and then if you want to get a little bit crazy you can. I was really part of the creative process, testing out different finishes, colors and formulas. The fun stuff was naming the [colors] and doing the artwork for the packaging. We’re working on the 2009 stuff right now. Right now it’s eyeliners, lipsticks, eye shadows and brushes. But, we’re going to expand that to everything from glitter eyeliner to skin prep [treatment]. What I’m most excited about is, I’m going to come up with a tattoo concealer.
PR.com: For when you want to cover your tattoos?
Kat Von D: Yeah. If you’re free to express yourself via your tattoos, you should have the freedom of covering them up when you want, whether it’s meeting your parents or for a job interview (laughs). Some people still have a bad outlook and will judge you based on your tattoos, and that’s not fair.
PR.com: Is there a tattoo on your body that you regret?
Kat Von D: I don’t really regret much in life. It’s all a learning process. I have my exes names tattooed on me and people are like, “You never learn. You just keep getting boys’ names tattooed on you.” But, it doesn’t bother me. I feel like I can look at them and it’s just part of my [history]. The one that I’ve been in the process of lasering right now is, I had a portrait of my ex-husband on my thigh. I wear dresses sometimes, and it’s just so prominent. People keep asking, “Who is that?” And it’s like, (her voice slumping into a grumpy tone) “Oh it’s my ex.” I have his name tattooed on me all over the place, so I’m just gonna remove the portrait and then I think I’ll be happy.
PR.com: A lot of young girls seem to be emulating your look. On YouTube there are different girls putting on their makeup to try and look like you.
Kat Von D: It’s so cute!
PR.com: That was really cool to watch.
Kat Von D: Oh man! It’s so cool. I guess I’m just happy that people are open to it. Like even this year I got voted for Maxim’s Hot 100. I don’t feel like I’m, in any way, sexy like the rest of these real models (laughs). It’s a really cool symbol when kids look up to you. It’s a different time in this world now where tattoos are definitely now so much more mainstream. I’m happy about that. If my dad can watch the show (LA Ink) and be cool with it, then that says a lot because I come from a pretty conservative family.
PR.com: Were your parents always supportive about your career choice and about your tattoos?
Kat Von D: They were supportive of my artwork since I can remember. But, I think when I started getting tattoos it was really scary for them, and you know, I had a Mohawk and I was fourteen when I stopped going to school. My dad’s a doctor and they were missionaries for the church. It was kind of scary for them, but a decade later, and a TV show later (laughs)… whatever it takes to make them understand where I’m coming from. Now they can actually come into the shop and feel comfortable. My mom comes by every day, almost.
PR.com: What does your new book entail and when will it be out?
Kat Von D: It’s an autobiography about my life and how I got into tattooing. [It] talks about Miami and basically getting into the tattoo world. From that point on, I cover everything from tattoo etiquette to the top tattooers internationally, and in the U.S. I photograph everything from my first tattoo and some tattoos that people have never seen before. Then there are sections of the book that are a rose section, or women’s pin up section, a back piece section, and it kind of gives you the background on tattooing that people don’t know about. It’s not just about me, it’s about tattooing in general. It will be out in January (available through HarperCollins Books).
PR.com: I don’t even know if you have one, but if you do, who would be your style icon that you look up to?
Kat Von D: It’s crazy because it’s a combination of a lot of different elements. There’s not one person that I’ve looked up to. I think it’s more of the attitude. I’m a big Beethoven fan and I’ve been playing the piano since I was six, and learning about his attitude was totally crazy and [he was] a hopeless romantic, but socially inept and just kind of punk rock. He was like the punk rock guy back in the day, back during those times, and didn’t give a fuck. I guess that’s how I’ve always felt. I love everything from American themed stuff to biker to trailer to hippie. It’s a mixture of all that stuff. I guess I’m just a train wreck (laughs).
PR.com: (Laughs) You call yourself a hopeless romantic, and you seem to mention it a lot. What’s your definition of being a hopeless romantic?
Kat Von D: Well Nikki and I actually talked about it, and I guess I’m not hopeless anymore, but I’m in love with being in love. I love all things romantic and when I love I love. It’s all or nothing. There’s a crazy, grand beauty to the struggle of love. But, now that I’ve found my other half (referring to boyfriend Nikki Sixx) I feel we’re more hopeful romantics. We still stay romantic but we’re not hopeless.
“LA Ink” airs on TLC. Visit tlc.discovery.com/tv/la-ink/la-ink.html for episode schedule. Visit Kat Von D’s tattoo shop online at www.highvoltagetattoo.com.