The Incredible Inking Woman

Posted July 16, 2009 in Feature Story

Kat Von D’s parents were horrified. Now they couldn’t be more proud of their famous daughter. Oddly, it was the same decision that led to both reactions. The Colton-raised tattoo artist known for the reality TV show LA Ink who rocketed to fame two years ago as America’s Tattooed Sweetheart has come a long way, baby.


To say that Von D’s conservative parents were disappointed when their then-15-year-old daughter left home would be a huge understatement. What were the chances of her becoming a TV sensation, starting her own cosmetics line at Sephora, penning a tattoo tome and strangely becoming a role model for teenage girls after such a move?


The sheltered child who grew up playing piano instead of staring at the boob tube, who spent most of her time engrossed with her drawings and studying artists like Salvador Dali and Michelangelo, dropped out of high school and left home to pursue a career then known for its outlaw status and proclivity toward bikers, punk rockers, hessians and criminals. They had good reason to be peeved.


“It was hard for them to accept the path of my life and what I had chosen,” says Von D, who was born Katherine von Drachenberg, the daughter of Argentinian parents by way of Mexico. The Dracula-sounding name comes from her father’s German heritage. “I knew it would take time to show it wasn’t a phase. But it’s been over a decade now. There is no backup plan. I knew I was born to tattoo.”


The path to success didn’t come without its bumps—at 16, Von D started out working at a rough San Bernardino tattoo shop called Sin City, building her portfolio one tat at a time like everyone else and unlearning her bad self-taught tattoo habits before making a name for herself in the skin art world. She ultimately rose to mainstream prominence a decade later based on her tumultuous relationship with her co-workers, which was all filmed for the other A&E reality tattoo TV show, Miami Ink


By the time Von D headed home from Miami after a fall out with her co-workers at the end season three, it was obvious who the star was and that a spinoff was in the air, much to embattled Miami Ink co-star Ami James’ chagrin. Miami Ink has since stopped filming. 


Upon arriving back in L.A., Von D gathered a crew to open her own shop, High Voltage Tattoo in W. Hollywood, which includes other female tattoo artists and one of her mentors, Corey Miller who owns Upland’s Six Feet Under tattoo shop. LA Ink premiered in August 2007 and was an instant rating’s hit for the network, making Von D a household name. 


Von D was 16 when she first met Miller, who she now says is like a brother. It was at a grand opening for another tattoo shop. But she was too intimidated to talk to him at the time. 


Years later, Von D got an opportunity to show Miller her portfolio at a tattoo convention and he liked her work. It also helps that Miller’s best friend Suzanne Fauser was another well-known female tattoo artist who forged her way in the male-dominated field, also earning her props through sheer talent. Miller wasn’t among the ones who believed tattooing wasn’t for chicks.


Kat Von D is no novelty. There have been many women before her in the industry who she pays homage to. Why is she the one who has become a household name?


“I don’t know,” she says, explaining she was not one of those who always dreamed of becoming famous. “I just always strove to gain a certain amount of respect in the industry based on my tattooing. Having boobs is hard enough in a male-dominated industry. Being famous wasn’t a priority.”


As for the flak she’s received because of it, she doesn’t bat a dolled-up eyelash.


“Critics are going to say what they say,” she says about the scrutiny for taking tattooing kicking and screaming out of the underground. Most recently the show has received flak for the addition of Audrey Fisher, who gained fame on another reality TV show, VH1’s Rock of Love. “I’ve sort of separated myself from (the critics). I work really well on my own. In any industry there is a lot of ego.”


But her fellow tattoo artists are not who she is trying to reach with LA Ink. It’s mainstream America she’s after, and she’s helping change their preconceived notions of what those who wear their art on their sleeves are like on the inside. The non-tattooed fans are some of her favorites, she says. 


“The show speaks to a lot of people on a lot of levels,” Von D says proudly of the show’s format that tells the stories behind the tattoos while following the trials and tribulations of the artists who create them. Some of them are as famous as her: hip-hop stars Eve and Ja Rule; skater and MTV star Bam Margera; and rockers Scott Ian of Anthrax, Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction and Lemmy of Motorhead are among those who have sat down for some face time on LA Ink.


“Some people don’t need to be tattooed to enjoy the art and the stories,” Von D says. “It’s a very inspiring thing when you have, like, soccer moms without tattoos who are inspired by creative women.”


Von D fully embraces her new role as a media darling with open, sleeved arms. “I just thought this was a really good opportunity to educate people about the positive side of tattooing,” she says. “And now it’s turned into this crazy fucking show.


No one said America’s sweetheart couldn’t swear like a sailor, date Nikki Sixx and have tattoos on her face. At least no one told Kat Von D. Sssssh.


High Voltage Tattoo, 1259 N. La Brea Ave., W. Hollywood,, Noon-midnight every day.


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