When Kari Barba moved her tattooing career to the West Coast from her native Minnesota in the early 1980s, she didn’t really know much about the art form. She’d visited Southern California a little bit — including a stop at the famous tattoo shop she now owns in Long Beach — and had learned the basics of tattooing, but that was pretty much it. But not knowing the ins and outs of the industry also helped the young artist break some of the stylistic and sexist biases that held strong in tattooing 35 years ago.
“I didn’t see my first tattoo until I was 17 years old, and my first thought was, ‘That’s all they could do with it?’” Barba says with a laugh. “I used to pencil sketch and try to do realism, and when I first started tattooing it was more normal to do black-and-gray realism. I always thought, ‘Why doesn’t anyone do it in color?’ I didn’t have a traditional apprenticeship or anyone telling me why it was only done in black and gray. No one ever told me I couldn’t do it in color, so I just did it.”
Barba still remembers how other artists warned her not to take on her first realistic color portrait in 1984, and how they warned her that her previous detailed color tattoos of animals wouldn’t hold up over time. But even with all of the artistic growth that followed the warnings and disbelief that Barba’s then-untested (and now signature) style drew, her unintentional defiance of gender norms within the industry will likely forever be her legacy.
She's far from the first woman to pick up a tattoo machine, but Barba has become legendary for her level of skill, entrepreneurship and innovation, as well as the length and impact of her career. Of course, when Barba was unwittingly blazing a trail, she didn’t even realize how hard the industry’s patriarchy was trying to stop her.
“One of the first conventions I went to, there were about a half dozen women that I knew about — however many there were, you could count them on your hands,” Barba says. “I remember [Japanese tattooing legend] Horiyoshi II watching me tattoo at that show and saying very sternly through a translator, ‘Women are not allowed to tattoo in Japan. I’m very surprised you’re doing this,’ which made me feel very nervous but also very proud.
“I think I was very naive when I was younger because I never noticed anyone trying to prevent me from tattooing or telling me women shouldn’t be tattooing back then — it was probably all going on behind my back,” Barba continues. “Now, there are so many women doing so many amazing tattoos, and it’s really interesting to see because a lot of the guys back then didn’t want women tattooing. They even have specific TV shows for the women. It’s kind of funny.”
Aside from the slow realization that women can be just as skilled at tattooing as their male counterparts, the biggest industry change Barba has seen over the past few decades is the evolution of the tattoo shop. Rather than the grimy parlors they once were, the modern luxury feel of many shops — including Barba’s own cluster of Outer Limits Tattoo locations in Long Beach and Orange County — is almost a strange concept to the lifelong artist. Some old-timers are quick to complain about tattoo studios being too cushy now, but Barba likes to point out that the biggest change in them has definitely been one for the better: medical-grade sanitation and sterilization.
“Shops are so different now,” Barba says. “When I started, nobody had private studios, and shops weren’t fancy. They just had folding chairs or whatever was cheap, and most shops didn’t even have sterilizers — most people didn’t even know what they were, or they’d be rusted shut. The whole cross-contamination and medical side of things is totally different now.”
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Of course, Barba knows a thing or two about old tattoo shops. The shop now known as Outer Limits Tattoo in Long Beach sits at 22 Chestnut Place — it's the tattoo world's version of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The location has been a tattoo shop under one name or another dating all the way back to 1927, and was arguably the most famous shop in the world for the latter half of the 20th century as Bert Grimm’s World-Famous Tattoo Studio. Beyond just being a top-notch tattoo shop, Barba’s business also serves as a museum dedicated to Bert Grimm’s and the legacy of the Pike, Long Beach’s long-gone waterfront amusement zone, where tattooing was effectively born into American culture.
“When I first started hearing about tattooing, the one thing that everyone said was that I had to go to Long Beach to check out Bert Grimm’s studio because it’s the oldest continuously running tattoo shop in the United States,” Barba says of the shop she now owns. “The significance of this shop is huge in history, as well as all of the fabulous tattooers who have come out of here. It’s the backbone of tattooing in the United States.”
It’d be easy for Barba to sit back and allow her legacy — and her tattooing son, Jeremiah — to carry her through the rest of her career, but resting on her laurels isn’t what’s gotten the veteran tattooer this far in her career. After going through a period where she felt stale and repetitive, the new generation of incredibly artistic tattooers — many of whom she likely inspired — has motivated Barba to get back on her game and focus on getting the most out of every piece she does.
“Tattoo artists are so good these days — they’re amazing,” Barba says. “There are so many people out there where I’m like, ‘How the hell do they do that?’ and I think at one point in my career, I used to think I could do everything. I went through a period where I didn’t learn enough and wasn’t growing, but then I got to this point where I see these great artists coming and realized I wasn’t growing. That was when I reconnected and started learning again. Over the last few years, I feel young again in tattooing.”