Kat Von D has really thick skin, and it’s got very little to do with her tattoos. The past couple of years have been a whirlwind of highs and lows, art and commerce, not to mention lovers and haters for Los Angeles’ best-known female tattoo artist. And almost all of it has been captured for the TV-viewing public on TLC’s LA Ink and Miami Ink.
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Fans of the Miami show know she left the original Ink on not-so-great terms. But when her image was plastered on every billboard and building in Los Angeles to hype her hometown spinoff soon afterward, she had the last laugh. Not only has her show outperformed Miami’s in the ratings, it was officially named the superior shop and crew in a televised TLC viewers’ poll.
“In all honesty, the Miami experience was really traumatizing,” she said when we first spoke, in the gilded, candle-covered shrine to Beethoven that is her office at her La Brea Avenue shop High Voltage. “But it was good because I learned what not to do. It was a really ugly thing but it turned into something positive, because now I appreciate my career more and my new crew is like a family.”
Things got a lot uglier after our initial conversation though. An 8-by-10 of Kat embellished with a burning Star of David, a swastika and her signature that was apparently delivered to Ami James — the Israeli-born owner of the tattoo shop Miami Ink — turned up on TMZ.com, forcing Kat to defend herself against accusations of anti-Semitism. She remains vehement that the signature was a forgery, and when we spoke again more recently, she said she even considered legal action against those who did it — whom she doesn’t call out.
If that incident didn’t give the blogs enough to go bash-wild for, her recent breakup with Alex “Orbi” Orbison definitely did, especially since she started dating Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx while she was still lovey-dovey with her ex on the tube.
“I think it’s hard for people watching the show when the stuff that they’re airing is, like, months old,” she says. “Whenever you break up, one party is always a little bit more upset than the other. It’s not really about sides.
“The hardest lesson to learn these last couple of years was that some people don’t want you to succeed. It sucks because I’ve tattooed bands that were nothing, and I’ve seen them grow and get played on KROQ and I’m so stoked for them. But there’s always going to be people who are, like, ‘Oh, they’re sellouts.’ And I’ve gotten a lot of that.”
The trash talk rarely questions her tattooing abilities though. TV show or no, Von D, just 26, is one of the world’s eminent black-and-gray skin artists, and her portraits (which usually start at about $1,000 for a 5-by-7-inch piece) are as coveted as any gallery artwork.
The Mexico-born/Colton, Cali–bred daughter of Argentine parents, Katherine Von Drachenberg started tattooing when she was a 14-year-old Inland Empire punkette (her first was a Misfits skull). She moved around from shop to shop, as many artists do, working in Covina, Pasadena and, finally, True Tattoo in Hollywood, where she met the man who would end up being her husband of three years, ’stached tatster Oliver Peck. Soon, TLC came calling and she was off to Miami.
If Miami Ink helped to dispel stereotypes about tattoos and the people who get them, LA Ink upped the ante with less touristy, larger-scale pieces highlighting the expertise of three superlative skin sketchers in the industry, two of them women. The stigmas about females with ink remain (let’s face it, they’re part of the reason Kat’s had to deal with more negativity than her male counterparts), but they’re definitely starting to fade thanks to the femmes on the show. Kat’s exotic looks and warm demeanor (as striking in person as on TV) are a big part of it too.
Of course representing the industry on television is a huge responsibility, and whileLA Ink isn’t The Hills, she says the situations, people and personal problems are all real (she really did get sober after partying too much and she really did have a falling out with her longtime pal, shop manager Pixie). Obviously the tats are real, and the stories behind them (often sad tributes to lost loved ones or battles with illnesses) are too. The biggest difference between the shop during normal business hours and the TV version — other than the steady stream of fans and out-of-towners who cluster near the entrance every day — is the additional crew of tattooers we never see on camera. “Going into this show, I signed up to have my life documented. The good and the bad. And sometimes things happen that, you know, suck,” Kat says. “I’ve chosen to really be open with my life and the TV show and I think that people can relate to me because of it.”
You’d think she’d be gun-shy after going through a breakup on TV, but Kat continues to be candid about love and life in general. She calls Sixx her match in every way (talk about fate — the stars on her face were inspired by the Crüe’s “Starry Eyes”). She doesn’t count out the possibility that we’ll see him on the show next season either. “I’m going to let things happen organically,” she says.
Right now she’s focusing on her clients (yes, there’s a waiting list) and a book project that will feature an extensive archive of her artwork and tons of photos charting her career (including highlights, like the time she broke the Guinness World Record for tattooing the most people in a 24-hour period and her tattoo-and-music festival, Musink). She’s also got a makeup line for Sephora coming out this month.
As for her own permanent embellishments, Kat, who is almost fully covered, says there’ll definitely be more.
“The last big, clear piece left is on my back,” she says, indicating it’ll probably be a homage-to-L.A.-type piece. “I used to get tattooed every time I’d drink a lot. Now that I’m sober, I’ve thought, oh my God, how am I going to do it? But I’m just gonna have to tough it out, because like with everything else, if you really want it, it’s worth it.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon