Many have watched her television show, browsed through her books, read about her in the tabloids and created a persona of Kat Von D in their minds, but few know the real Katherine von Drachenberg. Who could take on such a big task? Barbara Pavone has a damn good crack at it.A passionate, at times self-conscious, self-professed workaholic, she’s one hell of an artist in any medium she tackles and maybe that’s because she never rests.
Calling in from her Los Angeles home at 7 a.m., after her routine morning workout, Von D laughingly informs me; “This is kinda late for me, actually.”
Before Kat Von D became the master of black and grey portraiture that she is today, Katherine von Drachenberg was a tattoo-enamoured teenager with no-one to apprentice under, but convinced that she had found her calling. The punk rock kids she was hanging around with first introduced her to the art form and at age 14 she undertook her first client. “I got hanging around this one guy who was tattooing out of his house and he was like, ‘You draw really good, you should tattoo me.’ I had no idea it could even be a career, I just wanted to do it because of the art and there you go. The first second I started tattooing I knew that I was in love with this and I was like, ‘I need to do this. I’m not even sure exactly what I’m doing, but I know that I want to do this.’” Landing her first job at a tattoo shop at the age of 16, it was all uphill from there. Yes, uphill. “Most people go through an apprenticeship where somebody more experienced guides you through and it’s a learning process. I was doing everything unprofessionally and had to learn everything the hard way, I guess.”
Being a female in the industry couldn’t have made things easier either, but Von D never put any weight on the matter. “I’ve always kinda hated the fact that there had to be an issue. I think this is a male-dominated world to begin with, so I think every woman can relate to it for the most part - I never had any really bad problems, just a few remarks and things that I had to deal with, but I don’t know, maybe I really never paid attention to the knuckleheads.”
No matter the challenges, Von D never ceased pursuing her passion and in 2007, when she was just 25-years-old, she opened up her own tattoo shop. Settling on a hometown for High Voltage Tattoo wasn’t difficult and not to sound melodramatic, she simply followed her heart.
Born in Mexico, Von D moved to California with her family when she was just four-years-old. “We lived about an hour and a half outside of Los Angeles and once my sister got her permit for driving, we were pretty much trying to sneak off to LA at any moment that we possibly could. I think it was something about the city itself that we gravitated towards. We felt at home here - there’s a certain energy that comes from this city. A certain artistic and very inspiring energy.”
The creation of High Voltage Tattoo and the shop’s inner workings were documented on the hit television show LA Ink, which recently finished airing its sixth season in North America. Not having owned a television herself in almost 14 years, Von D relies on rough cuts to keep up with the show. Although she doesn’t have a final say in the editing process, she admits, “There’s been plenty of times where I was like, ‘What the fuck? You can’t do that. I wasn’t even in the room and you edited it that way!’”
But sometimes things remain against her will and Kat hopes viewers are able to see past the illusions created in the editing room. “I like to believe that people are smarter than that and don’t believe everything they see - especially when editors splice up certain sentences or there’s no continuity. Like if my hair is a different shade of red in every scene, I can’t dye my hair in ten minutes! I’ve had to learn to really let go of a lot of that stuff.”
Filming a single season of LA Ink takes several months and is a five-day a week commitment. Asked if she ever wishes she could just tell the cameras to leave, Von D laughs, “Every day,” and justifies herself by admitting it affects her work. “I think I have a hard time with too many chiefs in the teepee, if you know what I mean. I like my privacy and I like the intimacy that happens when you’re tattooing someone one on one. The magic in that part of the tattoo process is definitely gone once you invite the cameras in.”
The intimate moments she shares with her clients are the very subject of Von D’s personal tattoo journals, which have recently been turned into a book entitled, The Tattoo Chronicles. A follow-up to her New York Times bestselling debut, High Voltage Tattoo, the new release is a lot more personal than its predecessor, but before addressing my questions about The Tattoo Chronicles, Von D has one last point to make about LA Ink: “I really hope I didn’t come off like I was complaining about the show because I’m very grateful for it!”
Returning to the subject of her new book, Von D recounts how the idea of publishing some of her diaries came about. “I did the High Voltage Tattoo book, which did really well and so, from a publisher’s standpoint, they’re like, ‘Lets do it again, but better and bigger.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t really know what to write about. I can talk about tattooing all day long, but you don’t have to hear it from me.’”
The book is exactly what its title suggests: a collection of entries from Von D’s tattoo diaries. Spanning from May 2008 to June 2009, the book offers a look at the clients and stories behind Kat Von D’s work, lessons she’s learned from them, her personal musings on life and more. “This book is pretty much the most open, honest thing that I’ve ever put my heart into. I’ve emotionally invested a lot into it and that’s why I wanted to photograph everything in it. Aside from the layout and printing the damn thing, I did everything in that book.”
Her deep emotional connection to the project may stem from the fact that journaling has played an important role in Von D’s life. “I struggle with depression, I’m pretty open about that and so my friend gave me a suggestion to maybe start writing about everything after I’m done with a tattoo, so that I could just filter it out and let it go. I’m a big fan of journaling in general and I have like 10 journals going on at once,” she laughs. “The tattoo journals, I first started like, ‘John Doe is coming in from Arizona and getting a portrait of his son.’ Then, as I started writing more and more in-depth about each person, I started processing a lot of my own issues - I’ve realized that I’ve learned so much from everybody that I tattoo that it would be a shame if I didn’t share it with everybody else in hopes that maybe they can learn something too or find comfort.”
Another glimpse into Von D’s true nature reveals itself - although she’s proud of the book, she humbly says, “I’m not a photographer and I’m not an author. People are like, ‘Oh, you’re an author now,’ and I’m like, ‘No, I’ve written some books, but I can’t flatter myself by saying that.’”
If her tattooing, show, book and make-up collection for Sephora weren’t enough, the Queen of multi-tasking recently opened an art gallery next door to High Voltage Tattoo. “I’m excited about creating a place that will bring artistic influence into the city,” she says of her Wonderland Gallery. “I think there’s a lot of cool museum and stuff like that here, but a lot of those places can be intimidating. I want just a cool place that has fine art, but that appeals to the younger crowd, so you don’t just feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when you go in.”
And that’s not all. She also reveals she’s been taking voice lessons, putting together a band and, whenever she has any downtime, working with all the artistic media she can; “Right now I’m creating a chandelier out of antique crucifixes.” Just as I begin to suspect that Kat Von D never actually sleeps, she proves my point by adding, “I’ve also been secretly filming a documentary for the past year and a half.” If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it is, but Von D says, “I’m a workaholic and I find joy in work. I don’t know what it’s like to not do anything and I don’t wanna find out.”
When I bring up the term “reality TV star” to ask about misconceptions the public may have of Kat Von D, I can almost hear her cringe. “Ugh, I hate that term. We used to be under a Doc Series format where it wasn’t about drama and then the network decided to change it. That’s why I have such a hard time with the show, because I absolutely hate drama.”
And that really plays into her personality. “I’m semi-reclusive and shy and at times self-conscious,” she admits. “I’m definitely not perfect. I think if people just remembered that everybody is either somebody’s daughter or mother or son, brother, father, we’d probably treat each other a lot better and give each other a lot more breaks. I think any preconceived perception is a misconception.”
One of the biggest mistakes made may be in assuming just how hard it is to get tattooed by Von D. “I think a lot of people have exaggerated things and because of the show a lot of people think I’m inaccessible.” In reality, Von D says she and her assistant answer every request that’s submitted and adds, “I only book out two months because you don’t know what’s gonna happen in two months. People think I charge a million dollars to talk or something. I also don’t tattoo you on a throne of gold!” she laughs. “High Voltage is a real tattoo shop and everyone who comes through gets a real experience.”
Von D’s own experiences at the shop are also something she surely wouldn’t give up easily. In addition to meeting inspiring clients, Von D’s co-workers are some of the best and coolest in the business. Think Dan Smith, Dennis Halbritter and Khoi Nguyen, among others. “All the guys I work with are really talented - I’m constantly learning from them, but it’s not a matter of giving advice. I think the best kind of advice is not to give any, unless it’s asked for.”
So how would this tattoo artist extraordinaire sum herself up? Finishing the sentence ‘Kat Von D is...’ quickly becomes the toughest challenge of our conversation. “Is at a loss of words?” laughs Von D. “I don’t know, I think I would leave it blank and add a period.”
The mystery continues.
Kat Von D was first broadcasted into living rooms across North America when she joined the all-male staff of hit TV show Miami Ink. As the series slowly morphed from a documentary format into reality TV, the drama mounted with every episode and Miami Ink’s third season finished with Von D leaving the shop and returning home to Los Angeles.
Fans of Von D didn’t have to wait long to see her again however because the network quickly debuted a spin-off series, which was appropriately titled, LA Ink. The new show starred Von D and chronicled the opening of her very own tattoo shop, High Voltage Tattoo (yes, Von D drew inspiration from AC/DC), and all of the action that ensued. Like the time Von D broke a Guinness world record by tattooing 400 people with an “LA” logo in 24 hours.
LA Ink’s original cast included Corey Miller, Hannah Aitchison and Kim Saigh, but things have changed considerably over the past six seasons. This trio is no longer tattooing at High Voltage and the shop now showcases the talents of other remarkable artists like Jeff Ward, Adam Forman and Dan Smith, to name just a few.
The shop has also attracted many high profile clients over the years, like Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, Scott Ian of Anthrax and Jared Leto of 30 Seconds To Mars. High Voltage has also seen its fair share of real-life stars and heroes come through its doors. It may be the talented artists that keep people swarming into High Voltage Tattoo, but I think the unique atmosphere created by pink walls lined with everything from guitars and skate decks to religious iconography ain’t hurting either.
Where to begin? Nikki Sixx, or Frank Carlton Serafino Ferrana Jr. if you really want to be proper, is probably best known for being the bassist of internationally acclaimed rock super group Mötley Crüe. But just like his ex-girlfriend Kat Von D, Nikki Sixx seems to be a perpetual multitasker.
In addition to The Crüe, Sixx is involved in a musical side-project, Sixx:A.M., which formed in 2007 in Los Angeles and includes DJ Ashba and James Michael. He also hosts a radio show, Sixx Sense, which is broadcasted nationwide from 7p.m. until midnight every weekday. Then there’s his clothing line that brings rock star-worthy wears to the public, Royal Underground, and his bestselling non-fiction book, The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star.
Then there are the sides of Sixx that the public does not usually see, but that are now revealed firsthand through Von D’s journal entries in The Tattoo Chronicles. Pearl Aday first put the two into contact with one another when Von D unknowingly agreed to a blind date with Sixx. Although said date never happened, the two remained virtual friends and met several months later at which point Von D says she discovered her “match in hell, heaven, or whatever you wanna call it.”
Von D’s book holds a wealth of insight into Sixx, as he was an integral part of her life at the point in time when The Tattoo Chronicles was written. For example, the inner romantic within Sixx is revealed, as is his infinite love for his family and his appreciation for simple pleasures like reading and photography. Who knew the badass rocker was such a lovely softy inside?
“In order to gain everything, you must lose everything,” tweeted Kat Von D on Monday, November 22, the day after a fire destroyed her home and took the life of her beloved hairless cat, Valentine.
The cause of the fire is unknown, but it left the interior of Von D’s Hollywood Hills home almost completely charred. The house, which the artist herself dubbed "the Frankenstein Castle," was Gothic in style and said to have been built as a replica of the doctor’s home from the classic Frankenstein film.
Von D was in the middle of her book tour, promoting The Tattoo Chronicles and meeting loving fans across the States, when the tragedy occurred. But staying true to her strong, driven nature, Von D was quick to reassure the public that she would continue on her tour to Canada and Europe as planned. “No, I'm not canceling the rest of the book tour,” she tweeted on Monday. “Rooftop [and] I are here in Vancouver. Thank you all for comforting words.”
She may have lost some of her worldly possessions and a treasured feline that can surely never be replaced, but Von D remained optimistic following the saddening event. “I am so looking forward to meeting all your smiling faces at these book signings!” she added on her Twitter page. “Remember, POSITIVE ENERGY FEEDS POSITIVE ENERGY.” We’re channeling all of ours to the lovely Kat Von D.
Located right next door to High Voltage Tattoo in West Hollywood, Wonderland Gallery is one of the latest additions to a string of side projects from the brilliant mind of Kat Von D. Hoping to create a space in which unique art could be showcased without the pretentious air present in some art galleries around the city, Von D set out to create Wonderland.
And like everything else she takes part in, Von D wanted this undertaking to turn out perfectly. When I spoke to her a few weeks back, Von D was putting the finishing touches on Wonderland Gallery before setting off on her whirlwind book tour around the world.
“You need to remember that I’m obsessive compulsive, so I need everything perfect,” she said when asked her thoughts on the state of the gallery. “It’s totally functional and great, if anybody were to walk in right now they’d be amazed by the art that’s there, [but] there’s just little corners that I would like to have brass molding, all the books to be in alphabetical order, things like that.”
Wonderland Gallery’s first exhibit was unveiled on September 2 and came courtesy of classically trained American artist Kevin Llewellyn. Entitled “The Unsaid,” the exhibit features Llewellyn’s signature realism-meets-fantasy-meets-mysticism artwork. If that sounds confusing, the title of my personal favorite Llewellyn painting should provide more insight into the nature of his work: “The Severed Hands of Nikki Sixx.”
1257 N LABREA,
The Tattoo Chronicles
I have to admit, when I first picked up The Tattoo Chronicles I was skeptical about what the inside front cover was promising to deliver. The last line on that page reads, “Here she is: The real Kat Von D: unscripted and uncensored,” but it’s hard not to picture a cautious editor chiseling away at Kat Von D’s diaries, cutting off all the messy bits.
Now, let me admit that this was one time in my life when I was elated to be proved wrong. Von D’s second book is unabashedly open and truthful and it’s no wonder she calls her journals her “blood books.”
Comprised of journal entries from a little over one year, beginning in 2008, the book offers an intimate glimpse into Von D’s life. The Tattoo Chronicles strikes the perfect balance between Von D’s work and personal experiences, offering something for tattoo lovers
and Von D lovers alike.
Marvelously illustrated and finely laid out, the book features a gamut of Von D’s work, from intricate portraits to touch-ups and cover-ups, and shares stories about a medley of clients ranging from famed rockers like Dave Navarro and Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister to everyday heroes and rad individuals.
Von D’s more personal entries, like those about sobriety, self-doubt, romantic turmoil and frustrations with LA Ink, play up the uniqueness of the book. The Tattoo Chronicles documents a specific moment in time for a specific person and yet, it’s unbelievably relatable to almost all.
Adding to the charm are color photographs of clients, tattoos and Von D’s personal quirky collections of everything from vintage keys to her beloved taxidermy. Maybe it’s just me, but the albino squirrels are a treat and a must-see.
The Tattoo Chronicles is a great read and may best be described as fully encompassing what Von D’s upper back tattoo, incidentally featured at the end of the book, has proclaimed for years: “Mi Vida Loca.”
High Volatge Tattoo
1259 N. La Brea Avenue,