Karrie Rosenbaum

Published: 14 November, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 145, May, 2007

She was the strange girl in middle school, with drawings on her legs. She progressed to drawing on others with lipsticks, markers and anything to hand. So it is no surprise that at the age of 23, Karrie Rosenbaum is a tattooist and artist. And a talented one at that, working at Ink Slingers Tattoo, 472-B Western Blvd, Jacksonville, North Carolina. You can also catch up with her on her My Space site at www.myspace.com/peppertattoos.


Karrie was able to start her apprenticeship at 17 because of a work release programme run by her high school. She would attend school in the morning, leave at noon and go to the studio, to learn how to tattoo. Refreshingly she can remember no hassle from the school, so they must have accepted this as a valid career choice for a talented art student. Of course she had already been to her local tattoo studio to show them her artwork and express her interest in tattooing, but she was only 16 at the time and State law said that she must be 17 to start her apprenticeship. So when the school approached the studio about the work release it was green lights all the way.    

She believes that apprenticeships are the way to go. Not only for the health and safety aspect but also as an aide to the improvement of the industries reputation. She can see merits in formal training, with training plans and programmes, allowing budding tattooists to build their knowledge and get formal qualifications. However she does have a couple of concerns, one being that lazy or talent less people will still not bother doing the training and will still produce substandard work from their kitchens. Her main concern is that any kind of formal training programme would need to be organised, planned and run by tattooists, from within the industry and NOT by academics.   

I asked Karrie what advice she could give to someone wanting to start tattooing. She said they should gather together all the art they have created and put it together; making sure it is presented nicely. Then once they have a strong portfolio, research the tattoo studios in the area, with the most reputable artists and studios that they like. Somewhere where they can see themselves staying for a long time, and that has a friendly and clean environment. Then to start inquiring about what the studio owner wants and what requirements there are for an apprenticeship at that studio.    

So could this girl wait for her 18th birthday for her first tattoo, as per the law... could she hell! She was 17 and got her first ink at a tattoo party. In the States, a tattoo party is where an artist comes round to someone’s house and does tattoos on the cheap. Think Tupperware with needles. Knowing what she knows now, Karrie would not have gone and got inked at a Tattoo Party but she had wanted a tattoo for years but the law said she could not have one until she was 18. So it became a bit of personal goal to get one before she was legally able to. Her first tattoo was also her first bit of flash that she had drawn and that was decent enough to be a tattoo. However she was terrible at hiding it and her mum found out within a week. She made her mum cry but as Karrie’s career has progressed her mum has come to understand that thankfully the first tattoo could have been worse at least it was small and on it’s own.   

In a way this has been a good lesson learned for Karrie who now sees the foolishness and health implications of this type of party, and as such has vowed never to participate in one. Wherever possible she will raise young peoples’ awareness of these issues and the dangers of these parties. Just say no kids!   

So she started out doing her apprenticeship in Wisconsin, doing her first tattoos shortly after her 18th birthday because legally you cannot get a tattoo or tattoo anyone until the magical age of 18. I asked her if she had found it easy and she confessed that some parts of tattooing she still finds easier than others. As with all things, the parts that she can relate to come easier, in her case painting and artwork. Things she can create on paper have come more naturally than some of the technical intricacies. She thinks if she had a more thorough apprenticeship it would be easier than it has been and she’d be more advanced by now. She is truly grateful and is aware that she is one of the lucky ones who was able to get the foot in the door at an early age. So subsequently she has had more time to progress. She has also found that it depends on who you are around and working with. If there is someone who is more advanced than you, in a particular area, you yourself will be able to advance in that area as well. Just by observing and speaking with that person. Easier than giving it a go on your own without any direction.   

So at the tender age of 20 she decided she needed to get out there and find some of those experienced artists who were turning out the sort of work she was aspiring to. So she spent just under a year working at New Breed studio in Indiana but she felt homesick and went back to Wisconsin. Again she found herself in a studio where she felt unchallenged, so she headed out West to Colorado, she moved on to Georgia and has now found herself at home in North Carolina. So she may only be young but she has taken every opportunity to work with and learn from a variety of artists and that flexibility reflects in the tattoos she produces.   

Also during this time her “collection” of personal tattoos has increased. She has some that she loves and some she is going to get removed. She has used her right leg as her “experimental leg” and the place she puts those pieces she has wanted to do but didn’t want to wait for someone else to come in and get them done. She now has so many I asked her to talk me through some of her favourites.   

“When I was apprenticing I would stare at the flash and find ones that really popped out at me. Then on slow days at the shop I would work on myself. They were pieces I really wanted to do. Not ones that particularly meant anything to me. I have a dragon on my ankle (the outline was my fifth attempt at tattooing) and a Travis Franklin wizard (sadly yes, I gave myself a wizard) on my right shin. There are some flames coming from his fireball that I did when I was learning more about the flow of a tattoo on the body but if you see it I wasn’t quite there yet. These were all started and completed within my first year to year and a half of tattooing. If I could turn the clock back I would have made much better choices but I can’t complain too much because they were good learning experiences at the time and I have benefited through knowledge by doing them.

For ones on the right leg that I like... I have a star on the outside of my right ankle, which is the partner to a good friend of mine, Michelle. On the outside of my right leg I have a portrait of Ozzy Osbourne done by Joshua Carlton a few years ago at Hell City. This one has a lot of meaning to me because it is the very painting that was shown on VH-1 when I was interviewed for the show Fan club as one of the biggest Ozzy Fans when I was eighteen. A good friend of mine, Richard Dawes from California, also has a tattoo based on the painting that I tattooed. We met because of the show and him seeing the painting and have been friends ever since. Above my knee, almost on the inside of my thigh I have Hyde from the 1930s movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s from a Basil Gogos painting and it really captured me. I found the colouring astonishing and fascinating. I not only wanted to tattoo it I wanted to wear it so I gave it to myself. It also symbolizes for me how I turn into a person I’d prefer not to become after one too many drinks.    

On my left arm I have sparrows and roses, which I got when I was in my late teens. I wanted to do something where there was colour mixed with black and grey work but it’s not really what I envisioned, although now that I know more what I envisioned kinda’ sucked anyways! The artists that I had work on it did a great job; it was just my original idea I wish I could change. The beautiful colours on it were done by Ryan Shepp, as well as the colouring on my wrist tattoos, which are of a man (right wrist) and woman (left wrist) standing in flames. I had them done once before but they weren’t how I wanted them so I went to Ryan and he fixed them right up. A couple of my favourites. On my right upper arm I have a more traditional styled tattoo of roses and a pyramid with the banner mother. She enjoys collecting Egyptian items hence the pyramid.    

My personal favourite tattoo is a work in progress and I hope to have it completed by the next year. The original piece is a cat’s head (I am a cat lover) that was designed and executed by Billy Wisdom in Indiana. The colourful background is being finished by Dan Hazelton in West Allis, WI. It is a chest piece that stretches from shoulder to shoulder. I love it.    

I also have one on my neck that I designed. It’s a girly skull head with pigtails of multicoloured hair to represent me and my favourite blonde, pink and purple hair colour job. In the background there are cross brushes instead of bones with splotches of paint all around. In the banners that surround it says lucky girl. I got this done when I first started at Ink Slingers and it symbolizes how I feel lucky to be gifted in art.”   

So after the first tattoo, that made her mother cry, how has her family taken to her chosen career? Well, her parents have stopped mentioning the tattoos and her mother has accepted that this is her choice. Karrie feels lucky that she has always had her mothers support (if not always her approval) and she knows that her mum will back her fully in whatever decisions she makes. She is also a proud mum who carries around photos of outdated artwork and tattoos and will tell everyone about her talented daughter, even if they don’t really want to listen. Her dad found it harder to accept that his little girl wanted to be a tattooist but he has watched her dedication and talent develop and eventually he accepted that she was neither joking nor was this a phase she would grow out of. Additionally he has artistic talent and so did his father, so he was able to understand that the artist in her had found its outlet. Outside of her parents, some of her family would prefer it if she did not “waste her talent”, that she would go to art school and “be normal”, but normal is not Karrie. She has tattooed one of her cousins and family now say they are impressed with her work.   

Given the experience Karrie has had in the first few years of tattooing, she has a well rounded ability and this allows her to use the techniques that are best for that piece, for example she will use outlining if the piece calls for it or maybe line variation if that looks better. But her true passion is realism and mainly portraits. Skin Deep first met Karrie at Rick’s 11th Tattoo convention in Green Bay, 2 years ago. She was there as a punter but won the fine art competition with a realistic, graphite drawing of Johnny Cash.  Bob Baxter, editor of Skin and Ink magazine, brought the picture for his wife. Karrie was shocked that people liked it enough to vote for it to win and doubly shocked when someone who is exposed to so much artwork and talent in their job, brought it.   

Karrie has been fascinated with realism since she was a kid and has thought of it as the ultimate achievement. The need to understand how a realistic image can be created and executed is one of her driving forces. She prefers this to things that are one hundred percent creative because when something is replicated and it is replicated right; there is little or no room for criticism. There is something there to compare it to and when something is not right you can see what is wrong – right there before your eyes - and strategize on how to fix it or make the next image even more real. With something strictly creative, everyone is a critic and perfection is based on the viewer’s own interpretation of it. When there is a photograph, and it is replicated exactly, perfection exists. Karrie always finds realism interesting and motivating.   

Her ideal customer is someone who knows exactly what they want but is not afraid to communicate with her as the artist about what they want. BUT is also open to suggestions for the sake of the design and the ultimate outcome. That customer should also have the utmost patience and share Karrie’s desire and concern, to ensure the best possible tattoo. With customers like that she doesn’t even mind doing standard pieces of flash as she can normally tweak different pieces to make them the best for that individual customer.   

She has also found that gentle persuasion is one of her greatest tools. She says that most people are open to suggestions and sometimes she is able to demonstrate what she means. For example she will show them a tattoo, perhaps one on her right leg and explain why it didn’t work, demonstrate what is wrong and how it could have been done better. Usually she finds after a bit of time and a few examples, the customer either understands what she is trying to explain to them or can see that she is passionate about getting it right and decides to put more trust in her.   

Her pet hate is the person who comes in with a closed mind and is not open to any suggestions. This is especially true, she finds, when they want a tattoo like their mate. If one of their friends has something done (and it looks terrible, was done too small and so on) its a lot harder to tell them that the design wouldn’t work because their friend already has it. So to them it’s already been done and Karrie is just some idiot telling them it can’t be done when they can see before their eyes that it can and has but what they really can’t see is that it looks bad. So if a customer asks for something that will never look any good and she fails to persuade them to go for something better, ultimately she will refuse to do any work that will give either her or the studio a bad name.

There are other things that Karrie will not do and that includes racist tattoos. She does not feel she is in a position to judge what other people want to put on their bodies, each to their own and she does not want to impose her will on others but there may be more things in the future that she will not feel right doing and when the time comes she won’t do them. As for areas of the bodies she will not tattoo genitals and the extremities, such as inside lips, ears, palms, the soles of feet and toes. She is not adventurous enough to execute facial tattoos yet either. Most of the reluctance to tattooing these areas comes from the poor quality of the outcome. Again this reflects her desire to give the customer a good quality product that will look good for a long time.   

As is clear from the tattoos Karrie has completed, she pays attention to details in her work, regardless of how simple or complex the piece. She has already developed an eye for stopping before she over details apiece. Her philosophy is that is you are going to go somewhere – go all the way with it. Don’t half-ass something because in all honesty you should not have started it. This does cause problems in pricing pieces, either flat rate or estimating the number hours for an hourly rated quote. Throughout her career Karrie has never known how long something is going to take because in her heart of hearts she does not care. The thing she is doing is permanent, so time spent putting it there should not be a controlling issue. Her concern is that it looks good. Because of this she does have problems quoting on larger pieces although she can always give a guess-timate but it is always a wide range. She proudly declares “ I like to feel like I’ve earned my money, not stolen it.”

Karrie knew from an early age that she could never be a typical desk-jockey doing standard 9 – 5 hours. However as her career in tattoo has progressed she sees some good in standard jobs – namely paid vacations, sickness cover and the ability to schedule your life. But these are just fleeting fancies. Whilst still at school, excelling at art, she did briefly toy with the idea of graphic arts and visual communications but never followed through with any of these options. That and the fact that the tuition costs were prohibitive. Despite these factors in the future Karrie would like to enrol in some art courses. She feels this would allow her to expand her horizons and find out more about herself and what she is capable of. This she could then bring into her tattooing – “pushing the envelope” in desk-jockey management speak! The recent story of a “conceptual” artist eating a swan, in the name of “art” does nothing for her but she is amazed by the beauty of sunsets and waves on a beach and sees art in those things, regardless of how transient they are.
I asked Karrie if she felt that a career as a tattooist is now a “respectable” career for someone with artistic talent or if it still holds a stigma in society.

“This is a toughie but excellent question as well! I think it’s really a yes and no situation. I think since the release of ‘reality’ shows it’s not viewed in such a negative light anymore and kind of “out of the closet”. People are seeing what really can be done and this is opening their minds to the possibilities and options out there. They are viewing tattooing more as a respectable career. On the other hand there are still plenty of people that look down on us as mere tattoo artists like we are still beneath them since we choose to have an alternative career and appearance. I think it’s mainly all about understanding. People fear and tend to shy away from what they don’t understand and the different shows spread more understanding and awareness. I think it will still be a few generations out until it’s taken more seriously as a career possibility. Also I think a lot of it depends on their prior experiences with people who have tattoos, getting tattooed, exposure to tattoos and so on. Example: if a person who is completely uneducated goes into (what we would consider) a questionable tattoo parlour and gets a less than desirable tattoo, at an outrageous price, from someone who lacked social skills and no gloves, with a side of infection, then ALL tattoo artists are scumbags. They will view EVERYBODY with that label as such due to the horror that they had to endure.  On the other hand a completely uneducated person goes into a tattoo parlour that is astonishing in cleanliness, knowledge, friendliness, skill and service and their experience is better than expected, they will either be back or getting more tattoos. It’s not the stereotypical person or environment they expected to encounter hence a freshly opened mind.”
Art is obviously as important to Karrie as her tattooing and ideally she would love to tattoo part time and paint for the rest of the time. One of her main artistic influences, outside of tattooing, is Chuck Close. I had never heard of him before (shame on me) and for those of you who are not familiar with his work check it out at www.chuckclose.coe. His work is grid based and uses blocks of colour. Karrie has been considering how you could translate this style across to tattoos and feels that both the tattoo collector and artist would have to be patient and willing to undergo several sittings. His newer work is more complex and Karrie is not even sure that the style would ever translate. But ever the optimist she believes everything is possible, you just have to figure out a way to achieve it.
Within the industry Karrie is influences by work from Monte, Joshua Carlton, Tom Renshaw, Bob Tyrrell, Dan Hazelton and Megan Hoogland.   

America has a longer history of female tattooists, than the UK. So I wondered how Karrie was finding being a tattooist in the early 21st century in the USA. Had she experienced any problems from either studio owners, customers or other tattooists?
“It’s not all the time, but I certainly have from all of the above. Throughout my travels I have experienced mainly jealousy and harassment here and there. A big problem I’ve encountered is some of the guys in the industry I have met had this mindset like they are better than you because you’re “just a woman”, which of course is completely sexist and untrue. Once I prove myself as an artist and not as a joke is when the problems arise and I move on. That kind of mentality is something I don’t need and have no tolerance for hence a contributing factor for moving around as much as I have. Mainly the problems from male customers is some of them seem to have the mentality that because I am tattooed/pierced I am promiscuous as well, which is totally not the case and really fucking annoying. Flattering in some cases but most of the time annoying. I’m here to do a personal service, not be on a date. I am involved in a serious relationship so that position is already taken and even if it weren’t I don’t mess with clients for the simple fact that all they really want is a “hookup” on some tribal. With customers of either gender people (other than most tattoo virgins) are less intimidated by me and try to get me to drop prices or speed up appointment availability sooner than they do for the other male artists I’ve been around. A BIG pet peeve since I will kick someone out if need be and schedule them when the time is best regardless of gender.”

Karrie has recently found the drive and the time to produce her first set of flash. She chose flowers, because although she likes doing portraits, she does also like girly things. She has noticed an increase in flash sheets coming out that look classy rather than haphazardly put together. She also noticed that a lot of the flash available had a more masculine look, so she wanted to contribute nice feminine intricate flash. Her aim was to create something that was not only challenging to the artist but also realistic and beautiful for the customer. A goal, which I think, she has achieved. For anyone interested in getting one of her flowers: their tattooist can get the sheets of flash from www.liquidskin.com or they can download individual images from www.skinu.com, and take that image along to their tattooist.   

Other than her burning desire to expand on her own art abilities Karrie’s other hope for the future is that she can get to tattoo at some conventions, something she has not yet done. She would like to start out at some US conventions to get the hang of it; her immediate feelings are that she doesn’t mind people watching her tattoo as long as they do not bump her. Once she has got the hang of convention tattooing, she would really like to do some shows abroad.   

So there is the past, present and future for Karrie but what does she do to relax…well a bit of everything really. She enjoys painting, nature and photography, all part of that artistic streak. She loves to travel and especially enjoys driving in general (strange woman). But she does up the pace from time to time when she goes clubbing. She is equally at home cooking, watching films and indulging in good conversation with friends (read gossiping!).   

They say no man is an island so I asked whom she wanted to thank for helping her over the years. Her first thanks go to Clif Baier, without whose special support she feels she would not be where she is now.  Special thanks go to Mike Knox and everyone who has been there for her both inside the industry and out. She maintains that without the continual love, support and acceptance from her friends, family and extended tattoo family she does not know where she would have ended up and who she would be today. So a big thank you to those people whose kindness is appreciated more than they will ever know.


Text: Karen Brady