Kat Von from Miami Ink

Published: 30 December, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 139, November, 2006


Kat Von D - is the new addition to the hit American TV show Miami Ink. Kat not only brings a touch of glamour to the show but her tattooing and in particularly her Black and Grey work is astounding. Skin Deep managed to catch  up with this very talented  tattooist on a recent visit to London to ask her what made her tick…

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

 Well my family is originally from Argentina, South America and my parents are missionaries for the Church, so they ended up moving to Mexico, and myself, along with my brother and sister were born there. When I was about 4 years old we came to America and since then I’ve lived pretty much all of my life in Southern California.

I love everything about living in Southern California, especially Los Angeles, you have the Mexican culture there, that’s very prominent and has definitely influenced my artwork a lot, I do lots of fine line black and grey tattoos and a lot of that stuff originates from the prison style artwork. And just walking around Los Angeles you see murals everywhere, you see the low riders, you see the gangsters and all of that stuff has played a big part in what I do. 

What were your interests as a teenager and young adult?
Los Angeles has always been one of my biggest influences and inspirations. I grew up into a Punk Rock scene, hung out with a lot of Punks, listened to the music, in fact my family is very musical, I’ve played the piano since the age of 6, then took guitar lessons and so on. The music scene in LA is definitely hot and has inspired me.  I’ve got three pianos at the moment so play piano a lot and probably will do until the day I die, so music is a huge part of my life, but at this stage, because of my other commitments, I’m not looking at getting into a band or anything like that.

You told me that you got tattooed when you were very young, so when was it that you first become aware of tattoos, and at what stage of your life did you decide that tattooing was the career choice for you?

It really started when I was hanging out with the Punk Rock kids, there was a friend of mine who did lots of tattoos, the unprofessional kind. And he was always coming round and tattooing us and because he knew that I was artistic and always drawing, he suggested that I tattoo him. So I did, and that was the first tattoo I ever attempted, I was 14 at that time. Since that day on, tattooing has been what I wanted to do, it just seemed natural for me, the opportunity landed in my lap and I gravitated towards it.

So how did things continue from then on? Did you do an apprenticeship?
Well, at that time I was obviously under age, its illegal for you to get tattooed, let alone tattoo anyone else, when under age. But I had a lot of under age friends who wanted to get tattooed and that made it easy for me to practice. So by the time I was 16, I got into my first tattoo shop and that was when I had to unlearn a lot of the things I had been doing, but I never did a traditional apprenticeship as such.

So how did you manage to get to work in a studio when you were so young?
I took my portfolio in and all of my drawings and said to the guy who ran the shop, “look, I know I’m under age but I really want to do this”. And he said, “I will take you on, I can see from your work that you are really good and you can go somewhere with this”. He was Dave Smith and he worked at ‘Sin City Tattoos’ in San Bernadino, so that was the first shop I worked in. Dave taught me a lot about all aspects of tattooing, sterility, needles and machines, things that I really had no clue about as I had missed out on the apprentice side of things. I stayed there for about a year and after that I moved into LA.

How did you become involved with Miami Ink?
The network had been wanting to add a female artist to the crew for some time and Chris Garver, who owns the shop where I work now in LA, vouched for me, and that was pretty much it, I got on the show.

How did you feel about the thought of being exposed to the cameras all of the time?
Its really hard for me to be embarrassed, so being in front of the camera wasn’t too difficult, though at first it was kind of annoying getting used to all of the behind the scenes stuff, the cameramen, the lighting crew. There’s so much going on that viewers obviously don’t see, and we have to get used to all of that. But no, it’s not a big deal to me and now I could tattoo with a million people around me watching, it doesn’t really matter.

Lets talk about the clients, who are obviously chosen for their stories.
Yes, the network screens hundreds of people before they get to us and the screening process is based on their stories, their looks and the tattoo they want. In order to make an entertaining show, you have to have good stories. In real life tattooing may not always be as therapeutic as it gets on the show, but you need that factor to make good TV. I do a lot of emotional tattoos, where people get moved, and cry, and that can be pretty tough, it makes the job harder, that’s for sure. But ultimately, my job is not to be a therapist, but to do a good tattoo! And as long as I can focus on the tattooing and to represent the industry in a good light, that’s enough for me.


With regard to the tattoos that you do on the show, is there  a style that you prefer or do you just have to go with whatever comes in?

I prefer to do fine line black and grey, a lot of portraits, a lot of realism, pin-up girls, things like that. The things I don’t do are Japanese, biomechanical or tribal, that stuff is just out of my realm. I can appreciate when work like that is done well, but it is just not my style. 

Once the client gets approved for the show, then, as artists, we get to approve the ones we want to do, and so, if there is something I don’t want to do, I won’t do it. And that works out well as every one of us has our own style so there’s someone for every design. If someone wants Japanese work, they can go to Chris Garver, he kicks ass at Japanese!


So, in real terms, how has being on the show impacted on your life, either positively or negatively?

Being on the show has impacted on my life in many ways. For instance, the amount of emails I get has meant that I have had to hire an assistant; I never thought I would have needed one, but it has become essential. I get around 1,000 emails a day; I could never cope with that amount of extra work alone. And that’s an important part of the process for me, to keep in touch with all of the fans, but that in itself takes a lot of work. Being recognised doesn’t really bother me, reactions have all been very positive, I’ve had no negativity or hate mail, so I guess I must be doing pretty well so far. I get emails from everyone from 8 year olds to 60 year olds and everything in between, most are complimenting my work or asking questions about myself. I think that once you come into peoples lives via TV, there is a tendency for the viewers to want to know more about the person that is coming into their home on the TV screen every week, that’s only natural. I do try and keep some aspects of my personal life out of the show but you will see that in the second series, they want to get more personal stuff and whilst that is interesting for the viewers, some things have to be kept back.  I'm married and try to keep the marriage out of the show as whenever I've seen married couples involved in reality TV, it always ends up being bad, so I'd rather keep that private.


So with regard to the other tattooists in the show, who do you spend most time with or get on with in particular?

Chris Garver is pretty much my only friend when I'm in Miami.  He is my boss when I'm at home, so we're really tight, he's like a brother to me, the rest of the guys I've met during the filming and everybody has been really nice to me apart from Ami, who I have a hard time getting along with from time to time, he's just really hard headed, that comes across in the show. There is a definite personality clash between us but the network knows what they are doing, and it gives a bit more drama to the show, we're just like a big dysfunctional family sometimes.  But the fact that I don't get on with Ami has also caused problems off screen, we don't talk unless we have to for work, I would never willingly hang out with the guy.  It's a clash of ego's but more on his part than mine.  I've done pretty much all I can to be friends with him and it hasn't worked, but I mean there are some people that you just don't have the right chemistry with, and that's natural, and I respect that, and I respect the fact that it's his shop, so I do whatever I can to make the ride a little bit smoother.  I'm not there to take anybody's limelight, or to step on anyone's toes, and as a team we work well together, but on a personal basis, things are a little bit different.


Do you think you might provide a role model for those women wishing to come into the industry?

I'm not really here to promote people to move into the industry, which is already saturated, but I'm definitely here to try and open up people's minds.  If that results in women who are tattooed being more readily accepted and respected, that's great. After all, I know so many heavily tattooed women who are great mothers, wonderful teachers, wonderful people an I think its time for the world to know about it.


Do you think the general public’s opinion about tattooed women has changed recently, in the States?
Yes. People’s perceptions of tattooed women have definitely changed within the last 5 years. And I do think that the show has opened up people’s minds, and then there is the fact that a lot of female celebrities are now getting tattooed, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, everybody from Angelina Jolie to Drew Barrymore, so the stigma is lessening. But its like anything with trends, things change quickly, and although tattooing is so classic its never going to go out of style, I can definitely see some tattoo trends going on.   

Have any particular stories impacted on you?
I have gotten some really emotional stories to deal with, but there isn’t one in particular that stands out. When you spend long periods of time tattooing someone and they tell you their story, its hard not to get involved with what they are going through. I think what tortures me the most is when I have to tattoo portraits of children who have passed away, that’s the worst thing, to have a parent outlive their child, something that nobody should have to go through. And people do sometimes get tattoos for closure; it’s all about whatever heals.  

Tell us something about the tatts you have.
Most of the work is black and grey, I have a few colour ones. There are lots of portraits, I like to get portraits of people in my family, those are the tattoos I could never regret. I also like to get feminine stuff too, things that I enjoy looking at. For a woman I think it’s important to accentuate the good things, to still be a woman, but be tattooed. I don’t necessarily think that every woman should get as heavily tattooed as I am, for me this is a profession and a lifestyle. I’m in this for the long haul; I’m going to be a tattooist until my hands drop off.   




Photography & Interview: ASHLEY Photographer's Assistant: MICHELLE MARTINOLI


Skin Deep 139 1 November 2006 139