Cover Star - Sabina Kelley

Published: 25 July, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 201, July, 2011

Sabina Kelley is an icon. There is no doubt about that statement. We have also discovered that for those wishing to tread in the same steps, she is very wise. Stick around - you might learn something...

With her stunning sleeves and distinctive modern take on the classic 50s pinup look, Sabina Kelley is inspiring artists and photographers all over the world. The star of our special edition covers managed to find some time in a somewhat insane schedule to tell us about being a model, a mum, and a wounded mermaid... 

What's it like having artists create different images of you, like the one on our cover? It must be interesting to see yourself through someone else's eyes...

"I love the cover image Tyson McAdoo did of me. It's such an honour to have incredible artists be inspired by me, and it's really cool when people even go as far as getting one of those images tattooed on them.

Sometimes I'm surprised by the versions of myself that I see. It's really funny when people try to recreate my tattoos in their artwork; sometimes it's not even close to what I have and sometimes it's right on!"

Can you tell us what you've been up to recently, to give us an idea of your working life?

"I have a pretty busy schedule. I'm always on the go, either taking care of my kids, travelling for work, doing photoshoots, answering emails and doing interviews, or doing laser tattoo removal. For example, in the last two days I've done two photoshoots a day - the kids actually came to one shoot with me and I had to juggle watching them and shooting. After that I came home and fed the little ones, got all dressed up and went out with my girls. My life is busy and hectic, but I wouldn't want it any other way."

How on earth do you fit it all in?

"I have no idea! I just don't get any extra free time to myself."

What do your children make of your tattoos? And what reactions does your ink generally get?

"My kids like my tattoos, but they're so used to them. They always take sharpies and draw tattoos all over their bodies, or wear the fake tattoos. My ink sometimes gets me attention, but I really don't pay attention to that; if I did, it would bother me. I usually get a very good response to my tattoos, although occasionally I do get the “You're so beautiful, why would you do that to yourself?” thing."

How did you get started in the modelling business? 

"I started when I was a showgirl in Las Vegas in the show 'Jubilee'. I did the billboard shoot for the show and realised that I was really good at it and that I liked it, so the progression from my dancing was modelling.

I also started getting tattooed when I was a showgirl, but you're not allowed to have tattoos - I would have to hide them. Then I quit dancing and started getting heavily tattooed and that's when I found my niche of being a pinup model and creating my own style of being a modern day tattooed pinup."

Has it ever been hard to get work as a tattooed model, and has the industry changed at all while you've been modelling?

"It's totally been hard to get work as a tattooed model - having tattoos doesn't make it easier in the slightest. The industry has changed a little in favour of tattoos since I started, but for the jobs I want in the fashion world, tattoos are still not acceptable. I love breaking boundaries and doing shoots with magazines and big time designers who don't normally work with tattooed girls."

You seem to be very clear about the kind of work you will and won't do. Do you think that's important?

"Yes, I'm very clear on the work I will and will not do, and nobody will change my mind. It's very important as a model to have limits because photographers and companies will push you and you don't want to do something that you'll regret. I'm always offered jobs that are very well paid that I say no to, but that's because they want nudity and I won't do nude shoots. If you do nude shoots and then decide you don't want to any more, those images are everywhere on the internet for life and could easily get a legit job taken from you further down the road. The only nudity I would do is for art shoots like David LaChapelle or Playboy. Other than that, no way!"

Do you ever find yourself in the middle of a shoot – like the one where you were dressed as a mermaid – and think 'what the hell is going on?' Or are you just used to it now?

"I'm usually used to it, but yes, sometimes I do - especially when I did that mermaid shoot. First of all it was freezing outside and the water was freezing too. I was laying in the sand getting bitten by sand crabs the whole shoot. The photographer didn't believe me and thought I was just being a baby, but I was picking them off me and throwing them - when I stood up one whole side of my body was pouring blood. It sucked really bad. I have horror stories from all kinds of shoots - being a model is not always glamorous."

Ouch. And speaking of pain, do you remember your first tattoo? 

"Yes, I was 20 years old and my boyfriend at the time did it for me. I put it on the back of my neck, so I could hide it with my hair if I wanted to - and I thought since I was a showgirl that it would be the easiest place for me to put makeup on to cover it. I was so excited about it that I don't even remember it hurting! I had a horseshoe with a dead swallow in the middle with flames and flowers around it and the number 13."

You've said in previous interviews that all your tattoos have personal significance and you don't talk about what they mean. You must get asked about them a lot though, doesn't it get annoying? Ever feel like making up a history for each one and putting in on your website, so people stop asking?

"All my tattoos do have personal meanings, and I don't talk about it because it would take too long. I get asked about my tattoos all the time and yes, sometimes it's especially annoying when people come up and start touching your tattoos or asking dumb questions like “are they real,” “do you draw them on you every day,” crap like that. I've never thought of posting all the details of my tattoos on the website... maybe someday when I do a book, I'll add that in. If you're lucky!"

Following on from that, is it important to you to have tattoos with a purpose or personal meaning behind them? 

"Yes, they're a part of me forever. I always think long and hard about my ink - I could easily get tattooed for free any time I wanted when I work at tattoo conventions or from one of my friends, but I don't because I'm really picky about what I get and the placement."

So how do you go about getting a new tattoo? Do you stick with favourite artists and themes?

"I figure out what I want and where I want it, and then I find the perfect artist. I collaborate with the artist and get something specifically drawn up, just for me. Then I run around with the pic for a day taped on me to see if I really like it, and if I do, I get it tattooed. The whole process can take a day or sometimes even up to a year to be perfect."

And have you set yourself a limit to the amount of coverage you're going to have? 

"I don't have an exact limit, but I really do take my time. As of right now, I don't want any tattoos on my chest or legs, because I think those are very beautiful parts of a woman's body. I could change my mind though, we'll see. But right now I'm just focusing on getting my back finished."

Do you think you're in a unique position, making a successful business out of tattoos and tattooing - among other things - while not being a tattoo artist yourself?

"Yes, I do think that I'm in a unique position. Being married to a tattoo artist helps, and owning a tattoo shop, modelling and being heavily tattooed and being successful at that has helped too. I studied tattoo removal as well and now do that as my plan B for when I can't model any more."

How is that going, do you think it's going to be big business in the years ahead? 

"Tattoo removal is going great, I really only do it one day a week if I'm in town. I definitely think it's going to be big business, especially since the tattoo TV shows are so big and everyone and their mum is getting tattooed. I think many of them are getting ink because they think it makes them cool, and they'll regret it in the future. I haven't removed any of my tattoos - don't ever get a tattoo with the thought in your head that you can just remove it if you don't like it."

You own a couple of studios, too. Any designs on training up as an artist?

"No, I draw like a two year old! I've tattooed twice: a stick figure with big boobs on two of my friends. It was pretty funny, but now I seriously get people wanting me to tattoo them – they call and email me for appointments..."

Tyson McAdoo

Did you pick up our limited edition cover with exclusive art by Tyson McAdoo? This isn't the first time Tyson has worked with Sabina. Check out more of Tyson's work at - we're thinking a feature is totally in order. 

Stay tuned...

More Sabina?

Find out more about our fair lady from, or follow her on Twitter (@Sabina_Kelley). You can also check out her studios: Staytrue Tattoo Parlor in Las Vegas, and Bombshell Tattoo Removal at Hart and Huntington (Carey Hart's shop).


Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: As Credited