LA Ink

Published: 01 August, 2008 - Featured in Skin Deep 163, August, 2008

Kat Von D is undeniably the media darling of Discovery Real Time’s LA Ink, but what of the other artists at the studio? Hannah, Kim and Corey are all exceptionally talented artists in their own right and aren’t what you might describe as ‘obscure’, but you can’t help but feel that they’re a little overshadowed by Ms Von D on the show. So, we thought it was high time that they took centre stage and had a bloody big Skin Deep spotlight cast upon them…


“I didn’t really have a formal apprenticeship. I crafted a homemade tattoo machine when I was 16, something I don’t really recommend. I basically started working on myself and close friends (some of them are actually still my friends, since I long ago repaired the damage I did to them…). I don’t think it’s ever been easy, not in the beginning, and not now.  It was instant gratification; it wasn’t something that would heal and become better. You always had to try your best the first time around. Over time, that becomes easier, but I continually push myself and try to improve…”

Did you get an apprenticeship or where you self-taught?
In the beginning I was pretty much self-taught, but any opportunity I got to hang out in a tattoo parlour, I would take, ‘cause you can always learn something by watching. These days it seems it would be, as it might even have been then, just wasn’t the path I took. An apprenticeship is only as good as the artist teaching you.

Do you get dozens of people coming into the studio asking to become a tattooist?
I probably deal with them a lot nicer then I was dealt with. Back in the day, you were just told to get the fuck out. Not too many people had much advice to offer, and sometimes it was the wrong advice anyway. I’ve taught a few people over the years a few things; people I felt would add something to the art.

During your trips abroad, have you noticed any particular areas that are more welcoming to tattoos and tattooists than others?
I’ve always felt very welcome in Amsterdam, and in other European cities, maybe ‘cause I was a novelty from overseas. Japan as well. I took my first trip to Japan in ‘90, then again in ‘99 and 2000. Japan I’d say was the biggest change - in 1990 it was very underground in my eyes but when I went ten years later, I went and a lot of people knew of me and my tattoos. That was a huge honour to me.

Who are your main influences, including both tattooists and the more traditional artists?
Jack Rudy and Filip Leu are two of the names that first spring to mind. As an artist and as a person, SuzAnne Fauser, a tattoo artist from Ann Arbor, Michigan, had the greatest impact on me. She passed away about 7 years ago. My second daughter, Suzanna, is named in honour of her.

How would you describe your own style?
I like to think I’m pretty well rounded as an artist and can do any style, but with my own personal twist. For example, my Japanese work may look more “Coriental” than traditional! I think I’m known as a black & grey artist. That’s the style the guys I looked up to were doing. I’ve always liked the classics like dragons, skulls, and roses. Those designs are my favourites.

What’s your favourite part of being an artist?
Just being able to be creative. Just being able to create something is a good feeling sometimes. Freedom.

What are your thoughts on the current popularity of tattooing?
I’m not sure if the popularity of tattooing is good or bad. It’s just what it is and where it’s at right now, good or bad.  I’ve been tattooing in shops for over 20 years, and a while before that. I think it will be cool to look back one day and say, “Wow I tattooed on TV in 2008!” I’ve seen quite a few changes, and will probably see a lot more.

Has your diary been booked solid since the show aired?
I was already booked for six months to a year before the show started, but there have been a lot more requests lately.

Do you feel more ‘famous’ being recognised by people from outside the tattoo community?
Yes. I call it glorified carnie status…


How did you enjoy working in front of the camera? Did it influence the way you worked or went about tasks?
Since I spent a good portion of my career up ‘til now working at conventions, the idea of working while surrounded by other people or while being scrutinised wasn’t a dramatic change for me. I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. The thing I was probably most cognisant of was that whatever I did on camera would represent my art and my process to thousands, maybe millions, of people. So from that aspect how I presented the work became more important. I wanted to show viewers what they could and should typically expect from their artist as far as a clean setup and a professional attitude, and while these are things my clients have always gotten from me, I wanted to make certain that came across to our viewers as clearly as possible.

Are you ready for the next series yet?
Guess that would depend on the series, eh? “America’s Next Top Chimp”, say, would definitely get my participation, hands down. I might even finance that.

Do you think programs like LA Ink help ‘educate’ the public as to the possibilities offered by tattooing now, rather than have them settling for off-the-wall flash?
Shows like “LA Ink” definitely have a rare opportunity to be an educational tool for the industry, but at the same time we’re working within the confines of an entertainment format. It drives me crazy that each piece somehow looks like it miraculously manifests itself in 5 minutes, start to finish, but if the whole nine-hour process of the average piece on the show were to be depicted, the show would be boring to 99 percent of viewers. So that tends to be a compromise we make as artists working within the confines of the format. I do believe strongly that we showcase excellent art by very gifted and professional artists, and that does help to reinforce a higher standard for what people out there should be able to expect when they go to get a tattoo. I’m proud of how I maintain very high standards of cleanliness while I work, and I hope that comes across - heck, I think absolutely every artist out there should be bagging their machines, for their own safety, that of their clients, and just to keep their machines safe. My Mokume Aaron Cain will never feel fluid contact of any kind!!! Mark my words.

Both Kat and yourself have made quite a mark on the industry; were you treated any differently when you started out in tattooing because you’re a woman?
Fortunately when I began tattooing I was working with an amazing, very proactive guy who really went to bat for me in an area of the suburbs where I did kind of start off as a novelty. Eventually my reputation for good work was enough to keep people coming into the shop and it really squelched the sceptics! But as these things go, I had a relatively easy time of it compared to the real groundbreaking women artists such as Vyvyn Lazonga, SuzAnne Fause and Juli Moon - these ladies really had to fight to be taken seriously at all. I’ve never had to contend with the kinds of issues they did, and consider myself lucky that the occasional condescending remark is the worst that’s ever come my way. Ultimately it’s the people with talent that will succeed in our business - talent and ethics. Gender becomes less of an issue for us all the time, thanks largely to people like Vyvyn, SuzAnne and Juli. We owe them our sincere respect and gratitude.
I started 11 years ago out in the Chicago suburbs, the mythical Aurora, Illinois of Wayne’s World fame. There is, sadly, no Stan Makita’s donut shop there. Another moment of iconoclasm, courtesy of yours truly! I had been fascinated with tattoos for a while but never had thought I’d be the one to do them - just figured that was Guy’s gig and left it at that. He eventually prodded me into giving it a try, and the rest of it is current history.

Did Guy influence your decision to become a tattooist?
My brother definitely served as an inspiration, and was the impetus for me to finally decide to give it an effort. I also wanted to prove him wrong - at one point he had said he didn’t think I took my jobs seriously and wasn’t sure I would succeed! Granted, I had bounced from job to job prior to tattooing, but said jobs included phone sales and office assistant for a pharmaceutical marketing firm. Yuck! No wonder I was bouncing around.

Did you manage to secure an apprenticeship?
I got a nice, old school apprenticeship from the wonderful Craig Murphy at Skin of a Different Color in Aurora, IL. He taught me all the good stuff, and worked me hard. I still believe that new apprentices should all know how to make their own needles and tune/rebuild their own machines. Makes you a better, more knowledgeable artist! We had a waiting list every day and the pressure was really on to draw the piece while the client waited, get it to their satisfaction and then do the work efficiently and cleanly so you could get to the next person waiting. Some days I would do 12 tattoos, even more. That’s long, gruelling shift, but that kind of pressure and pace made me quick and clean and efficient to this day.

During your trips abroad, have you noticed any particular areas that are more welcoming to tattoos and tattooists than others?
As a general rule, the more urban the location the more welcoming they are to the idea of tattoos. The weirdest reception I ever got was in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I couldn’t get seated at a table in a nice restaurant to save my life. It was a really demoralising experience, kind of a reminder that not every part of the world views my tattoos as a viable form of personal expression. It was kind of a relief to get back to Mexico City, where there were very few tattoos in view but I was more of an interesting curiosity than something to be feared or reviled.

Who are your main influences, including both tattooists and the more traditional artists?
I think my greatest influences as far as my work goes are such incredible tattooists as Sabine Gaffron, Joe Capobianco, Tim Biedron, Adrian Lee...I can only hope to be worthy of their amazing example! The visual art I’m most drawn to is definitely nouveau inspired, such as Mucha, Marion Mahony Griffin, Ivan Bilibin, Arthur Rackham, Phoebe Anna Traquair, the newer work from Shepard Fairey (LOVE him!)...and of course the pre-Raphaelites such as Waterhouse, Burne-Jones and Rossetti.

Do you have a favourite style of tattooing?
I’m very inspired to want to do pieces that have that nouveau influence, but feel like I’m still working towards that goal and it’s something I haven’t nearly achieved yet, at least not the way I’d like to! I’d describe my style as illustrative, at least if I had to. I’m just fascinated with the human face and figure, period. Depicting it in a tattoo is a real pleasure for me.

Do your clients tend to have set ideas of how the tattoo should look, or do they give you a concept to work from and let you control the outcome?
In recent years I’ve had more folks who just trust me to manifest their ideas for them in the way that I feel would work best, and it’s been a privilege and a pleasure. From time to time I’ll have a client who wants to drive the bus a little more, and I’ll give it a try, but there is a rare occasion where I’ll decide it’s in our mutual best interests not to work together. I just want them to get the piece they really want to get, and if I feel I’m not the right artist for that vision, I’ll refer them elsewhere. It’s not being difficult, it’s just trying to promote a better art process for them with a more appropriate artist.

What would be the ultimate tattoo for you to create?
The ultimate tattoo project? Hm. Okay - if, say, King Buzzo were to come up to me and say “I want a backpiece with crazy dynamic light and crazy colour featuring a strong central female figure of some type with some cool architectural elements and lots of flames, light, stuff like that, just lots of energy for your eyes to look at, and hey - I want you to design and make it with your brother! By the way, I’m gonna bring a pet monkey and then the guys and I are gonna play a private show for you and your friends afterwards” well, then - that would be my ultimate tattoo experience. Yeah.

How do you relax and spend time away from tattooing?
I tend to still draw or paint, but I do love knitting. Go figure. That and long, long, loooong walks.

What’s your favourite part of being an artist?
I love knowing that whatever happens to me in my career, whether it be success, failure, joy, humiliation, whatever - that it is directly related to whatever I have put into it. Process equals result. That’s a very satisfying feeling.

Have you seen any changes in the tattoo industry that worry or concern you?
There are a lot of things that cause me some concern, but I think a lot of them will kind of take care of themselves, such as the glut of new artists getting into the business because they have a misconception of what kind of dedication is really involved with this kind of life. Attrition will take care of the poorer artists, but the good ones will rise to the top and be a real benefit to the business. The increased exposure means inevitably there will be more regulation, which in theory is actually a good thing, but the community can’t just sit by idly and allow the process to occur without us. If we are regulated by people unfamiliar with what we do, the regulations are bound to be unrealistic or unsustainable and that will create real problems for us. We need to be a part of this kind of a change, and help drive the boat. Otherwise it’ll set sail with us on board in whatever direction, and next thing you know we’re in the Arctic Circle.

Do you think that tattooing is becoming more accepted as a form of art in its own right?
Absofrigginglutely. It’s wonderful.

Is there anybody you would like to thank for helping you over the years?
Naturally I need to thank my brother and his wife, Michele, for being such constant inspiration, and Craig for giving me my start. Also my current Chicago boss, Ben Wahh, for being so flexible with my rather unpredictable comings and goings, and of course the lovely Kat Von D for including me in such a great project. Making this show with her and Kim and Corey has truly been a once in a lifetime experience.

Is there any other information that you would like to add?
If there is something you’d like to see more or less of on our show, write me a note!! Seriously! I don’t know how much I can actually do to make it happen, but I can make sure that production knows and that’s a step in the right direction. I want LA INK to be the best show of its kind, period.

Finally, what would your epitaph say?
“Here lies Hannah Aitchison. And why not?”


My interest in tattooing began really early for me; I was a rebellious teenager that had a lot of friends with horrible tattoos. I would think to myself, ‘Who did that shit on someone? I could do better than that...’ I guess I’ve always stuck up for the underdog in my past & tattooing seemed like a very misunderstood, underrated artform that I thought deserved more respect. My apprenticeship began at age 18 in Cleveland, Ohio

Were you treated any differently when you started out in tattooing because you’re a woman?
I actually GOT the job because I’m a woman - they were looking to hire another female because more women were getting tattooed and they wanted them to be comfortable with their artist. Of coarse the industry has always been a giant sword fest, so you know that going in. I’ve definitely felt like I was tattooing in a locker room at times, but luckily I get along with guys better than girls for the most part anyway.

Did tattooing come easily to you?
Picking up a tattoo machine for the first time was one of the most humbling experiences of my life - it looks easy! I could draw well & felt confident with those skills but then you pick up this top-heavy, vibrating, etching device and start sort of engraving on a living, breathing, soft, mushy canvas and you can’t really even see the lines you’re putting in because there’s ink everywhere...I was mortified & it was difficult, very difficult. You realize that what you’re doing is going to be on someone possibly forever and that holds tremendous pressure that forces you to pay the utmost attention to every little thing.

Have you had any formal art training?
I’ve never had any formal art training outside of a portrait class that I took after high school. I kind of graduated from the ‘sit in your room listening to Black Sabbath & try & duplicate the album cover’ school of art. I’m fortunate now to have the opportunity to paint with Shawn Barber. I think formal art training can be super helpful, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I believe most things in life come down to do it, or don’t do it. You can only be as good as you are willing to put forth the effort.

Who are your main influences?
As far as tattoo artists go, both Guy & Hannah Aitchison, Filip Leu, Shige, Kore Flatmo, Nikko, Grime, Steve Moore & Adam Barton are all doing work that I’m really blown away by. Favourite artists would be Alphonse Mucha, Dali, Caravaggio, Maxfield Parrish, Bosch, Dore & everything from storybook illustrations & pop surrealism artists to architecture & every type of religious art & everything in between. I think I’m influenced by so many types of art that it’s sort of hard for me to pin down what it is I actually do. I consider myself a well-rounded tattoo artist but I feel like I’m still growing into what my style is. I think who I am & what I’m about has changed dramatically over the years & I think my influences will all converge at some point in the near future-hopefully!

What would be the ultimate tattoo for you to create?
The ultimate tattoo for me would have lots of balance, movement, and a full range of values be it black & gray or colour (or both), organic & linear shapes, texture & the most difficult thing for me to incorporate; areas of open skin-space for the eyes to rest.

How do you relax and spend time away from tattooing?
When I’m not tattooing, I have a love & commitment for Ashtanga Yoga. It’s helped me more than anything else to give to me a perspective that’s clear & honest and consequently a freedom that allows me to appreciate life in a way that I never have before, moment to moment. I’ve also been trying to paint as well, but I’ve a lot of work to do in that area.

How did you enjoy working in front of the camera?
I don’t think tattooing in front of the camera is difficult. It’s everything production-wise that slows down the process. That in turn makes you strategise & try to find ways to prepare & make things run as smoothly as possible for the sake of being efficient & knowing the whole thing is going to be slowed down.

Do you think programs like LA Ink help ‘educate’ the public as to the possibilities offered by tattooing now, rather than have them settling for off-the-wall flash?
I think the public has definitely gotten to see a lot of what can be done with the medium of tattooing. There are so many artists I feel deserve the platform so much more than myself that I wish would get the kudos they’ve earned. I just happened to fit the description of what the show was looking for. Again though, I say the public needs to pay attention to the quality of the work & less to bling factor of size and loud colour.

You run your own shop, Cherry Bomb in Chicago. What’s it like coming to work under Kat having owned a studio for ten years?
Coming to work for Kat was definitely a shift, but it was great in the sense that I was too isolated where I was in Chicago. I needed to be around other artists to grow & open up my brain again. Even just picking up & going across the country turns your world upside-down & forces you to go into a sort of survival mode where you HAVE to make things work or you fail-not enough people realize the value of going outside their bubble.

Do you think that tattooing is becoming more accepted as a form of art in its own right?
I think people are definitely appreciating tattoos in a way that they never have before - I love when someone older that probably was raised to think of tattoos in a negative way comes up to me & says that they like something they saw me do. That means something because to me it says there’s been a shift & people are taking notice to the art form. I also think we live in a society that likes quantity over quality, and a lot of times people see big, colourful tattoos and are immediately impressed by the “bling” quality, so to speak, and not at the actual quality of the work-that will take time to turn around. Bad taste is epidemic & as long as people are willing to buy Britney Spears albums, they’re going to get bad tattoos as well.

Finally, what’s your favourite part of being an artist?
I think the best part about being an artist is the ability to create, to make something out of an idea manifesting. I feel like the luckiest person in the world to be able to do what I do.


Interviews: Alex Photgrpahy: All Images Courtesy of Revelation Films and Discovery Real Time All Photographs © Discovery Communications LLC


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