Celebrity Skin - Tatu Baby

Published: 29 April, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 224, April, 2013

I could start this feature by telling you how Katherine ‘Tatu Baby’ Flores is totally fierce or how she’s unapologetically talented, but if you’ve ever seen her work or happened to catch her on Ink Master, you already know that. After all, it’s why she’s been asked to compete on the hit TV show again this upcoming season. So, let’s skip the introductions and dive right in, shall we?

Tattooing professionally from the moment she turned 19, Katherine Flores, better known as Tatu Baby, has been winning awards for her realism skills since she was in the third grade, which is exactly when she scored her first top prize for a portrait she drew in class.

The Queens, New York, native decided early on she would not stop until she became a highly respected female tattooer, unabashedly following her dreams for years, out on a mission to reach a praise-worthy level.

Now 26, she’s done just that and can be found churning out one great masterpiece after another. So is it any wonder she was selected to be a part of Spike TV’s Ink Master not once, but twice? I think not.  

Roots Set In Ink

Addicted to drawing – especially on walls, regardless of the trouble it would get her in – from as far back as her first memories take her, you could say that Tatu Baby was born to create art.

Discovering tattooing in her teens, she instantly became fascinated by it, but her utter dedication to the art form was a gradual process.

“I tried tattooing as a hobby in my teens, but it wasn’t until I turned 19 that I realised, out of all the mediums of art I had practiced, I was just more passionate about tattooing,” says Baby. “I took art classes in school and went to the art university of Miami for about a year-and-a-half,” but nothing else could compare. “I loved how challenging tattooing was and decided to take it on as a career,” she says.

Lucky for her, she had her parents’ support from the start, and saying they pushed her towards following her dreams would be an understatement.

To start things off, there’s the fact that Baby got her first tattoo at the age of 14, a tribal piece, alongside her mother – talk about cool parenting. Then there’s the story of how when it came time to put needle to skin for the first time, her dad stepped in to help.

“My very first tattoo was a little tribal on my dad’s ankle,” remembers Baby. “I was so nervous, but it actually came out good.

“My mother would always tell me it doesn’t matter what you do, just always try to be the best you can at it. I reached a point in my life where I needed to decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and get really good at it. A light bulb clicked in my head and I immediately knew it was tattooing.”

Shattering Glass Ceilings

“For the most part I’m a self-taught tattoo artist, though I have been blessed with advice from some great artists and inspired by others,” says Baby of her journey. “I believe like in any career you have to sacrifice time, money and effort; it was a slow start, especially getting respect as a female tattoo artist in a male-dominated business. I personally felt I had a lot to prove. Nobody discriminated against me, but sometimes I felt the cold shoulder, especially at tattoo conventions. It really helped me push harder; I had a clear goal and worked hard every day to reach it.”

And although Tatu Baby’s story may have started with a homemade tattoo machine and endless practice on any and all willing high school friends, her perseverance brought her very far indeed and found her moving to Miami, winning countless tattoo awards, inking rap superstar Lil Wayne, and being so well loved by TV audiences and Ink Master judges – who at the beginning seemed to do nothing but underestimate her, before they were soon singing a different tune – that she is being brought back to compete once again this year on the reality show’s third season.

When she’s not busy being fabulous and kicking ass on camera, though, Tatu Baby is still a real, hard-working artist who tattoos by appointment only out of the Miami studio she co-owns.

“A Thousand Virgins is the name of our studio and also the name of my partner’s black and grey ink supply company,” she explains. “My partner is Ceaser Morales, an amazing black and grey artist from Miami who has been tattooing for over 20 years.

“For the time being, it’s just us two and we like to work by appointment only and keep a more comfortable gallery-like studio over the busy-loud music-cramped shop. It’s located in Kendall and we usually only give the address out after an appointment is booked,” she says, refusing to disclose any more details. But, as we all know, anything surrounded by an aura of mystery tends to be totally wicked, and there’s no doubt that A Thousand Virgins is in fact so cool, it’s deadly.

“The best part of being your own boss is calling your own shots, running your business how you feel is best,” continues Baby. “I’ve designed my studio to be private and comfortable for my clients and their company.

“The toughest part, though, is keeping everything under control and making sure you’re making the right business choices. It’s a lot of weight to carry on your shoulders and still concentrate on your artwork.”

Ink Master’s Queen

“I heard from Ink Master for their first season and for personal reasons could not go through with the process, so I contacted them for the second season and jumped on board,” says Tatu Baby of her stint on the super successful reality show that pins 16 top artists from across the States against one another and makes them compete in weekly challenges testing their skills, after which they are judged by Dave Navarro, Chris Núñez and Oliver Peck, all for the chance to win $100,000 and be crowned Ink Master.

“I have to admit I was a bit scared when I heard the news; it was a big commitment and it’s stepping out of your comfort zone.” In the end, “it was a blessing and a great opportunity” but it came with both highs and lows, she admits.

“My favorite challenge was the black and grey collaboration challenge,” says Baby. “First of all because after going through everything, at this point black and grey is one of my favorite styles, and second of all because I got to work alongside my friend and great tattoo artist, Jesse Smith. I still have nightmares about the traditional challenge, though. I got my butt chewed – I can still hear it,” she laughs.

Making it to the final four, Tatu Baby’s Ink Master journey ended without much warning. Although the dragon she was asked to do on Super Bowl champion Charlie Johnson was criticised for having been too outside her style and for not being completely anatomically correct, the criticisms towards the other finalists were just as strong, if not worse at times.

“I was so surprised [when they eliminated me], it really was an unexpected punch,” says Baby. “Like I have said, I know my tattoo had its flaws, but I don’t think it was the worst one. I did feel like the judges saw me grow throughout the show and I’m sure it was not an easy decision.

“I would do it all over again in a heartbeat,” she adds after a moment’s pause, which is a good thing seeing as, during the live finale, viewers were asked to cast their vote in regards to who they’d like to see come back and compete next season.

“It was a big surprise that they were giving the option to vote someone back on, but I know after just getting eliminated I felt I wanted that comeback chance and was more grateful than surprised at the moment they announced my name.

“I feel so grateful that so many people believe in me and that excites me to go back. I feel that my advantage is I know my weaknesses and have time to practice on them, but it’s like a gift and a curse. The judges might be tougher because of it.”

There are definitely things she won’t be doing again, though.

“I watched the whole season and was yelling at myself for absolutely everything,” she admits. “Like sit up straight, don’t draw that, suck it in, don’t ever wear that again, don’t tattoo that, don’t listen to that, etc. I am my toughest critic.

“I hope to go back on the show and go a lot further and I hope to travel overseas and continue doing great tattoos,” she says of the months and years ahead, and when it comes to long-term ambition, Tatu Baby has one very clear goal: “I hope to inspire other artists. I came from nothing and hard work pays off. I also hope to keep learning and keep getting better and take it as far as it can go!”

Tatu Baby On… Her Signature Tattoo

The tattoo on my neck says ‘Rawyalty’. I got it in my ‘I want to be a graffiti artist’ stage [laughs]. It represents me since I can be spoiled like royalty sometimes and I added the ‘raw’ to give it a different twist. Since the show, it’s [become] my most iconic tattoo, mostly because people find it hard to read and because it’s in purple like a tattoo stencil. I have people randomly come up to me looking for my neck tattoo!

Tatu Baby On… Tattooing Lil Wayne

I listen to his music all the time when I work, so it was an honor. I tattooed some words by his waist and a heart under his eye. He was very down to earth and sweet.

Tatu Baby On… Her Dream Artist Collaboration

Jose Lopez, 100 percent. He is my biggest inspiration and it’s crazy I have yet to meet him. His artwork and tattoos are amazing and it’s part of the reason why I strive to be better every day.


Text & Photography: Barbara Pavone