L.A. Woman: Kat Von D.

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

kat3I wasn’t paying attention, and it happened: Kat Von D. has outpaced any of the women in Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, for sheer fame, if not talent. She’s the star of L.A. Ink (set in her shop), where she deliberately chose to work with other women (some recently departed) in order to showcase female talent in a historically male-dominated industry. The show was TLC’s highest rated through the 2008 season, and Von D. is now probably the biggest name (male or female) in tattooing, period. She’s the first to achieve fame outside her industry (The average Joe doesn’t know that Ed Hardy is a respected elder statesman and important tattoo innovator, now that his atrocious clothing line has brought him international fame in another industry altogether.) She’s also become a major influence on women’s tattoo choices. One artist tells me “Now, when women want something small, they ask for black and gray.”

Her new book, High Voltage Tattoo could have been a typical slapdash photo collection, but it has substance: Von D., best known for her portraits, talks about designing her own machines with the help of master jewelers, the difficulty of making color portraits that don’t look like cartoons, how shading gives a tattoo soul and brings it to life (especially on a face , in which you can see “the roundness in somebody’s cheeks or the shadow a nose casts, depending on the light in the image”) and the importance of white highlights (“what makes eyes sparkle and faces glow”). She has artfully recreated Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” with its bird’s eye perspective–even on some guy’s rib cage, rendered a nautical scene with a sense of depth that makes the wearer look like a ship is passing through his back, reproduced precious family photos and simulated Japanese brushstrokes.

Even the most moronic tattoo choice (Sharon Tate) gains integrity in her hands. There’s just one standout stinker, a scene from “Thunderball” showing Bond and two women, that looks inexplicably like it was done by an 8th grader. But it’s a fluke (possibly the poorly proportioned limbs are rationalized when seen by the wearer, from above?). Von D.’s willingness to share the kind of trade secrets tattooists have guarded for so long is a refreshing change, and it’s nice to see a swashbuckling woman of worth grab the limelight and put the term “girl tattooer” to rest, one hopes, once and for all.