“If I had a religion, it would be music,” says L.A based tattoo artist, Kat Von D. Though she came to public consciousness when she was featured on the TLC show “Miami Ink” and subsequently earned her own show, “L.A Ink” in 2007, Von D was already famous to the countless rockers and rappers whose tats she’s done. “I love music equally as much as I love tattooing,” she says. And that’s why she was the perfect person to take us on a guided tour of the colorful skin illustrations of everyone from Lady Gaga and Rihanna to John Mayer and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong.
Kat Von D: “When I met her I had no idea who she was because it was right before she blew up. She wanted to get these roses on her hip. She came in and was this little firecracker. And I said, ‘What are you all about, your music and stuff?’ And she goes ‘I’m here to make it huge. I’m going to make it big.’ She’d just moved to LA and I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, you and everyone else.’ I didn’t say that, but cool, whatever happens. I swear, like three days later her face was everywhere. But man, she did it. It was really cool to see that.”
Kat Von D: “I always get weary about people getting their face tattooed, even though I have stars on my own face. It’s always such a huge commitment, even though people are becoming more open to the idea of tattooing. When you get [a tattoo] on your face, it really separates you from most of normal society. To me it reads as a dedication to a lifestyle.”
Kat Von D: “I tattooed this portrait of his mom actually on his ribs. I’ve known Dave for quite some time and he’s always been a nice guy. His mom was murdered when he was 15 years old by one of her ex-boyfriends. She was beautiful actress/model from back in the day and her death really caused a lot of mental issues for Dave. He’s pretty open about it. He really tried to channel a lot of that negative energy into his music and it’s a big part of who he is today. For me, I felt like we became a lot closer after that tattoo. It’s nuts, but they caught the killer on ‘America’s Most Wanted.'”
Kat Von D: “Yeah, I got mine first by the way! I’m a big fan of stars because they’re really pretty. The way you place them on your body can keep it feminine — whoever did the tattoo for Rihanna definitely kept that in mind. I love the way that it starts on her neck and flows down her body. Tattoos like this are really easy to add on to. I wouldn’t be surprised if she chooses to add on to it later.”
Kat Von D: “I’m a big fan of Eminem’s tattoos. I know that Bob Tyrrell from Detroit has done a lot of his work. He specializes in portraits and realism. He’s actually worked here a few times and has been on our show. I don’t know Eminem personally but just from looking at his tattoos it’s very apparent that he’s very into family — getting a portrait of your daughter on your arm is paying homage to your family. That’s definitely something I have in common with him because I love getting portraits of my family members.”
Kat Von D: “This is Tim Burton’s ‘Nightmare Before Christmas.’ That movie has probably been one of the top five most influential movies for tattooing. Even to this day people are getting full sleeves to do with his artwork and I think that’s really awesome. Stay gold is probably from ‘The Outsiders.’ Movies are just as influential as music I think.”
Kat Von D: “I remember seeing pictures of him prior to getting this sleeve, and then when he got it I was really impressed because it’s a well-composed sleeve. Something like this, you don’t get a little part of it and then add on to it later. This is planned out from the beginning with a clear vision of space. He’s definitely dedicated to tattooing; I was pretty impressed by that.”
According to Minaj, the tattoo on her left arm says, “God is always with me” in Chinese. Von D says of the tattoo, “I’ve always been a fan of kanjis in general because they’ve symbolic and aesthetically look very cool. Unless you speak that language it’s a very personal message to you, so I love that.”
Kat Von D: “Hayley Williams just scored cool points with me. I love it when people take ordinary household products, whether it’s a coaster or a razor blade and they put it into this traditional 1950’s style type sailor tattoo because it’s almost like a modern twist on history. These kinds of tattoos are very bold and colorful and tend to stand the test of time more than a lot of other tattoos.”
Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong
“It sort of looks like a photo booth,” says Von D. “I like it because it’s very graphic and very pop art-esque. It almost reminds you of an Andy Warhol painting but I’d be curious to find out who that is.” The picture is a filmstrip of Joe’s wife, Adrienne.
Mary J. Blige
Kat Von D: “I’ve always been a really big fan of crosses and I think Mary J Blige’s approach to her cross is very classic one, very traditional. You can see it on everyone from rappers to bikers. You can’t go wrong with a cross and a rose.”
Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland
Kat Von D: “I think that in America for sure, the grass is always greener. People always love the traditional Japanese approach to tattoos and I think that’s what he was going for with that tattoo.”
Kat Von D: “I remember when he got this tattooed. Chris Garber did it back when we were on ‘Miami Ink’ and I remember when he was drawing it, he had a really hard time getting the face for the Statue of Liberty so he had me pose and use me as a reference for [the face on the tattoo] — which I don’t think [Lloyd Banks] knows, but yep. I think this is a really beautiful piece.”
Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Keidis
Keidis, who has performed shirtless countless times, isn’t shy about showing off his extensive tribal inkwork. “I think he played a pretty big part in influencing tattooing,” Von D says. “I know the Indian head, for instance, that he got at Hanky Panky’s in Amsterdam back in the day, was something that a lot of people emulated. It was one of the first fine-line portraits out there.” In addition to these arm tats, he also has a giant totemic eagle, a Haida Thunderbird, across his back. It was also done by Dutch artist Henk Schiffmacher, known as Hanky Panky, who also inked the monkeywrench and tomahawk on Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder’s calf.
In March of 2010, Soulja Boy appeared in an episode of ‘L.A. Ink.’ Von D tattooed ‘Way’ on Soulja’s left hand so that when his hands are joined, they spell out his full name, DeAndre Cortez Way. “He came in and I was really impressed with his whole approach to his career because he’s really young. To have this body of work [tattoos] this young, you must have gotten it at a very young age. We tattooed his hand and he was kind of telling me about the rough times he had been through in his life and how he’s very family-oriented now. I’m a big fan of the urban style of tattoos, because they’ve very ‘gangsta,’ and to me that’s something that really resonates in Los Angeles.”
Kat Von D: “I think she has a bold approach to tattoos. I’ve always been a fan of pin-up girls and but I would probably stay away from putting any nude imagery on my body because a lot of people consider it vulgar. But to each their own. I like her tattoos. I think they look kind of rugged and raw, but they’re still cool.”
Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee
Kat Von D: “Tommy’s awesome to me. As far as the history with people in the limelight with tattoos – Motley Crüe and a few others – they were the first. They were fully tattooed when it wasn’t cool. He’s influenced a lot of people to get certain tattoos. Not just the “Mayhem” across his stomach but his actual back piece as well. To this day, I think people are inspired and tend to mimic that kind of style.”
Kat Von D: “I’ve always been a fan of lettering; it’s a message that you really want to wear. Personally, I love to get lettering as a reminder or as an affirmation. A lot of people tend to go that route and I think it’s inspiring. I think for Diddy’s tattoo it’s more of a self-labeling thing. You know, ‘Bad Boy’ and ‘God’s Child’ these are obviously brands of himself I assume.”
Kat Von D: “I actually tattooed the konji on her arm. Eve is awesome. Actually I tattooed her a couple of times. I told her, ‘Man, because of you, every tattoo shop has had to do those paw prints a million times over.’ It’s a very influential tattoo. A lot of girls started getting that when she got that.”
LL Cool J
Kat Von D: “This is actually a cool one. This is like a preachery, rapper approach whenever someone wants something wrapped around their arm– It’s always a good idea but sometimes it doesn’t translate well. In this case I think using the calligraphy from the mic was pretty cool.”
Kat Von D on Tats & Music
“I think music has been the most influential part of my life above my parents a lot of times,” ‘Miami Ink’ tattoo artist says of her connection to the two things she loves most. From her classical training as a pianist to sporting tattoos such as Ludwig Von Beethoven, The Misfits and ZZTop, Von D views music and tattooing as inextricably connected.
“I got into tattooing, you know listening to punk-rock and really being passionate… I think the tattooing just trickled down from the music.”
And inevitably, some of the biggest names in the music industry have has sought out Von D’s tattoos. “Man, I’ve tattooed a lot of musicians,” claims Von D, whose credits include inking artists from Soulja Boy, Lady Gaga, and Eve to Dave Navarro. “But last year I got to tattoo Concrete Blone’s Johnette Napolitano. She’s my favorite female vocalist. She’s become a really close friend and I ended up getting a portrait of her and surprising her with it, which is the only portrait I’ve gotten aside from my family members of someone that’s still alive.” Von D notes that inking yourself with an idol as she did with Napolitano is a major commitment.
Specializing in photo-realistic portraiture, Von D has also tattooed a slew of faces onto adoring fans. One of the most memorable, she says, was doing the likeness of Gwen Stefani. “I met this guy Darren when I was 18. He wanted to get this Gwen Stefani portrait and he was 15 at the time, and I was like, ‘Wow, you’ve got to wait.’ In my head I was thinking, ‘You’re not going to want this in three years!’ And sure enough, on his 18th birthday he showed up.” Von D tattooed Darren with Gwen’s portrait as well as a few of No Doubt’s rare album covers. “Darren’s actually met Gwen and she’s seen the tattoos and was impressed. Gwen showed them to her dad and said, ‘Look at that! She did my eyebrows so good!’ I think that’s a very big honor for musicians to see. Like, ‘Wow, you would want to mark yourself with my face forever? That’s amazing!'”
In addition to Von D running the Musink Festival, producing a makeup line for Sephora, creating a line of apparel, launching her own magazine and starting a new season of ‘L.A. Ink’ in August, she is releasing her second book in the fall. Her first book, “High Voltage,” traced Von D’s career it’s inception to the present and includes portraits, stories about clients and her perspective on contemporary tattoo culture. Von D says that her second book, “The Tattoo Chronicles,” — due Oct. 26 — is probably the most honest and intimate thing she’s ever created.
“I started tattooing people especially after the success of the show. I had a lot of heavy stories and I battled with them.” Von D kept a journal of her experiences as a tattoo artist after the show increased her clientele and therefore the pressure on her. “I never intended on re-reading [the journal], let alone publishing it. But I’ve been able to learn so much about myself through my clients’ stories that I think it would be important to share that with others.”
As for music mentioned in “The Tattoo Chronicles,” Von D includes bands ranging from The Mars Volta to Metallica talking about their personal inspirations. As a fan of music, Von D hopes readers will be “pleasantly surprised” by the decisions artists made to get particular tattoos.