Annette LaRue started hand-poking neighborhood kids when she was 13. At 15, she got her own biker-branded work, the first of an extensive tattoo collection. Then, in 1989, she picked up a tattoo machine and hasn’t stopped since. With a gritty past, flaming red hair, and a sharp tongue, LaRue is often mistaken for a tattoo industry wild child. And she doesn’t care. A serious artist and savvy businessperson, LaRue’s focus is on keeping her iconic Electric Ladyland studio one of the top shops in New Orleans, welcoming everyone “from dregs to divas.” In this interview she talks about handling French Quarter drunks, why tattoos should look like tattoos, and her upcoming retirement.
INKED: So let’s just get this out of the way: Did you tattoo the infamous Angelina and Billy Bob tattoos?
Annette LaRue: [Laughs.] No, one of the guys at my shop tattooed “Angelina” on Billy Bob. It was toward the end of their relationship. He just strolled in off the street like a regular guy wearing cowboy boots, old jeans, and a $500 silk cowboy shirt. I was talking to him the whole time he was getting tattooed and actually got his pants off to see all his tattoos. He had really old California-style tattoos, which I thought were pretty cool.
You’re in New Orleans. Isn’t there a voodoo curse against name tattoos?
You know, there should be. We were thinking about doing a package deal where you get the name for $200 and it includes the cover-up. We have gotten very good at covering names over the years.
Do you get a lot of walk-ins or is it mostly custom work?
On any given day, it’s about half and half. A couple of my guys are always booked, and I usually do walk-ins. I enjoy doing smaller walk-in tattoos. I kind of get bored with bigger pieces. Our shop is really versatile and everybody has a specialty here. I’ve worked with some of these guys for 15, 20 years. It’s awesome.
Tell me about Electric Ladyland’s history.
I bought Electric Ladyland from Ernie Gosnell in 1996. He and his wife had called and said that they wanted to move to Seattle, her hometown. They offered me such a good deal on the shop that I couldn’t pass it up. So they went back to Seattle and opened up successful shops there, and I took over the shop on Earhart and Claiborne. If you know the area, it’s a bad fucking neighborhood. Cars got shot up there. Everyone who worked there carried a gun. It was ghetto tattooing at its finest. We had “Tupac Tuesdays” where you could get a two-for-one deal. But I really learned a lot there. It was fun. I commuted for two years back and forth and got a lot of speeding tickets. I got tired of it, so I sold it to a good guy. I wanted to make sure someone cool got it and kept it going.
Then you brought your current shop, Electric Ladyland II, to the French Quarter.
The French Quarter shop used to be Orleans Ink. There was this bass player for the metal band Exodus; he had this money and his friend was a tattooer, so they opened this shop and didn’t know what they were doing. They were floundering. The guy hated every tattooer in town but for some reason he liked me. I had to sneak over to his shop on a Sunday at 6 a.m. because he didn’t want anyone to see us talking. He let me look at the shop, asked if I wanted to take it over, and I said, “Hell yeah.” I mortgaged my house to get the money to buy it. It was kind of scary but I was able to pay the mortgage back within just a few years. I remodeled the whole thing, set it up to be a street shop, and it has been crazy ever since. But I like it.
What makes it crazy for you?
The business end of it, trying to run a business and do tattoos. We have 11 employees and it’s a lot. Running the business will run you down.
What do you like about it?
I like the fast pace of it. I like the weirdos and the weirdness of it. In New Orleans, everyone is a character, so you can just look out the window and see something crazy. Like, a guy was driving by in a pickup, and in the back of the truck was a baby grand piano and some guy playing it. You just don’t see that every day. You see men in drag, men naked, women naked. People like to drink in New Orleans. They lose their inhibitions, come out, and seem to flock to us for some reason.
How do you deal with the drunks that stumble in?
We just tell them we’re booked and we can’t get them in, so they have to leave. Sometimes they try to fight us. At the old shop we had two guys pull up on Harleys in kilts and try to pick a fight with us because we wouldn’t tattoo them. They were super drunk and rude, and we were trying to get them out. One of my tattooers, who is an ex-NOPD, luckily knows how to persuade people. He kicked them out and then went right back to tattooing. At Electric Ladyland, though, we haven’t had any real serious problems.
You must tattoo a lot of characters. Any favorites?
Well, we had this one guy we called the Sheriff of Frenchmen Street. He sat outside on the bench all day long and drank draft beer. I had an apprentice and told him, “You got to go out there and tattoo that guy. He’s out there every day, he’s got tattoos and you can do better than what he’s got.” So he went over and got the guy to come in. He became one of our favorite customers. All our apprentices tattooed him. For every five apprentice tattoos, I’d do one good tattoo on him. He was awesome. After Katrina, he moved away and couldn’t get back. We found out a couple of years later that he drank himself to death. There are a lot of characters like him who we don’t see anymore.
The people of the Gulf are experiencing a lot of heartache, between Katrina and the oil spill. How does this translate in the tattoo business? Do you see a lot of people getting memorial tattoos, for example?
Oh yes. People here like to wear their strong emotions. And they do it through tattoos.
That’s got to be heavy.
It was horrible the first year or two after Katrina. Everyone who came in had a tragic story. Three guys who worked for me lost everything they owned. So, yeah, it changed everything. But it made business great. We never had an appointment book before that; we were a walk-in shop. A couple of guys would have appointments a couple of times a week, but now over half of our tattoos are by appointment. It shocks me every day just how many people come in. I’m not trying to brag, and I’m sorry for other people not doing well, but we’ve been blessed and really lucky. It’s also been a lot of hard work. I’d like to give my crew the credit. These guys are really the life of the shop.
Still, a lot of shops all across the U.S. are really hurting.
A lot are hurting really bad, but I hope it just weeds out the bad ones. If you don’t have business, you need to look at your work. Do you think you’re good, or do other people think you’re good? And you have to ask people who aren’t your buddies who you tattoo for free. If you don’t have customers, maybe you’re not working hard enough.
How did you get good?
Well, I don’t consider myself a really great tattooer. I can do a good, solid tattoo. I can do a pretty tattoo. I worked hard and I tried to follow the people I admired. The lady who taught me, Cindy Lael, well, she taught me a lot about tattoos but she didn’t really teach me how to put it in. She taught me art tricks and how to run a tattoo machine, but when I went to Lou’s [Sciberras], that’s when I learned how to use good machines and good tools. I started using magnums and flat shaders, and copying the styles of Uncle Mike Harpool and Troy Lane, who worked there. When Mike Wilson came to the shop, he helped me a lot with machines and the technical stuff. He would also bust my ass when I didn’t put enough black in something. And that’s what makes a tattoo strong: the black, a solid foundation. It took me a while to get that drilled into my head, and that’s when my tattoos started getting good. Also, going to art school in New Orleans helped me a lot with color and composition and things like that.
There are many tattooers these days with art school degrees who bring a more painterly style to tattooing. Some of their approaches don’t have strong outlines. What do you think about this?
If that’s their style and that’s what the customer wants, it’s fine. But in 20 years, it’s going to look like shit, with just big blobs of color. I know people who have stunning examples of that. When you notice tattoos on old guys, they don’t have any color anymore, but that black is still there; you can see that shit on their arm and tell if it’s an anchor or “hot stuff.” Tattoos should look like tattoos. If you want a painting, go buy a fucking painting.
That’s not a popular opinion these days.
I don’t care what people think of me. They have this notion of who I am, and they don’t know nothing about me—nobody does.
What do you think is the biggest misconception of who you are?
I think that people think I’m wild, and I’m really not. I like to garden and ride horses. I’m really pretty normal and conservative. I had a wild streak. I was going good in my 20s and 30s. I’d come up kind of like a biker chick. I always rode my own bike and rebuilt my own motors. But I’m pretty mellow these days.
I read about you doing your first tattoo as a kid, and then getting your own first tattoo at 15. That’s pretty badass.
I got my first professional tattoo in Mobile, Alabama. … I’ll never forget it. My girlfriend and I went in there, and as long as we had our tops off, he didn’t care. Actually, that guy still tattoos. He’s kind of an icon, but back then, he was just some biker.
And you hand-poked tattoos on other kids when you were young.
I did. I was probably 13 or 14. I got all the kids around. Some were afraid to do it, and I said: “Gimme that needle. I know how to wrap the thread around, c’mon!” Oh, I messed up a few friends. I hope they’re not too mad at me.
What drew you to tattoos at such a young age?
They were defiant. Today tattoos are a fashion statement, like a hat or tight pants. When I got them in 1978, my first professional ones, I got them to scare people. I didn’t want people talking to me. I don’t know why I felt that way. I bet my counselor could tell you.
So overall, what do you think about tattooing today?
Oh my God, it’s horrible. I blame the Internet and rap music. [Laughs.] I think it’s awesome that an art school student wants to tattoo, but learn how to do a fucking tattoo. I think it should be mandatory that you learn from somebody who has been doing it at least 10 years. Not these guys who have been doing it a year and open up their own shop and have three apprentices.
Well, what do you love about tattooing today?
I love how it’s different every day. I love the people I work with because they are funny and make me laugh. I love setting my own schedule. I love traveling, going to conventions, and meeting new people. That being said, I am kind of semi-retiring. I got a partner now at the shop, Jason Cline. I’ve known him for 18 years. He’s an awesome tattooer. He runs the shop when I’m not there. He wants to keep the Electric Ladyland name that I got from Ernie, so I’ll pass it on to him, and he’ll pass it to someone else. We’ll keep the honor of Electric Ladyland and Ernie.
What will you do in your retirement?
I’m going to get a farm and have goats and chickens. I also went to school to be an outdoor adventure guide, and I’d like to take people on hunting expeditions. So I’d like to do that and still tattoo when I want, and go to conventions. I’m 47 now and I think retiring at 50 will be awesome. But I’ll always be connected with tattooing.