When Heather Gabel created Alkaline Trio’s iconic skull and heart logo through a happy accident with a photocopier, she had no idea the countless tattoos it would inspire. “I was at Kinko’s making a flyer and was like, ‘I’m just going to throw this in here,’” she remembers. “I was 19 and pretty heavily into skulls at the time. I never thought people would react to it that way.”
At the time, Gabel was studying art at Columbia College Chicago, working as a bike messenger, and dating a friend of Alkaline Trio frontman Matt Skiba. “The guy I was dating ended up playing drums in the band but their relationship kind of went sour around the time he and I broke up,” Gabel remembers. “By that time Matt and I were best buds.”Skiba and the band loved her design style and hands-on approach that didn’t rely on a computer, and soon she was designing the merchandise for their tours, which led to work with other musicians, including Green Day, Rancid, and Joan Jett (“I didn’t so much talk to her about doing her art as smoke pot and get totally excited that she was talking to me”).
It was on an Alkaline Trio tour that Gabel met her husband, Against Me! singer Tom Gabel. The meeting had an immediate impact on her art. “I’ve always liked birds, but it was when I met my husband that I started painting way more birds,” she explains. “I correlate that image with him, subconsciously.” The couple later inked themselves with matching bird tattoos, adding to her other bird tattoo—an owl that was a gift from Skiba for her 23rd birthday.
Gabel has more than a few “goofy, chummy tattoos.” After weeks of miserable vegan catering on the Warped Tour, she and her buddies got a chowhound symbol. She also shares ink—including a heart on her finger, a rose that creeps up her hand, and a rat—with other friends, as well as an upside-down cross tattoo both she and Skiba have. The tattoos that she’s really proud of, which
includes the Mayan story that graces her left arm, where completed at Oakland’s Temple Tattoo or Scott Sylvia’s San Francisco shop, Blackheart. Her favorite is the scissors and skeleton key design on the biceps of her right arm. “I was drawing stuff up one day for Alkaline Trio and I did this and was like, ‘I’m not putting that on anything—except for my arm!’ I collect scissors, so it was kind of perfect. At the time, I collected skeleton keys too.”
These days, Gabel’s focus has turned back toward fine art, including paintings of voluptuous women in various surrealistic portraits. Her newest pieces are explorations of the connection between women and animals. “Subconsciously, they’re all weird self-portraits. There’s one called The Equestrian. It’s a girl on all fours with a horse’s head. Tom was like, ‘What’s going on?’ I’m like, ‘Wow, you’re right. We can talk about it later!’” she laughs. And while Alkaline Trio fans everywhere continue to collect tattoos of the band’s logo, it’s the tattoos of her fine art that really excite Gabel. “I feel oddly detached from the logo. I feel like it has a life of its own. But people have started getting tattoos of my fine art, and I think that’s amazing.”