I Am Not Kat Von D
Outside the gunmetal gray door of a nondescript North Hollywood building lies a colorful doormat and a kitschy frog statue, the kind you’d find on the front porch of a house in the suburbs. Both read “Welcome.” This is not the entrance to the Monastery, Kat Von D’s private photography studio. Less than two feet away, there is another door with another doormat. This doormat is plain and beige, featuring large black letters that simply proclaim: “GO AWAY.”
Kat whips around the corner in a convertible black Bentley with the top down, exclaiming, “I’m so sorry I’m late!” She was, after all, running a whole four minutes behind. The world-famous tattooer and star of TLC’s LA Ink pulls into the garage, finishes a Red Bull, and opens the side door to her studio. She saunters up the stairs past walls lined with an array of religious artwork and greets Oscar the pit bull at the top. It’s here that the room opens up to an airy, four-story loft with 10-foot ceilings and giant windows that allow the afternoon light to flood over statues of the Virgin Mary and images of Jesus on the cross lining the ledges and bookshelves.
Kat grew up in a religious family, but the decor isn’t meant to pay homage to those times. The family belonged to the Seventh-Day Adventists, a religion that typically shuns ornamentation and jewelry. “I remember my sister liked rosaries growing up and my parents were like, ‘You can’t wear that because it’s idolatry.’” Another area of the loft has been sectioned off for her latest passion, portrait photography, partially ignited when boyfriend Nikki Sixx gifted her a new camera. After snagging a cigarette, Kat eases into a gilded, thronelike chair, and I settle into a plush Victorian sofa with Oscar sitting proudly next to us.
In photos and on the show, Kat’s features seem to have an angular, hard edge. But face to face, she’s infinitely softer. The sharpness fades away, replaced with a feminine beauty that’s just not as apparent on the small screen—perhaps because of the way the film crew lights her AC/DC-inspired Hollywood tattoo studio, High Voltage. And the tattoos, which pop in photographs, blend with her skin in such a way that you’d think this is how she came out of the womb. But in her nearly all-black getup, with a long knit cover-up, a slinky top that reveals a striped black-and-white bra, and vinyl pants, she still looks like—with the exception of flip-flips—rock royalty. And she should. Kat owns a successful tattoo studio in the heart of Los Angeles, LA Ink draws in an average of about three million viewers a week, she has tattooed dozens of well-known celebrities, written a book that made the best-seller list, and banked enough cash to afford a top-of-the-line car and a house in Hollywood. Not bad for someone who’s just 27.
In 1982, when Katherine Von Drachenberg was born, life wasn’t nearly this glamorous. Her parents, who both hailed from Argentina, had relocated to Mexico so her father, a doctor, could be closer to her grandfather, who was teaching medicine there.
The Von Drachenbergs were far from rich, but that didn’t matter. “I have to say, my happiest moments, other than right now, would be that time in my life. It was as simple as it gets.” Life revolved around family and religion instead of pop culture. On the weekends, the Von Drachenbergs played the piano, visited grandparents, and sang hymns. “We didn’t have a TV. I didn’t see MTV until I was 16, at a friend’s house.” Her grandmother is an oil painter and a pianist obsessed with Beethoven, and she inspired Kat to follow in her creative footsteps. Though sometimes she hated it, Katherine and her older sister, Karoline, practiced the piano for an hour or two each day, and she spent most of her free time playing with her siblings and sketching. Even a cursory glance at her early work would reveal she has a natural talent, but Kat didn’t think it would take her anywhere. “I wanted to become a doctor when I was little. My dad was my hero and I wanted to be like him. He would say, ‘Why don’t you be an artist when you grow up?’ And I would say, ‘Dad, that’s unrealistic. Aside from being an architect, there is just no way you can make a steady career out of art.’”
When Kat was 4, her parents moved the family to southern California. “It was kind of a fluke we were born in Mexico, because my dad always had the idea that America was a better place to raise kids.” On the way to their new home, Kat was treated for the first time to music that wasn’t classical or from the church when her father stopped at a gas station in the States and purchased cassette tapes featuring the music of Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and Elton John. “I remember driving from McAllen, Texas, to California with my dad translating ‘A Boy Named Sue’ to all of us. My mom, when she came to America, didn’t speak any English, and music was one of her ways of learning it.” Years later her father took her mother to Vegas and they ended up meeting Dolly Parton. “I remember how stoked my mom was because she said Dolly Parton was so nice to her. That was probably my first experience with understanding the idea of fame because we didn’t have that growing up. Like, Jesus was famous, but I wasn’t going to meet him.”
Fame is not something that sits well with Kat. But it’s something she’s had to come to terms with. “I never wanted to be on Star Search. I just saw [Miami Ink] as an opportunity to be a good representation of tattooing.” But despite her well-meant intentions, once she joined the cast, she found herself rejected by a portion of the tattoo community. “Tattooers definitely have their opinions about me or their perception of me, and I felt that a lot of that wasn’t coming from a place of love. There’s nothing that makes me different other than my situation, but I had to come to terms with [that fact that this life] isn’t normal, and from this point on there are just things I can’t do like I used to. I try to separate myself from the tattoo politics. Tattooing is hard enough, and you don’t need other people’s egos affecting your ability to create.”She doesn’t only have to deal with her dissenters; she also has to figure out how to work effectively with the cameras around. “It’s pretty frustrating. When we’re filming, everything takes twice as long as it would in real life.” To capture enough footage for one hour-long episode of LA Ink, the film crew must film for five days—usually from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. A lot ends up on the cutting room floor. “Sometimes it’s discouraging because I’m doing a tattoo and the chemistry between me and the client is so compelling and for whatever reason, it gets cut. That’s the stuff that’s out of my control,” she says.
Her lack of control over the editorial direction of the show is one of the reasons she’s angry about the most recent season, the second half of which launches this month. “I really hate the direction the network decided for this season. The last thing I would ever want is for people not to take that shit with a grain of salt. And that’s the thing—people believe whatever they see on TV. The network wanted it to be drama-derived, and that was everything I stood against. I was crying every day, like, ‘I can’t believe they edited me saying that. Girls are going to think that’s the right behavior.’ I just have to do my best and, at the end of the day, whatever happens is out of my control. But I still battle with it.”Cue the entrance of the shop’s new manager, the very blond Aubry (who just happened to be on the second season of Rock of Love), and tattoo artist Paulie, who moved from Brooklyn but never fit in. There’s also the auditioning of new artists Kat had never met, like Amy. The tattooers fans see aren’t, for the most part, the ones who work at High Voltage when the show isn’t filming. But letting go of two of her favorite costars wasn’t something she wanted to do. “They made me get rid of Hannah [Aitchison] and Kim [Saigh]. That was so hard. I told the network, whatever it takes, I’ll do anything. In the end, Hannah and Kim understood it was in no way my decision. Unfortunately, you have the Jon and Kates and all the other attention-seekers that cause viewers to watch the shows, and that’s the direction they wanted.”
To stay content when the cameras are going, she keeps her focus on her tattooing, a passion she discovered at 14 when her friend Oliver Guthrie asked her to tattoo his leg with the iconic Misfits skull. “It was magical. The instant I started tattooing that kid, I was like, this is what I have to do.” Guthrie ended up becoming a tattoo artist himself, and it wasn’t long until Kat got her first tattoo, an Old English style J on her ankle for her then-boyfriend, James. Not long after, she ran away from home with James, taking a bus all the way to Georgia. The bond didn’t last. After a few months, she moved back to California, and they drifted apart. But the tattoo remains. And after fading out of Kat’s life 10 years ago with her wondering if he was still alive, James showed up at the last stop on her book tour for High Voltage. “It was like staring at a ghost. I instantly recognized his voice. I still feel a lot of love for him in those times, but I’m a different person.”
James isn’t the only ex whose name is emblazoned on her body. Over the years, she’s had the names of many of her boyfriends tattooed on her including “Orbi,” a tribute to her time with Alex Orbison, Roy Orbison’s son. With the exception of the profile of her ex-husband Oliver Peck on her thigh, she’s kept them all. But she didn’t laser off the portrait of Peck because she harbors any ill will toward him or because she’s upset that he set out to (and did) top her Guinness World Record of tattooing 400 people in one 24-hour period. “I think Oliver is one of the coolest-looking guys I’ve ever met, and by far, one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. But it was a big part of my leg and it was hard to work around.”
At 16, she got a job tattooing at Sin City in San Bernardino. After two years of learning to tattoo through trial and error, she was able to enjoy a proper apprenticeship. “It was so exciting and scary because it was such a ghetto part of town—a lot of crazy activity going on. There was a lot of riffraff and drinking and drugs and guns.” She was also living with a prostitute. “I met her at the movie theater and I didn’t know, obviously. I didn’t have a car and she lived close to the shop. She exposed her lifestyle to me and it was really sad to witness because she had two beautiful kids who were already affected by her addiction to drugs and all that stuff.”
It was at Sin City that she acquired the moniker Kat Von D. “I would always write out Katherine Von Drachenberg, which I love. But this kid would come around a lot and he abbreviated it to Kat Von D. I always disliked it because I was a fan of Von Dutch, the painter, and I always associate Von D with Von Dutch and I felt that it was already taken. But it stuck.” After all, Von Drachenberg is a bit of a mouthful, and Kat herself was sent home in the first grade because she couldn’t spell her own last name.
After a year and a half at Sin City, Kat was searching for something more serious and scored a job tattooing with Pete Costa at Blue Bird Tattoo in Pasadena. “I got the job by accident because he needed some time off. He was the only guy working there. To me, this was like, ‘This is L.A.! This is big-time!’ But it was, compared to what I was doing.”
It was there that her tattoo skills greatly improved as she started to understand the difference between a good tattoo and a great one. After her stint at Blue Bird, she bounced around, working at a handful of other shops until she landed at Clay Decker’s True Tattoo in the center of Hollywood. This is where she fortuitously met tattoo artist Chris Garver. The week she started, Garver was getting ready to leave for what would become Miami Ink. After a few fun months at True Tattoo, she received a call from Garver asking her to be on the show. At first, she felt welcome, but those feelings soon faded as Kat butted heads with the shop’s owner, Ami James. So when approached with the opportunity to return to Los Angeles and star in her own series, she jumped at the chance. And while we don’t get to see them onscreen very often, she’s very proud of the crew she’s put together at the shop: Jeff Ward, Khoi Nguyen, Nate Fierro, and others who have dubbed themselves “The B Team.” “Those guys are better than me at tattooing in so many ways. I did that on purpose. I don’t want to be a big fish in little water,” Kat says. “We have a certain amount of camaraderie that I haven’t experienced in any other shop. … Tattoo shops have camaraderie like a brotherhood. There’s this thing that joins you. I think that’s why I loved tattooing so much. I always wanted that and didn’t have it with my family as much as I like to think I did.”
That camaraderie extends to the friends, bands, and other clients she tattoos at High Voltage. Recently, she started giving away some of her 50 machines as gifts—bestowing one with a Deutsch Mark to Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister and a heartagram machine she used in a music video with HIM to her close friend Bam Margera. “I look at each tattoo machine and think about how I’ve made thousands of tattoos with it.” Tattoos on such people as Margaret Cho, Jared Leto, and Jesse Hughes from Eagles of Death Metal.
After each of the tattoos Kat inks, she puts her feather quill pen to paper and writes about the experience, recording that person’s story in her journal. “A friend of mine once asked, ‘How do you deal with all the death and heavy stuff?’ If I don’t get my thoughts out I carry them with me, and that stuff can fester. I went through a really gnarly depression last year learning how to balance it. The journaling has helped me process a lot of those thoughts.” The world will get to see some of these private musings when she publishes a year’s worth of entries in a second book, scheduled for release this fall. Kat will personally select and footnote the entries and photograph each person.
Of course, Kat doesn’t just give tattoos. One of the most recent ones she received was a portrait of musician and friend Johnette Napolitano, done by Dan Smith of High Voltage. “I used to drink through my tattoos a lot. I think that was a major part of getting this far. Because now, as a sober person, it’s definitely been a challenge getting tattooed. I suck at it.” She drank an entire bottle of tequila just before getting her back tattooed with the words “Mi Vida Loca,” but recommends that people don’t drink when they’re getting inked. “You’re probably not going to make the best choice if you’re under the influence of something. Aside from that, it’s really annoying for the tattooer. It’s hard to do a straight line when someone is puking on themselves.”
And perhaps her most well-known tattoo, the one of the Hollywood sign written in red lipstick, involved another tattoo no-no. “I totally ripped that off some cool rocker chick. I was working at True Tattoo and she came in. She was like, ‘I want to get the New York Dolls logo, but instead of saying New York Dolls, I want it to say Hollywood.’ I’m like, that’s a genius idea. I ended up getting it. I never thought I’d run into her again. But then I did at the Beauty Bar and I’m like, ‘Oh, hey,’ with my fucking midriff showing. I’m trying to hide the tattoo, but I’m sure she’s seen it. If I saw her again, I’d be happy to do it for her. We can be twinsies.” That tattoo is just one of the many that will compose the bodysuit she’s working up to completing, minus the chest. “Eye contact is important, and if you’ve ever had a conversation with a guy … I think boobs are distracting enough.”
But despite all her connections with the glamorous life and the fact that she stars in a hit show on television, Von D remains a very private person. She built the Monastery because she wasn’t comfortable shooting models she didn’t know at her house. The conversations she most enjoys with her clients are those that happen off-camera. And when not at work, she’s usually focusing on one of her many projects, be it her makeup line with Sephora (she’s involved with everything from selecting the color palettes to designing the product packaging), the documentary she’s been filming about love, death, and tattooing, the singing lessons she’s been taking, or just taking the time to draw and play Beethoven on her piano.
When she does go out, she prefers to surround herself with family, her boyfriend, and her few close friends—those who know her by a different name. “When I hear someone call me Katherine, I know it’s probably a friend or family. It’s weird to say, but I am not Kat Von D.”