INKED: Can you describe the first time you stepped into a tattoo shop?
KORE FLATMO: I was about 15. I went with an older friend of mine to a place in La Puente called Fat George’s. It’s really famous in southern California, where I grew up. It was kind of tough and a little scary. I feel lucky that it was my first place because it’s such an important part of southern California tattooing.
When did you get your first tattoo?
It was three or four years later, when I was 19. I had just moved out to Hollywood. My first tattoo was done in an apartment on the floor in a really run-down place on Cherokee. My friend was a little too ambitious and chose a design from the great fantasy artist from the ’70s and ’80s, [Patrick] Woodroffe. He had a book called Mythopoeikon. It was this lizard wrapped around a planet. It was airbrushed and multimedia—really beautiful. You should see what I got on my back. [Laughs.] He carved me up and it took, like, a month to heal. But he was a good friend of mine and tattoos are about more than just how they look. The meaning of the tattoo is important.
When did you decide to get work done at a real shop?
About two weeks later, I walked into some tourist trap on the boulevard and picked something off the wall, just like everyone does, I think. It was a design by comic book artist Bernie Wrightson. It’s this beautiful Master of Macabre cover of one of his comic books. I asked the tattoo artist where I should put it, and he said I should put it on my sternum—right in the middle of my chest. That killed me. It was the most painful experience I have ever had. Occasionally I’ll see that and it reminds me of how little we knew back then, as a group.
Do you ever think about covering them?
One is partially covered because new work went around it, but I didn’t want to forget where I started. In the course of my time, so many changes have happened and it’s easy to forget those early days, so I keep them.
It sounds like you got off to a bad start, so why did that draw you into tattooing?
The experience is what matters. I started getting involved in tattooing in 1989 or 1990. If your friends got into tattooing six months before you, you ended up being the guinea pig. I remember a friend of mine saying, “Hey, let me put this on you.” Up until then I had hardly any interest in tattooing at all. It was actually getting the first couple that really got me interested.
How did you end up tattooing professionally?
I started at a dive on Hollywood Boulevard. It was one of the many tourist traps. They had airbrushers up front and tattooers in the back. My job was selling jewelry and T-shirts to tourists, but I also did these paint-on tattoos. Then a person approached me and asked me if I wanted to apprentice. We quickly moved down to Sunset Boulevard. It took about six months to build this shop called Purple Panther. It was a rough place with a lot of problems early on. The shop is still there and it’s under different management. I hope mentioning it doesn’t besmirch its name. That was 19 years ago.
Was it tough starting out in that kind of environment?
I’m sure a lot of people in tattooing share the same story where they’re thrown into it and you really don’t have much of an apprenticeship because the people around you really aren’t living up to their responsibilities. I had maybe a month and a half of practice before I started working every day. I was opening and closing without any supervision, and that’s not a good way to start. But in some ways I was incredibly fortunate to get around these people who allowed me to get involved with tattooing.
Did you know right away that you had found your career?
That moment didn’t come in for a couple years. It seems kind of taboo for a tattoo artist to say that they weren’t born to do it. But in my case, I had dropped out of college and was just living and trying to figure things out. All of a sudden it started happening to me. It was cool because it was very difficult and I had to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day. I was the shop slave as the apprentice, and our shop had a drug problem. It wasn’t until I started getting exposed to the older, more soulful aspects of tattooing that I realized this was my calling. When I started really getting that personal satisfaction from the work, I was already two or three years in. It dawned on me one day that I was the luckiest guy in the world.
Why did you end up moving from California to Ohio?
All those stories start with a girl, and so does this one. A young lady who was from Cincinnati had moved to Hollywood. When she moved back, I took a vacation out to see her. At that point, I had already grown tired of the pace of Hollywood. It’s this 24-hour drive of who you know, who are you tattooing, and even what concert you were attending. That was never really my thing. When I visited this girl, I noticed that the cost of living was maybe half of what it was in Hollywood. I moved here and rented a single apartment with just a drawing table and lived really simply until I met my wife, Brenda. That’s what kept me here. I have been with her now for 14 years.
What is it like sharing a studio with your wife?
Even though we work in the same studio, we have completely private areas. It allows you to talk about things when you get home because you really haven’t spent all day together. That’s a saving grace. But we definitely understand each other more because of the shared frustrations that go along with tattooing. I know this is going to sound biased, but I consider her a really strong artist. If I didn’t, it would be really hard to be with her. I love her in every other capacity, but I really don’t like bad tattooing. So if she wasn’t good, that would be a problem for me.
PluraBella is a private studio without a sign. Do you ever miss the traditional shop experience?
I do, and I’m able to mix that in through extensive travel. I get a bit isolated, and I have a really heavy workload. Four months will go by in the blink of an eye just working through what I have to do. But we have built in probably three to four months of travel a year. Over the last 10 years, I’ve been to eight different countries and have tattooed in something like 50 or 60 different shops. That fills in that need. You miss the camaraderie. Tattoo artists are good storytellers. So I get a dose of it, but then after about a week or two, I’m ready to come home.
What is it about bigger custom pieces that appeals to you?
My overall goal is to work holistically on the body. I always take into account the person’s unique physiology, and the larger-scale stuff demands it. It presents a compositional challenge to create a homogenous, complete picture. My personal goal is bodysuits. That’s what I see as the acme of tattooing. When you’re able to get clients that are willing to commit on that level and have the wherewithal, both financially and mentally, you can achieve those goals. I spent the first five or 10 years doing a lot of portraits. I was known as the portrait guy. That was fine then, but for me the most difficult and rewarding work is the larger stuff. The ultimate is a complete bodysuit done by one individual. I have gone so far as to do both arms, the back, and some legs. But my clients almost always have some previous work from someone else, and as of right now I haven’t completed one.
What are you currently working on outside of tattooing?
Right now, I’m halfway through carving a one-off guitar for the Gretsch company. I have actually done three of those for Jack White of the White Stripes, one of which appeared in the documentary It Might Get Loud. The people at Gretsch saw it and they commissioned me. I have also done a lot of engraving. I hand-engrave plates for making prints. I do a lot of painting and charcoal. One new thing I have been doing is making my own drawing boards. I just cut really nice pieces of Masonite and draw on them with Sharpies and sell them as originals.
How did you meet Kat Von D?
I was on one of my return trips to L.A. visiting my family. I had drawn a set of flash back in ’99 or 2000 and I was going around to shops selling it. I walked into a shop in Acadia and there was this really striking-looking girl there. At that time, she was really into certain Mexican cinema actresses from the ’30s and ’40s and she dressed in a vintage way. She was really nice and she actually bought two sets of flash. I had that feeling I was going to know her for a while. I have been around Kat through all of these changes, and it has been amazing to watch.
Has she ever asked you to come on her show?
She has, but she knows that I’m uncomfortable with being on television. It’s not for me. As nice as it is for her to ask, it’s even nicer of her to understand when I decline.
What is your view on tattoo TV as a whole?
I have no problem with the shows. I think the controversy is starting to die down now, but three or four years ago, it’s all people would talk about. People knew that [Kat] and I were friends so they would gripe to me. I don’t think it harms tattooing in the least. I think it has helped it. I think that the amount of good that those shows have done for bringing in business to the average tattooist far outweighs any minor problems with it that people might have. People complain because they think it’s going too mainstream, but I know something about the history of tattooing and the role certain artists have played in pop culture. Look at George Burchett in England. He was widely known throughout the entire country. Look at Lyle Tuttle in the ’70s, and look at Paul Booth in the ’90s. When I see Kat on David Letterman, I think it’s a good thing. If people try to say something hurtful or ignorant, I’m happy to straighten them out.