“I don’t like to do nice, clean tattoos or realistic stuff. A tattoo should look like a tattoo,” says Lea Vendetta, the Paris-born 37-year-old tattoo artist whose journey has taken her from the City of Lights to Key West, FL . Vendetta started in tattooing in 1989, when, at the age of 18, she got her first ink—a Celtic piece that she has since had lasered off. In 1992, while in the South of France, she was introduced to Dave “Bastard” Archer by a mutual friend and tattoo artist. She married the native Floridian three years later and moved with him to West Palm Beach. “I was drawing and painting and getting tattooed. I was just surviving,” she remembers. When one of the artists tattooing her suggested she try the trade herself, she “did what nobody should do” by ordering a machine from the back of a magazine. Soon, she was hired by Lucky Devil and working on her first pieces. “It was mostly tribal and simple black stuff that if you messed up, you could fill it up with more black,” she laughs.
Since those early days, Vendetta and Archer have lived, worked, and tattooed each other in a handful of Florida’s beach towns. In 2000, they opened their own shop, Big Kahuna Tattoo in Boca Raton, and enjoyed a busy, sevenyear stint until they started to long for a slower pace. “I didn’t have a chance to develop my own style,” explains Vendetta. “Hopefully now I can do more drawing and painting and focus on it.”
After selling the shop last year, Vendetta traveled the country, doing guest stints in Seattle and Dallas, before setting up at Paradise Tattoo in Key West. She arrived after a 1966 law banning tattooing on the island had been struck down, and tattoo parlors were eager to bring in talented artists. But even though the opportunity offered Vendetta what she was looking for, she wasn’t sure about the island at first and didn’t know if she’d even be able to make it a month. “I’m more of a city kind of girl,” she says. “But it [Key West] is awesome. It reminds me of Europe a little bit.” The temporary home has also given her a chance to work on developing her own style celebrating her unconventional idea of beauty. “I love old, really tacky things from the Old World,” Vendetta explains. “Picasso said if it’s in good taste, it’s not art.”