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.