Annette LaRue started hand-poking neighborhood kids when she was 13. At 15, she got her own biker-branded work, the first of an extensive tattoo collection. Then, in 1989, she picked up a tattoo machine and hasn’t stopped since. With a gritty past, flaming red hair, and a sharp tongue, LaRue is often mistaken for a tattoo industry wild child. And she doesn’t care. A serious artist and savvy businessperson, LaRue’s focus is on keeping her iconic Electric Ladyland studio one of the top shops in New Orleans, welcoming everyone “from dregs to divas.” In this interview she talks about handling French Quarter drunks, why tattoos should look like tattoos, and her upcoming retirement.
INKED: So let’s just get this out of the way: Did you tattoo the infamous Angelina and Billy Bob tattoos?
Annette LaRue: [Laughs.] No, one of the guys at my shop tattooed “Angelina” on Billy Bob. It was toward the end of their relationship. He just strolled in off the street like a regular guy wearing cowboy boots, old jeans, and a $500 silk cowboy shirt. I was talking to him the whole time he was getting tattooed and actually got his pants off to see all his tattoos. He had really old California-style tattoos, which I thought were pretty cool.
You’re in New Orleans. Isn’t there a voodoo curse against name tattoos?
You know, there should be. We were thinking about doing a package deal where you get the name for $200 and it includes the cover-up. We have gotten very good at covering names over the years.
Do you get a lot of walk-ins or is it mostly custom work?
On any given day, it’s about half and half. A couple of my guys are always booked, and I usually do walk-ins. I enjoy doing smaller walk-in tattoos. I kind of get bored with bigger pieces. Our shop is really versatile and everybody has a specialty here. I’ve worked with some of these guys for 15, 20 years. It’s awesome.
Tell me about Electric Ladyland’s history.
I bought Electric Ladyland from Ernie Gosnell in 1996. He and his wife had called and said that they wanted to move to Seattle, her hometown. They offered me such a good deal on the shop that I couldn’t pass it up. So they went back to Seattle and opened up successful shops there, and I took over the shop on Earhart and Claiborne. If you know the area, it’s a bad fucking neighborhood. Cars got shot up there. Everyone who worked there carried a gun. It was ghetto tattooing at its finest. We had “Tupac Tuesdays” where you could get a two-for-one deal. But I really learned a lot there. It was fun. I commuted for two years back and forth and got a lot of speeding tickets. I got tired of it, so I sold it to a good guy. I wanted to make sure someone cool got it and kept it going.
Then you brought your current shop, Electric Ladyland II, to the French Quarter.
The French Quarter shop used to be Orleans Ink. There was this bass player for the metal band Exodus; he had this money and his friend was a tattooer, so they opened this shop and didn’t know what they were doing. They were floundering. The guy hated every tattooer in town but for some reason he liked me. I had to sneak over to his shop on a Sunday at 6 a.m. because he didn’t want anyone to see us talking. He let me look at the shop, asked if I wanted to take it over, and I said, “Hell yeah.” I mortgaged my house to get the money to buy it. It was kind of scary but I was able to pay the mortgage back within just a few years. I remodeled the whole thing, set it up to be a street shop, and it has been crazy ever since. But I like it.
What makes it crazy for you?
The business end of it, trying to run a business and do tattoos. We have 11 employees and it’s a lot. Running the business will run you down.