Skip to main content

Photos by Ellen Van Doorn 

Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand, one of the true trailblazers for women in the tattoo industry, passed away today at the age of 79. Hillenbrand was a true original. Anybody who ever met her fondly recalls the stories she told and the warmth of her smile. 

I had the pleasure of interviewing her about a decade ago for an issue of Inked. Our conversation will always stick with me for two reasons: it was one of the most enjoyable interviews I've ever done and the act of editing it down was an absolute nightmare. In just over an hour we somehow covered the entire history of tattooing in the twentieth century and how she had brushed elbows with seemingly every major player involved, but magazines have word counts and I had to cut so much. 

Of course I enjoyed all her tales of the past, but what really stuck with me was the reverence she had for the craft of tattooing. She spoke of it not as a job or an art form, but as a sacred calling that deserved the utmost respect. 

We decided to reprint our interview as a celebration of Shanghai Kate's amazing life. She will be greatly missed. 

Reprinted from the May 2013 issue of Inked 

For as long as she can remember, Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand has been inquisitive about the world around her. Any time she saw a machine, she wanted to know how it worked. Any time she heard about a new place, she wanted to go there. Most importantly, the second she learned about tattooing, she wanted to know how she could become a part of that world.

Hellenbrand’s foray into tattooing began before she ever picked up a machine, when she worked on a tattoo exhibit for the Museum of American Folk Arts. Soon after, she discovered her future career alongside Michael “Rollo Banks” Malone, was brought in by Sailor Jerry in a whirlwind of learning that would last a lifetime, and experienced the craziness of tattooing in a military town at Don Ed Hardy’s shop in San Diego.

As a woman, it wasn’t always easy for Hellenbrand to break through in tattooing, which was very definitely a man’s world. “I ran into a lot of opposition. I didn’t really pay too much attention to that. Once I found this work it was something that I had to do, and no one was going to stop me,” Hellenbrand says. “Someone telling me that I can’t do something because I’m a girl is the biggest firecracker you could put under my ass.”

In her earliest years in the business, Hellenbrand was able to befriend many of the greats and learn alongside them. Her fortunate upbringing has given her a respect for the history of her art that she tries to pass on to the next generation of tattooers. As Hellenbrand reminisces about her career she seems truly grateful for her experiences. “Sometimes I think that in my last life I must have been really, really good, because this is great karma that I am experiencing in this life.” 

What was it about tattooing that initially appealed to you? 

Well, really it was my love of tools that led me there. I was a tomboy when I was growing up and I was fascinated with hard work and tools. I helped my stepfather with building our houses and I was always out in the shop. When I graduated from high school I went to a couple of art schools; I had drawn since I was a little girl. I had a career in advertising that sort of helped me get involved with the Museum of American Folk Arts exhibit in 1971, regarding tattoos. After that museum exhibit was launched and finished its run, Michael Malone, a friend of mine, was tattooing and we were living together and his clients knew I had an art background. So they said, “We bet that you would be able to tattoo—you went to art school and know how to draw. Have you ever considered doing a tattoo?” I remember saying exactly that I’m not Yoko Ono. At that time Yoko had come in and busted up the Beatles. There were strong lines between men’s work and women’s work at the time. Tattooing was definitely man’s work. So I said that I had never thought of doing it but that I would love to know how the little tool works. I had already been around tattooing for a couple of years by virtue of hanging out with Michael, Thom Devita, and Huck Spaulding. I watched Huck work a lot on Thom and others. I had a vocabulary in my head about how things worked. 

What was it like to give your very first tattoo?

When I picked up the tool in my hand for the first time it was kind of like white noise. It was very confusing and there is a lot of pressure in doing a tattoo. I wasn’t really conscious during that first or second tattoo. By the third one I was aware. On the third one we had started really early in the morning and when I looked up it was five hours later. I realized that this was the magic tool that I had been looking for all of my life. This little tool, the tattoo machine, can take you to places where time and space no longer exist—when the work is going through you perfectly and you are in that void. I saw that little tattoo machine as the gateway to that. Whenever I want to go to that place, which I think is the epitome of the creative endeavor, I can go there by picking up this little machine. That’s what got me involved. 

You mentioned that there were clear lines between men’s work and women’s work at the time that you entered the tattooing profession. How were you treated as you started your career?

I didn’t feel any backlash or any sort of resistance against my entering this work as a female. Michael and I started in New York City, where tattooing was still illegal, so we were protected by the bubble that was created by not being in the public eye. We were underground. Everybody was working illegally. Michael and I became a sort of golden couple of New York City tattooing at our little Catfish Tattoo Studio underground. The problem came when Michael and I relocated to San Diego to work with Ed Hardy. San Diego was a military town. The time that I came into tattooing, women were viewed as a threat to the men in the business who worked in shops around military bases. When there was a female in the shop they would go to her first because she could remind them of their mother, their wife, their girlfriend, daughter, sister, aunt, whoever it was that they were missing. Plus, a female tattooer was still a novelty. Lines would go all around the shop if there was a woman working in it, three or four times longer than at the total men’s shops. That’s why I was seen as someone who should not be in the business as a tattoo artist. Civilians weren’t coming into the shops. We would have two or three days, 72 hours of “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” of incredible amounts of business, and then everyone is back on the base and it’s just crickets in the shop. We only had a few days to make all of our income. That’s where I think the really strong competition comes from.

Photo by Ellen Van Doorn 

Photo by Ellen Van Doorn 

If there were a Mount Rushmore of founding tattoo artists, you’d have worked with all of them. In particular, you had the opportunity to apprentice with Sailor Jerry. Tell us a little bit about that experience. 

Nobody “apprenticed” back in the day. You were “brought in.” Jerry taught me an awful lot at his shop in Hawaii. I also learned a lot just watching. I have a very inquisitive brain. I would watch Huck and pick up things from him, and I’d watch Cliff Raven and pick up things from him. But the most solid thing that could be considered an apprenticeship would be what I had with Jerry in those three weeks at his shop. It wasn’t a very long time but he was able to teach me so, so much. Here I was as a young girl—I think I was 26—and I had just entered this world of salty old men. Jerry was a giant. He was even beyond all the legends about him. He was a walking, talking phenomenon. I was smart and I was respectful so I didn’t talk a lot around him. I learned very quickly that you watch and listen. Then, when you figure it out, you put the answer to your question in the question and then you can ask it. That allowed me to sit and be around him longer. He would not let anyone be around him who was a fool. He did not suffer fools at all. 

Were you aware of how lucky you were?

The fact that I was invited to work with him and be at his shop was an immense honor. The thing he taught me above all was how to act in a tattoo shop. How to own that space. How to project yourself as the master of that room and how to not be manipulated by clients into doing what isn’t right. First of all, to know what is right, and secondly, to not be coerced into violating the rules. He taught me the rules. The greatest lesson anybody could learn very early in their career is how to think of yourself as a shaman, to think of yourself as a master and then operate from that standpoint but without ego. To solidly know what you are talking about and to not talk about something unless you know what you are talking about. Then when you don’t know what you are talking about, to go and learn it. These days were really fraught with adventure, while learning Japanese, learning Chinese, learning art, learning tattooing, learning about drawing flash, learning how to mix colors, learning about building tattoos and the machines. It was like a master class in everything because I was sitting with the master. Jerry never let anybody coerce him or tell him what to do in his field. He was very romantic—he loved women. He was so gentle while still being hard. I learned so much from him. Sometimes I think that in my last life I must have been really, really good, because this is great karma that I am experiencing in this life.

How did you end up with the nickname Shanghai Kate? 

Jack Rudy was the one who gave me that name because I always worked in Chinatowns. I worked in Chinatown in NYC, Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Wherever I have worked, I end up in the Chinatown. Initially tattoo shops were not welcome in “occidental” neighborhoods. The only people who would rent to us were the Chinese landlords who didn’t care who they rented to as long as they got paid. Then I also have ability to “shanghai” people with my sweet nature and my feeble body. I shanghai the people that I love, I grab them, and I collect them. Jack saw that in me and gave me that nickname.

It sounds like the old-timers were mostly very accepting of you as an artist. Were clients as quick to accept a female tattoo artist? 

I never had any prejudicial feelings from any of these men. It wasn’t until I moved to California and started to deal with clientele that people started questioning my abilities and thinking that I was not capable. At that point I had to prove my capabilities. I had a golden ticket coming into tattooing because of the museum show I worked on. I was also helped by my tenacity and my basis and foundation as to what my art was. Plus, I have talent, which helps. So I was welcomed and my gender was overlooked. I didn’t pretend to be a girl [Laughs]. I didn’t wear makeup, I didn’t dress provocatively, and I didn’t dress up when I went to the shop. I knew that I was there to work and be a functioning part of the team. I downplayed my femininity. I did that because of how I grew up. You don’t dress up to go work on a tractor or when you are building something in the garage. You wear blue jeans and T-shirts while getting sawdust and dirt all over yourself. I think I earned my way by approaching it like that. When I got to [Good Time Charlie’s] Tattooland people were reticent to get tattooed by me. I think that’s because of the Chicano culture; it’s very hard and heavy. Here I was a young white girl in the middle of all these gang members in their zoot suits and their cool cigarettes soaked in PCP. Their guns, their machetes and all of that. At that point some of the clients questioned my ability: Was I strong enough? It’s a warrior culture, so was I strong enough as a warrior to do the tattooing? Quickly enough I earned my respect there as well. 

Was there a certain level of hazing that you went through?

I knew that I was a woman and I knew that I was entering a man’s field. Yet I just found a way to get in there and do what I had to do. When I worked at Tattooland, Jack Rudy told me that I had to learn to pee standing up because if I was going to be one of the boys I had to pee like one of the boys—there would be no sitting down for me when going to the toilet. That comes in very handy when you’re on a camping trip, for example [Laughs].

That’s probably the most intense that it got. And I would have to work my shift and their shift. As a woman you do have to prove yourself, you do have to work 10 times harder, in my opinion. They would leave me alone during the day shift and I would have to work the night shift as well. I didn’t have to, but I chose to—that way I could learn more. Men aren’t always forthcoming with information. The best way to learn what they were doing was always just to watch them while they were working, if they’ll let you. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to stand around and observe some pretty tough characters and listen to what they say.

Photo by Ellen Van Doorn 

Photo by Ellen Van Doorn 

You seem to truly value the history behind your profession. What makes that history so valuable to know?

Regardless of whether I picked up a tattoo machine or not, the whole subculture of tattooing appealed to me from day one. My grandmother, God bless her, used to take us to the carnivals and sideshows. My grandmother loved all of that. She also wanted to give me the best leg up in life that she could so that she always had me going to every kind of experience that she could think of—not only operas and concerts but also sideshows and circuses. My grandmother encouraged me to be as brave as I could possibly be; I completely credit her with my love of life. What appealed to me with the tattoo subculture was how free they could be. The people that I first met had all come up in a carnival and circus background. Huck Spaulding, Paul Rogers, Joseph Spaulding. All of these people had initially worked their way around America in caravans with wild animals and freaks. That appealed to me. It’s adventure, it’s living outside of the norm—it’s freeing, in a way. 

You also tend to use your profession as a means to be able to travel the world.

I love travel. I love the idea of being free and being able to see the world. The world is such a huge and wonderful place. I think it was Mark Twain who said that being born is like buying a book. Staying in one place is like reading the same page over and over again; by traveling you get to read the entire book. So that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. I started running away when I was 2 years old. I staggered down the street on my little toddler legs. I’ve always wanted to see what was out there, what was around the corner. I have a hunger for it. I’ll never stop. You’ll have to stop me. I broke my leg and immediately upon being released I booked a flight to Kodiak, AK, and went up there and opened a shop, in a wheelchair and with a walker. I want to be able to say that I really lived. Tattooing is the perfect job for this. All you need is another person across from you who wants a tattoo. I have the ability to make that tattoo. It doesn’t matter if they have money or a chicken or a pig or a dozen eggs—you can make your way with this work. To me that’s perfect. I have a great reputation and a legacy so I have a welcome mat wherever I go.

Do you feel that a lot of the tattoo artists nowadays are failing to give a proper amount of respect to those that came before them?

Yes. I think a lot of them are not giving the proper respect. It’s being presented as a hobby: “Look at my new hobby! Buy a tattoo kit, buy a gun, and have a new hobby!” With the advent of the internet, people can get any information easily. Yet the depth of that information is being lost. The totality of the surface knowledge is spreading but the actual information and the respect for it is getting lost. I think that when you cut the legs out from under it and diminish it to a hobby, then people lose respect. They don’t care about the old man who did this before. I have people tell me right to my face that they don’t care about the history. To do this well you have to know immediately that it is a great responsibility and that it takes great dedication to do it right. There are rules to the human body, there are rules to the skin, there are rules to sterilization, there are rules to the placement on the body, there are rules to the chemical nature and there are rules to the electromagnetic part of it. There are rules. If you say that you are going to tattoo, then know the rules and respect the people who took 30, 40 years of their lives to build those rules.

Are you finally going to put down some roots with your new shop in Austin, TX? Or will the wanderlust get the best of you?

I have some health issues now that I’m older. I still went zip-lining and swimming in a waterfall on my last trip, so I’m still trying. I’ve fallen down and broken my back five times, both of my legs. I fractured my hip. I have some health issues that I need to address, including some autoimmune illnesses. I need to get eased back into good health, and I have a great support system here in Austin. Austin is really a great, fun city to live in. I’ve been looking for a place like this for a long time. I still feel like there’s a lot of the world that I have yet to see and a lot more adventures that I would like to go on. Staying put in one place is a sort of death; an apartment becomes a glorified coffin. I need to take this time when I address my health to also write a book, build my shop and share my information. I love residual income, so I’m going to do my best to build up some more of that.