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A little over eight years ago, Katherine ‘Tatu Baby’ Flores sashayed onto our television screens as a contestant and eventual finalist on “Ink Master.” In doing so, she helped to open doors for thousands of women pursuing careers in tattooing. “When I first started tattooing, so many people told me no,” Flores says, “that I couldn’t do it because I’m a girl and I’m Hispanic. When I first started tattooing, there were clients who wouldn’t even talk to me about what they wanted to get tattooed because they didn’t feel that I would do a good job. All of those nos and doors closed in my face made me grow. And all of the artists now who just do their thing, I say good for them because they didn’t let anyone tell them no either.”

Flores learned early on in her career that she would need to work twice as hard to make it, but that didn’t stop her from going for her dream. After doing her first tattoo at 14 and taking it up as a hobby, she decided she was going to be the best tattooer she could be—by any means necessary. “When I first started tattooing, it was more like a secret club,” Flores explains. “It was so much harder to get an apprenticeship and a license to tattoo. I went to a couple of spots to try to find an apprenticeship, but I couldn’t get one, so I kept practicing on my friends until I got better and made a name for myself.”

Although Flores initially enrolled in college to pursue computer animation, she ultimately returned to tattooing. She quickly fell in love with the challenges that becoming a world-class tattooer presented. For the next few years, she put in the hours to become a standout in the Miami scene, building her personal brand from the ground up. “Since I didn’t have an apprenticeship or anyone teaching me, I just knew I had to work twice as hard if I wanted to grow and be better,” Flores says. “Because I didn’t have a mentor, I figured that if I worked hard and practiced, it would come to me.”

Her struggles paid off when “Ink Master” came knocking at her door. At that time, the show had only been on the air for one season and no one knew the potential it had to change the tattoo industry. “The show was definitely a big growing experience for me,” Flores recalls. “When I went on ‘Ink Master,’ my idea of a great artist was someone who specializes in one style, but the show is about being great overall. Once I got there, it opened my mind to a lot of other styles of tattooing and there was still so much I needed to learn.”

Anyone who’s watched “Ink Master” for more than an episode knows it can be a tough experience for the competitors, as they’re put into an unfamiliar environment and their work is torn apart by world-renowned artists in front of an international audience. However, Flores soaked up the criticism like a sponge and made the most out of her experience on the show.

Photos by Ronald Wayne

Photos by Ronald Wayne

“I think because I’m self-taught, a big thing in my career has been paying attention to little details,” Flores says. “So when I was on the show, I paid attention to what everyone was doing and [for the first time] I had someone telling me what I was doing wrong. Instead of feeling bad about getting my work torn apart, I listened. When it worked, I realized that I could really learn and grow from being there. Seeing great artists be challenged was also motivating because it wasn’t just me, it was an experience I was sharing with everyone else.”

“Ink Master” not only made an impression on Flores, she made an impression on the growing franchise, becoming the very first artist to be invited back into the competition. Her two seasons on “Ink Master” made her a fan favorite, both in the eyes of the judges and with America. “I’d already built a name for myself in Miami; before the show I was booked a year in advance,” Flores says. “But then when I went on the show, I gained worldwide recognition and now I have people flying out from California, Hawaii and all over the world just to get tattooed. Even though I didn’t win either of my seasons, I felt like I won and the support I’ve gained for my art is my prize.”

After the show, Flores’s career only continued to grow and she used the support to expand her brand in all directions. First, there was opening her shop, Till the End Tattoos, and enlisting some of the best-known artists in the business to work by her side. Then came exploring her identity as an artist, both inside and outside of the tattoo studio. “I started painting three years ago,” Flores says. “I’m happy where I’m at as a tattooer and I hope to be known as much for my painting as I am for tattooing.”

Flores, like many artists, uses painting as an escape from the constraints of tattooing. Because tattooing is done on a thinking, breathing and moving person, it has many constraints and requires a great deal of precision. “When I paint, I want to feel free,” Flores says. “I tattoo what clients want all day, but my painting process has no rules. Instead of doing lines, I start by splashing colors onto the canvas until a shape starts to form. I just go by the feeling, sometimes I’ll work on a painting for four or five sessions until I’m happy with the colors.”

Although Flores has plenty on her plate as a full-time tattooer, a mother, a painter and a cast member on VH1’s “Cartel Crew,” she still makes the time to mentor the next generation. While she had to hustle on her own to make it in tattooing, she’s all about setting up the next class of tattooers for success. “When I first started with apprentices, I was teaching them the basics of tattooing—holding a machine, throwing a line and putting in some shading,” Flores says. “Now I can spot what they’re doing wrong in the first four or five seconds. I have the ability to teach my artists how to be great, not just how to make a career out of tattooing. I teach them how to strive to be an award-winning tattooer.”

Flores has fought hard to prove not only that she belongs, but that she has what it takes to stand among the greats. That type of tenacity can’t be taught and it’s been the driving force in all facets of her life—as an artist, a businesswoman and a mother. There’s no stopping Tatu Baby and it’s only a matter of time before she surprises us with her next big venture.

Photos by Ronald Wayne

Photos by Ronald Wayne