Kari Barba began tattooing in 1979, aged 19. Encouraged by a neighbour who saw her great potential, he suggested she give tattooing a shot. Kari had never imagined becoming a tattoo artist but immediately fell in love with the craft. Despite sexist attitudes in the tattoo scene of the 70s, Kari’s headstrong attitude and dedication to her craft soon silenced any critics. By the mid-80’s she had carved an indelible mark on the tattoo world, her flash sheets adorning the walls of studios worldwide.

Tattoo artist Kari Barba
Tattoo artist Kari Barba

Can you tell us about your early experiences in tattooing? How did you get your break?
I saw my first tattoo when I was 17. I thought that it wasn’t very well done and wondered why it couldn’t be more detailed; I didn’t know much about tattoos at the time, but I felt there could be more to it. At 18, I met a new neighbour in my building and he happened to be a tattoo artist. Over time, he would see me drawing and often suggested that I try tattooing. So eventually at 19, I did. It was so fun and I instantly loved it. I did a small rose in the style I usually drew in; detailed pencil style, black and grey. I had several people ask me right away to do one for them and my tattoo career took off.

Were you getting tattooed at this time, and what kind of work were you interested in?
I got my first tattoo aged 18, at my local shop in Minnesota. They were participating in a ‘news special’ and needed someone to get tattooed for the news. So I volunteered to do it. I got a small mouse. That’s it. Not a great start to my tattoo collection but we all start somewhere! I later covered that mouse and tried to do larger pieces. I really loved tattooing black and grey and started to notice artists like Jack Rudy doing it in California.

For some time that’s what I did. I later thought, “Why can’t we do this style in colour and make it detailed like black and grey?” I started to combine detail with colour, tattooing animals, flowers, and so on.

Who were your early peers and biggest influences in tattooing?
Neil Grant and Dave Yurkew were the first tattoo artists that I knew. As far as influences, the first work I saw that I really loved was by Jack Rudy and Ed Hardy. It took a bit of looking around in tattoo magazines in the early days, and their work just stood out to me.

What vision did you have for the style of work you wanted to create?
I felt that as a new artist, the best thing for me at the time was to do what felt natural. I was doing detailed work so I went with that. Then as time went on, I tried Asian style designs. I would take Polaroids of people in different positions to use as reference and change them into the piece I needed. I would also do a lot of research in books and went to book stores often to look for different reference styles. I learned a lot this way.

When did you start making flash, and how did this develop?
On a trip to California in 1980, I visited Tattoo Land, Jack Rudy and Mike Brown. Mike saw my sketches and said I should do some flash. He told me about Ernie Carafa and his tattoo business, so I contacted him and he agreed to let me create some flash. Later, I reached out to Spaulding and Rogers Tattoo Supply. I believe I started with about thirty designs for Ernie and then several hundred for Spaulding and Rogers. In 1982, I worked at my first tattoo convention put on by Ed Hardy, Ernie Carafa and Ed Nolte [aboard the R.M.S Queen Mary]. At the convention, Huck Spaulding debuted my flash. On the cover of a special book containing my sheets it said, “Flash by the World Famous Kari Barba”! It was a big surprise, but also super exciting. Artists were asking me to autograph their book and flash pages. I was busy the entire convention and it was a great show, for sure. I continued to create flash for Spaulding and Rogers and then branched out on my own. I had only been working in a shop a few months on weekends at that point.

Tattoo by Kari Barba
Tattoo by Kari Barba

What was your experience of working at these iconic conventions?
Conventions at that time were so different, and in the States they were just once a year.
At these shows you got to see everyone, every year. It felt like old friends reuniting and it was a great experience. You competed against everyone at one show. Women and men alike would try to dress their best to show how well their shop was doing; it became a show of whose shop was thriving. Overall, it was great fun with super artists and friends.

Did you ever experience any prejudice as a woman coming up in a male-dominated scene?
When I started it was not common to be a woman in tattooing, although I didn’t realise this for a while. I didn’t know there was a difference. Men would look at portfolios and then ask for the artist who did the work. When I would speak up, it was common to have them say they that they refused to get tattooed by a girl, or that they were surprised a girl could tattoo. I was lucky that my coworkers did not share this view and allowed me to be myself as I saw fit. I wasn’t held back in the shop, just by the clients.

Tattoo by Kari Barba
Tattoo by Kari Barba

You have been a successful entrepreneur in the tattoo industry for many years, with multiple studio locations under your belt. In 2002 you had the unique chance to acquire Bert Grimm’s original Long Beach shop; how did this opportunity arise?
Over the years I held ownership of 7 different shops. I started out in 1983 with Twilight Fantasy in Anaheim, CA. In 2002, I was approached by Rick Walters, the manager of Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo Studio, Bob Shaw’s shop at the time. Bob had passed in 1993 and left the shop to his wife, Wanda. When she passed in 2002, Bert Grimm’s fell to their three sons – two of which are tattooers themselves. Unfortunately, the Shaws were already in Texas opening their own shops, so they closed their inheritance and Bert Grimm’s shop was now for sale.When Rick reached out, he expressed to me that I would be the right one to take over the shop and carry on the legacy. I wasn’t ready for that at the time and the doors had to close for me to realise somebody had to step up and save that location.

Can you tell us about the space and its history?
‘The Pike’ was a large amusement park on the waterfront, often known as the “Coney Island of the West.” It was pivotal in the forward movement of the tattoo industry. Tattooers and aspiring tattooers came in the masses at the chance of success which led to the constant flows of artists coming in and out of the shops. Only flash designs were available at the time, rather than custom designs that we see now. Sailors came in from the port looking for fun and a sense of belonging, often flocking the tattoo shops. Business was booming. The humble beginnings of Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo Studio on 22 Chestnut Place, actually started in the back of a German woman’s struggling photo studio, located at the bottom of the Sovereign Apartment Complex (est. 1922). She remains nameless for now, but we are currently researching to find her identity. She opened the tattoo studio in 1927, to try to keep her business afloat and she ran this shop for years until selling it to Bert Grimm in 1954. Bert was also a photographer, so he opened his own photo studio next door. Once he’d finish his tattoos, he’d take professional photos of his clients in his photo studio and we have quite a few framed originals hanging on our museum walls. During this time, Bert ended up owning about five shops out of the twelve on The Pike, but this one remains the most well-known shop. 22 Chestnut Place was much larger than the other shops here, because most of them were more like over-sized closets. Bert actually became world famous not only for his skill, but through self proclamation because he referred to himself as the “World Famous Bert Grimm.” His wife, Julia, also tattooed. In 1969, Bert and Julia sold the shop to their nephew, Bob Shaw. Col. Todd took over management with Bob in 1973, and then Rick Walters ran it from 1978 until I purchased it in 2003.

Some were very happy with my decision and some were disappointed due to feeling that Bert Grimm’s should be run by a man and not a woman; but it didn’t matter.

I wanted to keep this shop and its history alive. Our structure is actually a historical landmark and the last remaining building from the original Pike of Long Beach, CA. Other artists who worked in The Pike included Don Nolan, Owen Jensen and his wife, Dainty Dotty, Lou Lewis, Ernie Sutton, Jack Rudy, ”Goodtime Charlie” Cartwright, Lyle Tuttle, Zeke Owen and Mark Mahoney – to name just a few.

What are your thoughts about modern tattoo culture? Do you feel it is important to preserve tattoo history, and how can this be achieved?
The tattoo culture is exploding these days. I believe it started with the introduction of tattoo shows on TV. It made it ok to be tattooed or be a tattoo artist. The culture varies for types of people to types of styles, but it is so strong that it makes me wonder what will come next. I truly feel that in order for us to grow, we need to remember where we came from and who came before us. Lessons are learned by looking back and then taking these lessons into our future to make positive change, whether that be in the art or in the business itself. Preserving history can be achieved by telling what we know and the stories we have heard along with protecting the flash designs, machines, and items from our tattoo culture – just as you would do for any culture. We need to keep all of this history alive for future generations of tattoo.

After almost 40 years in the industry, what is the best part of tattooing for you?
My favourite part is that I can still do it, haha! Just kidding, although this business can take a toll on our bodies. I love the friendships I have made and the group of people that I get to see year after year. It is people, after all, that keep us strong and moving forward – whether that be clients or other tattoo artists and people in our business. I love that my son is in the tattoo business alongside me in this journey. Although he is in his own shop, it is unique to be able to share this with our kids. It looks like one of my grandkids might also pick up the trade. I am blessed with amazing staff, with managers and artists still with me after nearly 30 years. That’s the best part. I have been fortunate to work with them for so long. Along with my newer staff, we have a great group.

Follow Kari Barba on Instagram: @karibarba