“Shanghai” Kate Hellenbrand is often referred to as “America’s Tattoo Godmother”, a title she has deservedly earned with over 40 years of dedication to her craft. Kate is fierce, funny and a force to be reckoned with. Her journey has been filled with vibrant characters, tattoo legends and a few hair-raising experiences along the way – and she is determined to share her story for a future tattoo generation.
You were set for a career in graphic design but instead took an unconventional turn to tattooing. What made you fall in love with it?
I have always been fascinated with tools and handcrafting. I grew up helping my stepfather build our farm in Utah during the 1940s-50s; I loved the saws, the hammers, the various types of nails, the way things were put together. In high school I was enrolled in shop class and worked with the boys. I failed at the domestic studies like cooking and sewing that I was supposed to take along with the other girls.
When I became a surfer in the mid-1960’s and needed to support my ‘salt water habit’, I picked up the tools used in graphic arts. I wanted to become more proficient in my craft so I enrolled in the Art Center School of Design and later Choinnards School of Fine Arts. I still have all my graphic designing tools and I recently married a home builder, so I guess I’ve come full circle.
I moved to New York City in 1968 and went to work at an ad agency on Fifth Avenue –a graphic designer’s dream come true! Michael Malone, working as a day carpenter and an aspiring photographer, was my next door neighbour and we became great friends. We met Thom DeVita and Malone started documenting tattooing on the East Coast. It was illegal at the time so we had to dig deep to find any information about the craft. Thom led us to Huck Spaulding, we met Ed Hardy and he led us to Sailor Jerry.
After wandering around for two years, we were granted half of an exhibit at the prestigious Museum of American Folk Art, right next to the Museum of Modern Art, a big deal… That gave us a reason to investigate further. Of course, Malone immediately wanted to tattoo.
We opened Catfish Tattoo Studio in our apartment. I was not allowed to tattoo because I was a female and my job at the ad agency was very lucrative. A client of Malone’s thought I would do well at tattooing because of my art school background so he volunteered to let me do a piece on him. I did a small tattoo on his leg and then a larger piece on his chest. On a third tattoo on his right arm, I started working at 8:30 a.m. and did not look up until 1:30 that afternoon. It was then that I discovered the magic of that little tattoo machine, the tool I had been looking for, which allowed me to enter a world where time and space cease to exist. It is the magic tool… I am still in love with it, passionately.
You’ve worked alongside some of the industry’s greatest pioneers, including Sailor Jerry, Zeke Owens and Mike Malone to name just a few. What was it like to learn from these artists at such a pivotal time for tattooing?
I am so very grateful that they accepted me, tolerated me, allowed me to sit by them. They trusted me and believed in me. I knew who they were, these big personalities. As a child, my blessed grandmother used to drag me to every sideshow and carnival that came through town. Television had not yet become a household appliance so she wanted me to see everything in the world. We talked with the giants, the fat ladies, the acrobats, the animal trainers – I envied their lifestyles.
They could travel, have exciting adventures, they were like a family unto themselves. They were colourful.
I met the giants of tattooing years later, they were these men, these carnival people… and I was attracted to all they had represented to me as a child. They were not easy men, with unconventional pasts often crossing the line into piracy, mayhem and criminal actions.
I always had an affinity for pirates, for those who live outside the normal rules and these giants were in a league of their own. The stories were epic, the adventures they had were the stuff of legend. I want to share those stories now. A lot of what I did see goes against convention – political correctness wasn’t even in the room. History is rarely kind or gentle. But I must tell my history. It was the gift of my life and it must be shared. If I don’t, those stories would fade away completely.
Currently, there is a lot of mythology about tattooing’s history, especially about mine, and most of it is fabrication made up by those who weren’t really even there.
What were the most important lessons you took from your mentors?
The first and most important lesson I learned from Sailor Jerry was how to own my position as a tattoo artist, to know what holy and sacred work this is. How to own the role of tattoo artist and how to control my station. I learned how to deal with clients (especially those who want to challenge my position), I learned how to foster patience, I learned how to honour my clients and not treat them cynically. I learned how to work hard, how to dig deep and do what I had to do to get through a shift that often stretched to 16 hours on a military payday. I learned how to mow through bullshit. And there was a lot of that…
At this time there were very few women tattooers. Did this environment present any challenges for you?
Well, this is where the tire meets the road, isn’t it? There were only two women in the field that I knew of and I only recently became friends with one of them: Bev Nicholas (aka Cindy Ray) and Rusty Skuse in England. I was also aware of Painless Nell in San Diego, but we never met.
Women were not allowed in tattooing – not in any meaningful way. Women didn’t even get tattooed back then. Women were sex objects; they came into shops and performed sexual acts in order to get tattoos. The history of tattooing is rife with the stories of what they needed to do in order to satisfy the urge to decorate their bodies.
And the most disturbing fact about this is that tattooing, historically, was globally a women’s art. We were the decorators of our cultures. Men mostly hunt, gather and make war. Women did everything else, and tattooing was strongly connected to a young woman’s menses: in a Stone Age world, when a young girl becomes fertile, she is marked so she can propagate the group or be sold to another in order to spread out the genetic pool. Pretty clever.
Did this environment ever present any challenges to me? As a young, attractive female in a man’s world? You betcha! Every day, I was told I was too weak, I wasn’t tough enough, I even had to learn to pee standing up when I went to work at TattooLand with Jack Rudy and Freddy Negrete. I did. Because I had to. I worked my shift and the shift of the guys, often until 4am. Some of this is documented in TattooNation, a great movie about the development of fine line, black and grey photorealism in East LA.
Who were you getting tattooed from when you started out?
My first tattoo was from Michael Malone. He really wanted to tattoo so he bought a traveling kit from Huck Spaulding. He had no training, he didn’t know how to set up the machine, how to check his needles, what a power pack was. I only wanted a small heart (like Janis Joplin’s tattoo)… he, of course, wanted to do as much tattooing as he could on his willing victim, so he literally went to the bone. Most painful tattoo ever!
My second tattoo was by Cliff Raven, one of my favourite people. I had been tattooing for a year when we drove out to Chicago. Malone already had his image picked out. While he was getting his demon head, I started looking for an image that spoke to me. Because of my wandering ways, my love of freedom, I chose a small clipper ship for the top of my thigh. I was told I could not get that because it was a “man’s design”. I could get a “rabbit, a squirrel or a skunk named Stinky” – butterflies or flowers were also options. I compromised by getting cherry blossoms on my chest. I was so happy and proud, but I could see that tattooing was limited and it would evolve as an art form in years to come.
I later got [a map of] Utah and drama masks by Jack Rudy at Tattoo Land, then the great Om Sanskrit mantra from Ed Hardy. In retrospect I wish I would have loosened up a bit more and gotten work by Huck and Paul Rogers too.
I did finally get my clipper ship by Zeke Owen, my soul mate. My phoenix right sleeve is by Mario Barth, another of my “brothers”, and my scorpio is by Bill Funk, a dear friend. I got a tribute to Jamie Summers (aka LaPalma, who was tragically killed in New York) by Rob Koss, a flaming K8 logo by Scott Silvia, a neck piece by Anil Gupta, my “Mom” rose by Mike Wilson, a Sailor Jerry pinup by TJ Hernandez, an ankle piece by Aaron Caine and my huge back piece by the wonderful Trevor Marshall. No junk, no lightweights! The best that have taken this craft into the next generation.
Tattooing has now fulfilled its promise as far as the art is concerned. The advents in technology have allowed these changes to happen. I see what is going on now and I am humbled by the extreme talent that flows across social media. I wish I could tattoo the way these phenomenal new talents seemingly just breathe the work into completion. Today, the sky truly is the limit.
Who coined the name “Shanghai Kate” and why?
In the beginning of my career, occidental landlords would not rent store fronts to tattoo artists. We did not have a good reputation. Only Asian landlords would rent to tattoo shops so I began tattooing in or near Chinatowns: New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Philadelphia. But I also have a knack of persuading folks to do things for me… sort of ‘shanghai-ing’ them. Jack Rudy put the two together and Shanghai Kate was born.
Over the years your career has taken you around the world. What did you discover about tattoo culture outside of America?
One of the greatest benefits of tattooing is the freedom it has allowed me to travel the world and have adventures that at one time were only fantasies. I always wanted to see everything in the world, every town, every festival, eat every food. So far I’ve been very lucky. I’ve made it from Norway to Alaska to Panama to Philippines… I’ve been kidnapped in Mexico City, tattooed Kuna Indians in exchange for their artwork, met the famous and the infamous, tattooed Howard Stern several times, tattooed members of Pearl Jam, I’ve been profiled and photographed and I’ve lectured at Lincoln Center, Columbia University, various art museums and universities and made hundreds of meaningful friends and helped them feel better about their bodies.
Tattooing is the oldest art form, transferring over every culture and language. I have had more fun that any one has a right to have and I am still on that path. But beyond that, in more primitive places, tattooing is still seen as a sacred rite of passage. The images have deep meanings. I love that connection I can make with people – and I seek more.
The landscape of tattooing has changed so much in recent years, particularly with the dawn of social media and tattoo TV. Do you ever miss the early days – or are you content with how the industry has evolved?
Tattooing has eroded into a hobby for many people; it’s become trivialised, co-opted and watered down until the skeletal internal structure is almost non-existent. Fame is a disease and the love of money is the root of all evil. When the focus of this ancient craft gets boiled down to ‘benjamins’ and the quest for attention, it loses its heart. The technology has changed so much, the art has exploded, things are being done now that should not be done.There are rules for all things: art, the body, science… those rules have been forgotten and the tattoo suffers. It’s become faddish, and yes, I prefer how it was in the Golden Days.
I prefer the toughness, the honesty, the grit and grime to the ‘industry’ that now rises before me. Tattooing isn’t all that difficult to do. Cut the skin, rub some black carbon in that wound and you have a tattoo! I see these rappers with their face tattoos… and I am saddened. That isn’t art. That isn’t craft. That is seeking shallow attention.
The word ‘tattoo’ is a magical word… put a sign in your window that says “TATTOO” and sit back and wait, people will come to get work from you.
So many products are sold under the guise that they have something, anything to do with the magical craft. People want a piece of this cash cow – without ever earning the right.
How can we preserve the history of tattooing for future generations? Where do you see tattooing another 40 years from now?
One way is to ask questions like these from those who walked the path early. Truthfully, I have no idea whether this beautiful planet will survive another 40 years of our “humanity”. We have not been good caretakers of what we were given. We outrun our vision with technology. In 40 years, we might be back to sticks and stones, sharp clamshells and burnt logs. A plague may help thin the herd and stop the insanity but we can’t count on anything at this point except our propensity to wipe ourselves out. One thing is certain: until the last person is wiped out, tattooing will prevail. ’Til the last man – or woman – falls.
After over 40 years tattooing, what is your favourite thing about the job?
Well, that is the killer question. Everything. It is certainly not a job. It is a way of living. Everything I do, everything I see, relates to tattooing in some way. The freedom, the characters, the demands of the craft, the depth of knowledge I’ve gained, my tattoo family all over the world – the simple act of disappearing into that magical realm where time and space cease to exist. The magic I find there.
I’ve broken my back five times, my tailbone six, I’ve broken all my ribs, cracked my hips, shattered my knees and have lots of aches and pains. I am now 5.5 inches shorter than when I was 22 years old. But whenever I pick up that little “tool” – no matter how ill I may feel, filled with pain from arthritis, if I am depressed, sad, no matter where I go, I pick up that little machine and I have no problems. Only gratitude, only joy, only the certainty that my life has been infinitely rich and productive, and I thank the Source for giving me this path.