Outside the gunmetal gray door of a nondescript North Hollywood building lies a colorful doormat and a kitschy frog statue, the kind you’d find on the front porch of a house in the suburbs. Both read “Welcome.” This is not the entrance to the Monastery, Kat Von D’s private photography studio. Less than two feet away, there is another door with another doormat. This doormat is plain and beige, featuring large black letters that simply proclaim: “GO AWAY.”
Kat whips around the corner in a convertible black Bentley with the top down, exclaiming, “I’m so sorry I’m late!” She was, after all, running a whole four minutes behind. The world-famous tattooer and star of TLC’s LA Ink pulls into the garage, finishes a Red Bull, and opens the side door to her studio. She saunters up the stairs past walls lined with an array of religious artwork and greets Oscar the pit bull at the top. It’s here that the room opens up to an airy, four-story loft with 10-foot ceilings and giant windows that allow the afternoon light to flood over statues of the Virgin Mary and images of Jesus on the cross lining the ledges and bookshelves.
Kat grew up in a religious family, but the decor isn’t meant to pay homage to those times. The family belonged to the Seventh-Day Adventists, a religion that typically shuns ornamentation and jewelry. “I remember my sister liked rosaries growing up and my parents were like, ‘You can’t wear that because it’s idolatry.’” Another area of the loft has been sectioned off for her latest passion, portrait photography, partially ignited when boyfriend Nikki Sixx gifted her a new camera. After snagging a cigarette, Kat eases into a gilded, thronelike chair, and I settle into a plush Victorian sofa with Oscar sitting proudly next to us.
In photos and on the show, Kat’s features seem to have an angular, hard edge. But face to face, she’s infinitely softer. The sharpness fades away, replaced with a feminine beauty that’s just not as apparent on the small screen—perhaps because of the way the film crew lights her AC/DC-inspired Hollywood tattoo studio, High Voltage. And the tattoos, which pop in photographs, blend with her skin in such a way that you’d think this is how she came out of the womb. But in her nearly all-black getup, with a long knit cover-up, a slinky top that reveals a striped black-and-white bra, and vinyl pants, she still looks like—with the exception of flip-flips—rock royalty. And she should. Kat owns a successful tattoo studio in the heart of Los Angeles, LA Ink draws in an average of about three million viewers a week, she has tattooed dozens of well-known celebrities, written a book that made the best-seller list, and banked enough cash to afford a top-of-the-line car and a house in Hollywood. Not bad for someone who’s just 27.
In 1982, when Katherine Von Drachenberg was born, life wasn’t nearly this glamorous. Her parents, who both hailed from Argentina, had relocated to Mexico so her father, a doctor, could be closer to her grandfather, who was teaching medicine there.
The Von Drachenbergs were far from rich, but that didn’t matter. “I have to say, my happiest moments, other than right now, would be that time in my life. It was as simple as it gets.” Life revolved around family and religion instead of pop culture. On the weekends, the Von Drachenbergs played the piano, visited grandparents, and sang hymns. “We didn’t have a TV. I didn’t see MTV until I was 16, at a friend’s house.” Her grandmother is an oil painter and a pianist obsessed with Beethoven, and she inspired Kat to follow in her creative footsteps. Though sometimes she hated it, Katherine and her older sister, Karoline, practiced the piano for an hour or two each day, and she spent most of her free time playing with her siblings and sketching. Even a cursory glance at her early work would reveal she has a natural talent, but Kat didn’t think it would take her anywhere. “I wanted to become a doctor when I was little. My dad was my hero and I wanted to be like him. He would say, ‘Why don’t you be an artist when you grow up?’ And I would say, ‘Dad, that’s unrealistic. Aside from being an architect, there is just no way you can make a steady career out of art.’”
When Kat was 4, her parents moved the family to southern California. “It was kind of a fluke we were born in Mexico, because my dad always had the idea that America was a better place to raise kids.” On the way to their new home, Kat was treated for the first time to music that wasn’t classical or from the church when her father stopped at a gas station in the States and purchased cassette tapes featuring the music of Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and Elton John. “I remember driving from McAllen, Texas, to California with my dad translating ‘A Boy Named Sue’ to all of us. My mom, when she came to America, didn’t speak any English, and music was one of her ways of learning it.” Years later her father took her mother to Vegas and they ended up meeting Dolly Parton. “I remember how stoked my mom was because she said Dolly Parton was so nice to her. That was probably my first experience with understanding the idea of fame because we didn’t have that growing up. Like, Jesus was famous, but I wasn’t going to meet him.”
Fame is not something that sits well with Kat. But it’s something she’s had to come to terms with. “I never wanted to be on Star Search. I just saw [Miami Ink] as an opportunity to be a good representation of tattooing.” But despite her well-meant intentions, once she joined the cast, she found herself rejected by a portion of the tattoo community. “Tattooers definitely have their opinions about me or their perception of me, and I felt that a lot of that wasn’t coming from a place of love. There’s nothing that makes me different other than my situation, but I had to come to terms with [that fact that this life] isn’t normal, and from this point on there are just things I can’t do like I used to. I try to separate myself from the tattoo politics. Tattooing is hard enough, and you don’t need other people’s egos affecting your ability to create.”
She doesn’t only have to deal with her dissenters; she also has to figure out how to work effectively with the cameras around. “It’s pretty frustrating. When we’re filming, everything takes twice as long as it would in real life.” To capture enough footage for one hour-long episode of LA Ink, the film crew must film for five days—usually from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. A lot ends up on the cutting room floor. “Sometimes it’s discouraging because I’m doing a tattoo and the chemistry between me and the client is so compelling and for whatever reason, it gets cut. That’s the stuff that’s out of my control,” she says.
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