Tales from the Old Days, with Kate Hellenbrand

Hey guys, sorry for the delays! My computer still isn’t here with me, however I’ve managed to steal the rents’ computer for a little bit so I can show you something cool. As you’ll know by now, my latest opinion column in Total Tattoo magazine is out now- awesome! Of course, if you’ve already read it, you’ll know I didn’t do it on my own. I had some really great help from Rachel McCarthy, Sharron Caudill, Dawnii Pit (who unfortunately just missed my deadline but I’ll still show her off!) and the legendary Kate Hellenbrand. I can’t thank these ladies enough!

Kate was really generous, and has written something for you guys about her own experiences, which Total Tattoo’s Sally has been nice enough to let me share here. If you like this, I would highly encourage you to read the column in the magazine too! Here it is below, completely un-edited.


In some ways it’s difficult for me to write about being a woman in the business because I never thought of myself as such. When I started, tattooing was illegal in New York City and I had just successfully co-produced a landmark exhibit at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City called “Tattoo!” Because of my efforts to make this show as pertinent as possible, I sought out the most acclaimed tattoo artists in the world for the exhibit, including: Sailor Jerry Collins of Hawaii, Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven, Zeke Owen, Don Nolan, Huck Spaulding, Paul Rogers.
This exhibit was seen as the first legitimate museum or gallery recognition of these men & their talents in this ancient art form. My involvement with this show cemented a “golden ticket” if you will for entrance into tattooing so that when I decided to start tattooing I had the way, which is normally very difficult and demanding, somewhat “lubricated.” If I wanted information, I could contact any one of these giants of the industry for help. They subsequently became mentors and good friends.
Also, because I worked in a private studio with my partner at the time, Michael Malone, I was protected from the real world of shops and other artists. Michael and I were happily “doing our own thing” away from the general mayhem of street shops that dealt, mainly, with military clientele. When I started, tattooing really was only for Sailors and Fallen Women. In New York, however, we would prowl the streets, handing our homemade cards to anyone with visible ink and in that way we lured our clients to our “home studio.”
It wasn’t until Ed Hardy offered us work in his Ichiban shop in San Diego that Michael and I left our cozy cocoon of our underground New York studio and came face to face with the reality of military street shop tattooing.
My first opponent in the world of tattoo was Zeke Owen, a die-hard chauvinist who bluntly told me I was “bad luck” and I should “put up my machines.” Women didn’t belong in tattoo shops. We could dress up in go-go girl outfits and seduce Sailors, we could “work the floor” tempting the young, gullible new recruits into getting tattoos, keep them entertained like a poor man’s stripper until it was time for them to get their design. I did that for a while and it was demeaning and disgusting. I would also tattoo the same images over and over again. I remember tattooing 13 little Woodstock designs in one day (the little yellow bird from the Peanuts cartoon strip). These young kids were fresh out of book camp and would get the smallest image they could just to have their obligatory tattoo. I despised this dishonest hustle. I despised these meaningless tattoos. I despised having to hide the fact that I would help on Military paydays.
You see, in those days, sailors would flood a town like San Diego or Honolulu looking for the ‘stewed, screwed and tattooed” 72-hour payday liberty. They were used to having men tattoo them, but a woman, no matter what she looked like or how old she was, was considered a novelty and therefore she’d get a line out her door before any of the men would get a floorfull.
Men off a ship or a base may not have seen or been near a woman for some time. So she could remind them or their mother, sister, girlfriend or wife. To get a tattoo from a woman was a novelty worth bragging about when one returned to the base. Once Payday was over, the shops remained empty except for a few odd civilians. During these quiet times, I learned to make needles, draw designs called Flash and build machines. That’s what we did to fill the days until the next military onslaught.
In some ways I think the novelty of being a female tattoo artist still prevails. It remains a male-dominated business but back in those days women had no place in a tattoo shop unless they were there to perform sexual favors, not only to the tattoo artist but to the other men who frequented the shop. They truly were Fallen Women. Judgments prevailed. The upper part of the arm was called the “man’s spot.” Not only were there no women tattoo artists when I started, women didn’t even get tattoos.
Michael and I went to Cliff Raven’s shop in Chicago for our first “real” tattoos. While Michael got his little demon on his upper arm, I scoured the Flash looking for a design for me. I found a small clipper ship and I asked for it on my upper thigh. I was told NO! That’s a Man’s Design! You can get a bunny, a squirrel or a skunk named “Stinky.” Those were my choices. I finally settled on a small cluster of cherry blossoms. That was allowed.
It was very difficult for me to be taken seriously. I was talented and smart and fast and attractive. That helped and hurt me in my career. Some of the men I worked with were threatened and insecure and that took on strange forms. In some ways I think men do not ever trust women completely. Tattooing can magnify these problems. The men recognized my abilities but hated me for them. Some of that still goes on today. It is so easy for a woman to lose favor. And the judgments are harsh should she fail. Failure was not an option for me. I had to be perfect in everything I did.

Women in my day suffered these abuses because that’s what a woman did. She sacrificed her own career to preserve a personal relationship . . . at all costs. Women raised in the 1940s and 1950s (as I was) deferred to the judgment of a man. We may have been as strong and capable but we were easily intimidated and “put in our place.”
I struggled with that in my partnership to a great degree. Once denied the ability to work in a shop I purchased with my grandmother’s inheritance, I tattooed dog’s with AKC numbers and owner’s Social Security Numbers in order to continue in some way with the business.
My relationship thankfully fell apart and I went back to work for Ed Hardy in East Los Angeles, in the middle of the Chicano Barrio. My cohorts in that shop were Freddie Negrete and Jack Rudy. Ed had bought the shop from Good Time Charlie Cartwright. This was possibly the most dangerous shop in the US. It was in the middle of the Mexican Gangland. 27 warring groups who all hated & killed each other. And I was a young white woman, holding my own.
Here things got physical. I was threatened, thrown up against the wall and told that if I wasn’t “down” I would lose my thumbs.
Weekly there were altercations … guns, straight razors to the throat, bleed outs on our doorstep, drive by shootings in the parking lots. I was the one who cleaned up the mess. (I was not only the tattoo artist, I was the secretary, the errand girl and the brunt of a lot of practical jokes.)
I went to work at 10:00 am and finished my dayshift alone and then stayed in the shop with Jack and Freddie while they worked their nightshift. I’d leave the shop around 2:00 a.m.
When I started tattooing I recognized how difficult this was going to be. I knew I had to make the decision to not have children. My passion for my work demanded complete commitment. I think it does for anyone who’s truthful about how demanding this work is. It’s a 24/7/365 job. Men can walk from a family. Healthy women don’t take that option and I knew I would struggle with neglecting my children, should I have any. Nor could I abandon my career, which became everything to me.
I’ve never regretted this choice. It’s given me the world. And I think it’s the right one for any woman in this business.
I was granted an Cinderella entrance into this work, I’ve never shied away from difficult situations, in fact I love challenges. While I witnessed the hardships that many women had to endure to try to find their place in this field, I don’t believe I had to suffer nearly the same kinds of difficulties. While this business is often one that is hard to get into and very easy to get out of, in my case the reverse has always been true. In a big way, I’ve been blessed.
At first I was seen as someone not strong enough to tattoo well. My abilities were questioned by clients who thought I couldn’t tattoo as competently as a man sitting beside me. I was thought to not be able to hold my ground. It has been a long road to win the respect of my peers but lately I have more and more evidence that I am regarded with some respect.
When I went to work at Tattooland with Jack, I told him I wanted to be “one of the boys.” He told me that I would then have to learn to pee standing up. I learned that handy trick and we laugh about it now. At the time, however, it was another hurdle I had to leap in order to gain my way. I didn’t think it extraordinary. By the same token, I knew I had to “dress down.” I couldn’t wear make-up or show cleavage. I dressed in the uniform of t-shirt and jeans. I find it a hard habit to break.
I think tattoo artists are born, not made. It takes a very tough woman to persevere in this field. Apache Jil, Judy Parker, Kari Barba, Vivienne Lazonga and Juli Moon. Each a strong force to be reckoned with. They each started soon after I did and have spent almost as many years in the trenches. When you look at these artists you understand why they give Hurricane’s female names.
Today I see a lot of women entering the field … I know a lot of them. I like a lot of them. Some of them are extremely talented. Sarah Peacock and Darby Nutt come to mind. Strong and fearless. That’s what it takes. I see a lot of young women who pretend to be strong … full of bravada. That might get them to the end. It takes a lifetime to become a tattoo artist. It’s not an easy road for anyone.
The one most important thing that Sailor Jerry taught me was how to think of myself as a tattoo artist. That my shop, my station is my kingdom. I am Queen of that area. I am a Shaman and I change people’s lives forever. Hopefully for the better. They will always remember me. And the time we spent together.
It is interesting to me that, as I read more and more about the history of tattooing, in books written in the 1880s, that in almost every case, the tattoo artist who performs the rite of passage, the ritual of tattoo, was female. I think tattooing was always in the realm of the woman Shaman. It has only been in the Industrial Age that the craft of tattooing became a man’s job.
I’m going to investigate this theory in more depth.

I hope this was of interest and I hope you can gain something from it. I think women are still seen as a novelty in this business. I still encounter the same random shock and amazement by the civilian population that a woman actually is a tattoo artist. And now with the added bonus that an OLD woman will be tattooing them today… It’s just a marker of how far I’ve come…

9 Responses to “Tales from the Old Days, with Kate Hellenbrand”
  1. kidkimura says:

    Wow, amazing bit of history there.

  2. greendoe says:

    Wow, it’s kind of rough to hear Kate say that she thinks not having children is the best option for females in this business. My first marriage ended partially due to tattooing and have definitely held off having kids until I become a little more established in my career, but I don’t think the “business” is the same anymore, and the thought of never having kids has never occurred to me! There are little kids running all over the place at every tattoo convention you go to, and tons of tattooers, male and female, are great parents. I think the bottom line is more about the difficulty of dividing your devotion between work and family, which is something that has affected career-minded women every since we entered the workplace. It doesn’t seem to have stopped those female tattooers of early civilization at all, so why should it stop me?

    • Mel Noir says:

      Different strokes for different folks, I guess! I can see where both Kate and you are coming from, to be honest. Really, I don’t even think that’s something which only effects women, either. Some men have to go through the same stuff when it comes to having kids. On one side, I have seen many female tattooers with kids who manage to balance work and home- however, on the other side, I see them miss being able to tattoo as much as they used to, in some cases! Just depends on what kind of person you are, and what your priorities look like, I guess.

      Wow, I’m really sitting on the fence there- I guess I’m not really of an age where having kids has even occurred to me yet, haha.

      • greendoe says:

        No doubt, I think everyone who balances any career with family life struggles with wishing they spent more time focusing on one or the other. I think I’m also coming from a little bit of a different perspective as well, because tattooing is not my only job to begin with, I’m also a middle school art teacher. So, I’m already used to constantly feeling bitter about not getting to tattoo as much as I want to. In any case, I loved hearing Kate’s stories about the old days. Great interview, Mel!

  3. zeke owen says:

    all i gotta say is BullShit! Themore i read is the more i find out there a bunch of of two-faced assholes..All of them..They hide when they see me…zekeZeke

  4. zeke owen says:

    typical Tattooer bullshit..Im sure all the old timers are laughing their buts off..zeke

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] share some of the wise words bestowed onto me from Kate Hellenbrand and Dawnii Pit- you can click here and here to read them […]

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