Tattoo Convention: Interview w/ Kate Hellenbrand

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TATTOOING THE BEEHIVE (featuring an interview w/Kate Hellenbrand!!!!)

It’s quite possible you may have grown up believing that tattoos were the brand of an individual on the outskirts of society. Perhaps you figured they were the mark of a sailor, biker or outlaw. But in some cultures, one’s tattoos demands a great level of respect. It may represent a level of chiefhood, religious rank or the mark of a warrior. In today’s world, the sight of tattoos among celebrities, parents, young adults, professionals, etc. aren’t shocking at all. Whether it’s a beautiful young actress such as Angelina Jolie, a late-night talk show host like Jay Leno or an infamous popstar like Britney Spears, tattoos are commonplace in almost every home around the world. Salt Lake City saw its first International Tattoo Convention last year. For the Salt Lake Valley, it was historical to have such a vast amount of artists, clients and collectors from around the world in the city. Utah has always had a great deal of knowledgeable tattoo artists and studios, but the idea of an organized convention celebrating the very industry itself was a completely new idea.

This year, Lost Art Tattoo is putting on the Second Annual SLC International Tattoo Convention from Friday, Feb. 18 to Sunday, Feb. 20 at the Salt Palace Convention Center. International artists as varied as Horizaru Tattoo Art from Tokyo and Borneo Headhunters from Malaysia will be in attendance. Many North American artists such as Megan Hoogland, Dave Fox, Jeff Zuck and Kate Hellenbrand will also be gracing us with their various styles, knowledge and expertise. Of course, local Salt Lake heros like Big Deluxe Tattoo, Lost Art Tattoo, A.S.I. Tattoo and Good Times Tattoo will be in full representation.

For those of you who have tattoos and enjoy them, this will be an experience to take in different styles, artists and inspirations from people you may already admire or have never even heard of. For those of you who may be interested in eventually getting a tattoo someday, the opportunity to share ideas and collect knowledge from the dozens of professionals on hand will be as much information as anyone could ask for.

One artist who will be in attendance is Kate Hellenbrand from Shanghai Kate’s in Buffalo, N.Y. Kate began tattooing in 1972, and has worked alongside such tattoo legends as Sailor Jerry Collins, Ed Hardy and Jack Rudy. She has owned and worked in shops all over the U.S. (including Utah) in her 33 years of tattooing. These statistics may only impress one with a deeper knowledge of the tattoo industry, but Kate has also appeared on The Today Show, Prime Time Access, Travel Channel, Discovery Channel and TBS as a result of her respected career and work. She recently appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in January 2005; she has tattooed Howard Stern; and she appeared as a feature panelist at the International Women’s Leadership Conference at Columbia University. She is a two-time best-selling novelist and true professional. See the end of this article for an exclusive SLUG interview with Kate!

Credentials such as these may not be expected by many who still believe that tattoo art is strictly for misfits and social deviants. The fact stands, however, that these are talented, serious, knowledgeable people. There is a great level of hygenic, technical and fine arts education that is demanded of anyone who intends to succeed whatsoever in the industry. Most tattoo studios are so sanitary you could walk through with a white glove and still come out glowing. This convention is important for that reason as well, because many people may have reservations about the health issues that surround getting a tattoo. This will give any potential tattoo collector a sea of wise staff to swim through in search of reassurance and understanding of the procedures needed to ensure your safety and health while being tattooed.

Another great aspect of the convention is that of fine arts. Yes, tattoo artists do more than mark one’s flesh; they are artists in every way, after all. There will be an overwhelming amount of paintings, clothing and random vendors to send you home with original artwork that you don’t necessarily have to wear on your body forever.

The Borneo Headhunters were the first tattoo studio in Malaysia to provide world-class professional tattooing service. For the Iban community, tattooing connected the living to the spiritual world and marked a man’s success as a hunter and warrior. They are masters at conventional electric machine tattooing and traditional methods as well and have received a great deal of awards and praise for both. Their presence at last year’s SLC Convention was greatly talked about, and we are very fortunate to have them back.

If you believe your tattoos are worthy of international recognition, there will be contests in various categories. Winners may take home $100 and trophies for first and second place. There is a $10 entry fee and your tattoo(s) must be completely healed (with the exception of “Tattoo Of The Day”). Yes, there will be people tattooing in the convention center for all to see. Each day will have a separate itinerary for which categories will be judged by the artist panel.

Entry into the convention is $15 dollars per day (which runs approximately eight hours daily) or $30 for all three days. Purchasing is available at Lost Art Tattoo (348 S. State St. in Salt Lake) or online at .

A listing of all artists and events can be found online at .




SLUG: How does the tattoo industry differ from all other occupations besides the actual act of tattooing?

Kate Hellenbrand: Probably the most significant difference between tattooing and all other “occupations” is the difficulty in mastering the unique blend of art and science, magic and practicality. This mastery, by the way, has to take place without any formal educational training. The best way is through an apprenticeship program which should take five years minimum from someone who has spent a lifetime conquering the myriad of tiny difficulties. This work looks so easy, so simple, yet a hair’s breadth of difference in spring stock, coil size, pigment particle or needle grouping will make all the difference in the world between a successful tattoo and one that is regrettable due to technical qualities. But it’s not just the technique that counts. This is an ethical, moral line of work where the experience and energy transference can be as important as the transference of mere ink. But largely, there’s no real place where one can go to be “chosen” to begin to learn this trade. One has to really be the product of fate, luck, timing and karma to even begin to learn.

SLUG: How have conventions inspired or developed the tattooing community as a whole, and also you personally?

KH: I was at the very first tattoo convention EVER, held at Sailor Jerry Collins’ house in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1972. We called ourselves the Council of the Seven: Me, Sailor Jerry, Jerry’s apprentice,¬†Mickie-Ed Hardy, Michael Malone, Kazuo Oguri from Japan and Des Connelly from Australia. It was truly the first time a group of international tattoo artists got together in one place to discuss this very weird enterprise we were all struggling to define in our own minds. Then, in 1976 and beyond, other tattoo conventions began to pop up. And while they still were small (usually held in a hotel’s side seminar room — not even the ballrooms as they often are now), and the invitees were small in number — only several hundred, really, no real tattooing going on . . . just showing of portfolios and long nights at the bars . . . with all the beginnings of the political hierarchies we now see . . . these were family gatherings. Many conventions are still “family gatherings.” But now we have these MegaShows with 40,000 attendees and 160 booths. I like to think of tattooing today as a giant Cruise Ship with all my friends aboard. This shiphas a fluctuating roster of players and it cruises from port to port (city to city) and every once in a while I get to jump on for a weekend . . . but when I’m in my home, I think of that Cruise Ship out there sailing around from Detroit to Dallas and beyond with that divergent cast of characters all having a good time. Conventions and magazines have certainly exposed the general population to some of the best names and talents in tattooing. We come to you now, like the circus. We are the living art sideshow.

SLUG: From the many world-wide origins of tattoo art, have any made a larger impact on you as an artist?

KH: The very beginning of tattooing (probably around 300,000 years ago or >more) consisted of spiritual markings for lost loved ones — ancestors. >This >early development of spiritual life was the beginning of mankind’s >awareness and >consciousness. Therefore, tattooing was used as a way to remember those who >had >moved on . . . and the marks that early man made belonged to two schools: >graphic slashings with charcol (which I think resembles our tribal of >today) and >the animal style (which consists of all other figurative and literal images >like: cartoons, photorealism, portraits, etc.). I am influenced therefore >by >both styles but I respect black and grey work the best because it stays in >the >body until that body ceases to exist. Color platelettes are destroyed by >the >body’s own immune systems, seen as intruders like germs or bacteriums. I >love the >Polynesian style of authentic tribal and have a body suit of that work by >my >teacher in that field, Trevor Marshall. These images just seem to suit a >body >better than the other styles, to me.

SLUG: Over the years, how do you think the tattoo industry has changed stylistically?

KH: Everything has changed in the past 35 years. . . and yet little changes. This is part of that dilemma I was speaking about earlier. People still get the same kinds of tattoos for the same reasons that our forebearers did 300,000 years ago. Little really changes and yet with all the science and knowledge that we now have at our disposal, everything is new again. Just as we can look into an electromagnetic microscope to see dust mites, we can then refine metals, shapes, color make-ups, healing techniques, knowledge of the anatomy, physiology, biology, microbiology, chemistry, metallurgy, psychology, mythology, theology . . . all of these come into play in tattooing. So we find better machines, power sources, metals and needles, color pigments and techniques . . . that opens up the whole world of imagery to us. Things are being done in the photorealism and biomechanical fields of tattooing that warp the mind. With all these refinements, now visionaries can create art works on the skin that could never have been done in the 70s and 80s. It’s been a long gradual process by those at the top . . . who learn from the upstarts and yet take nothing for granted as far as what they already know. There are basic truths to tattooing . . .for instance, we know the human body will react EXACTLY the same to certain situations. That’s why doctors can do heart surgeries . . . they know where the heart is, how to get to it . . . how it should work, and how to repair an anomaly. We work with the human canvas so we know if we mistreat it in certain ways, our work will be unsuccessful. Or successful if we follow the steps of what has been learned before us, with subtle refinements by those who are coming after us. Gawd bless the random mistake. When I started tattooing there were only four colors: black, red, green and yellow. Now we have every color under the sun. That allows for big differences.

SLUG: How has it changed socially in the public eye and among fellow artists/clients?

KH: Tattooing has gone through such a turbulent history. At one point it was banned by the Roman Council of Bishops for over 1,000 years throughout the Roman Empire as an attempt to stamp out those pesky Christians . . . who recognized each other by the sign of the cross or fish. And they kept meeting in basements. Well, the Pagans that prevailed at that time did not want this upstart cult to gain membershp, so they began to crucify tattoo artists. That cooled us down, I’ll say. It wasn’t until the mid-1700s when the New World and the Pacific world and Japan were discovered that anyone in Europe remembered that tattooing existed! Now, we have the casualization of American culture with pop stars popping out all over with their awful tattoos . . .the sports stars, the music videos. With our instant fame culture, everyone wants to be in People magazine . . . so . . . let’s tattoo our FACES!!! Yeah!!!! That will get people to notice us!!!! It’s outta the bag now . . and it won’t go back in, I promise you. Charles Darwin, originator of the Species/Subspecies classifications of all life systems, said that all humans globally share four distinct activities: singing, dancing, dressing up and making rude pictures and tattooing. It is in our nature, just as a 11 month old will bop around to music. We go from being seen as rock stars to undesirables, depending on the viewer’s biases. Everyone it seems wants to be a tattoo artist, thinking this is so easy. And then they can’t get it and don’t know why their machines don’t work and then they ruin their friends and then they go back to being a roofer or whatever. We all, those of us who have managed to make a career through some stroke of fantastic luck, know we are, as Darwin also said: the magic makers. The priests, the shamans, the physicians, the soothsayers, the psychologies to this crazy world’s minions who sit in our chairs and tell us all their secrets. We know who we are.

SLUG: Are there any unspoken or commonly discussed things that tattoo artists won’t do as a result of ethics within the profession?

KH: The ethics have to be learned and this is where mentors are so important. Certainly this business draws some of the best and the worst to it. There are sinners and saints like no other place I’ve been. Debates rage over facial tattoos, underage clients, money or lack of it, sterilization procedures. With the “Old School” artists who have been around for a while, we pretty much share a common overview of the business, the clients, the other artists. We have seen things that those who are just beginning have not seen. Our knowledge is based on pragmatic understandings. But mentoring is fading away. We believe that you should earn the right to learn. We discuss everything. But it stays amongst ourselves. It’s too bad too because so many people die with their thoughts and secrets intact. That’s why I’m self-publishing a rough draft of a book by my mentor, Sailor Jerry Collins of Hawaii. At least he did the world a favor by writing down some of what he believed. He’s the only old school tattoo artist who did.

SLUG: When did you first get into tattoo art?

KH: I first started tattooing in 1970. I didn’t really want to. I thought I was set with my fabulous graphic art career working for an ad agency, Muller Jordan and Herrick, on Fifth Avenue in NYC. But I helped mount a show at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York about tattooing which got me involved with all these masters of the tattoo world (and remember, there were only a handful at the time). Then, as a favor to a friend, I did a small tattoo and that was it. A whole wonderful magic world was opened to me. I am forever indebted to that friend.

SLUG: What is your favorite style/subject matter to tattoo?

KH: In case you haven’t guessed, I love tribal (authentic . . . not that scattergraphics that so many people “think” is tribal) and photorealism and Japanese and “Old School” traditional, like Sailor Jerry’s designs . . . roses, bluebirds and pin-ups. But I love to tattoo . . . anything . . . as long as I’m tattooing, I’m tattooing — and that’s my passion.

SLUG: Has society come to understand the true talent and value of tattoo art?

KH: I don’t think Society will ever come to understand the true value of tattoo art. I think in fact that Societyhates tattoo art because it’s so difficult to grasp and understand. And we are seen as the outcasts, those who don’t conform, those who threaten Society in general. However, when in the presence of someone who’s naked but heavily tattooed, the power is felt. Rightly or wrongly. Remember Les on Survivor? Several seasons ago? He was also in the All-Stars, I think. He was heavily tattooed on both arms. He was spellbinding. You had a gut reaction when you looked at him. He was someone to deal with, he stood out, he looked like a warrior. That is undeniable. As long as advertisers can attract consumers with tattoos on people in their ads, we’ll still see them around. But when the final days come, and I’m still here, I’ll be tattooing for cans of Spam and Corned Beef, over by the burning fire — even if by hand.

SLUG: What other artists influenced you as an artist?

KH: There are too many influences to mention but here’s where I get to tip my hat: I’ll start at the beginning: Sailor Jerry Collins, Huck Spaulding, Paul Rogers, Zeke Owen, Ed Hardy, Bob Roberts, Jamie Summers, Jack Rudy, Freddie Negrete, Bill Funk, Mario Barth, Anil Gupta, Guy Atchison, Aaron Caine, Scott Sylvia, Trevor Marshall, Tony Olivas, Cap Szumski, Tom Renshaw, Bob Tyrell, Roberto Hernandez, Zsolt Sarkozi, Boris of Hungary, Tin-Tin, Horiyoshi II, There are too many to mention. Many I am thrilled to call my friends. This has been a wonderful ride and whether Society understands or approves doesn’t alter the fact that I’ve lived my life on my own terms — as a maverick, a rebel, an outcast with the most colorful and wonderful people alive. Not bad for a little Utah cowgirl who was told from the beginning that her highest aspiration should be to work in the secretarial pool. I earn the same amount as any man who does this work, I don’t have to wear pantyhose or expensive suits to work and there’s no glass ceiling for me. I can go anywhere in the world where there are people and make a living . . . one person at a time. And they will never forget me!