For those of us who are heavily embedded in the tattoo industry, Shanghai Kate is a household name. Often referred to as America’s Tattoo Godmother, Shanghai Kate has been in the tattoo industry since its rebirth period working with such industry legends as Sailor Jerry Collins, Paul Rogers, Ed Hardy, Zeke Owen, Jack Rudy, Michael Malone, and more. Respected and adored by industry professionals worldwide, Shanghai Kate is a fierce component of the tattoo world.
I began my career in tattoo-writing by focusing on the historical aspect — a topic still near and dear to my heart. As this has always been a focus of mine, Shanghai Kate has been an idol, an inspiration, and a role model for me. I was fortunate enough to meet this incredible woman briefly at a tattoo convention and she was kind enough to agree to an interview. Check out what this tattoo-icon has to say about her history, women in tattooing, and the current state of the industry!
You’ve been in the tattoo industry for over 40 years, so clearly this is something you are very passionate about. Was tattooing always the career path you wanted to follow or was it something that you fell into and realized you adored?
I had no idea I would ever become a tattoo artist. I had no mentors or predecessors I could look at as examples of women being tattoo artists. It was a man’s work and women weren’t really welcomed or allowed. There were only two women that I knew of that actually tattooed when I began. I knew of Bev Robinson aka Cindy Ray in Australia and I knew of Rusty Skuse in England. I had already been around tattooing for several years with Michael Malone acting as his assistant and his second set of eyes as we began investigating tattooing on the East Coast where it was illegal. We were both fascinated by tattooing so we spent a lot of time documenting it. In 1969, while I was designing the permanent portfolio for the Museum of American Folk Art, we learned that the museum was intending to do a show about tattooing. I introduced Malone to Bert Hemphill, the curator of the museum and after seeing the photos that Malone and I had compiled during our investigations, we were given a Contemporary Section to the museum exhibition named “TATTOO!”
Michael began tattooing shortly after the exhibition at our little studio apartment and Catfish Tattoo was created. Malone tattooed in the apartment and I continued to work at Muller Jordan & Herrick, the ad agency. I was literally a “hostess” in the beginning. One evening one of Malone’s clients, Tommy King, asked if I would tattoo him, knowing I had an art background. I said, “No, I don’t want to be Yoko Ono.” I didn’t want to be the woman who was blamed for breaking up a boy’s club. I felt my place was in the advertising world where I had already achieved my dream of working on Fifth Avenue for a prestigious agency. But I have always been fascinated by tools and I wanted to know how this little tattoo tool worked. So, I agreed to tattoo this client.
The first tattoo was very difficult. I already had a vocabulary of tattooing in my hands and head from taking Thom DeVita up to Huck Spaulding’s upstate New York studio for Thom’s tattoo sessions. I knew a little about how to handle it, but I had no idea of the power of the tool. Tommy King then asked me to tattoo a peacock on his chest. I labored through that. It was basically a two-part tattoo and was tough going for the both of us. The third was a dragon on his right arm. I started at 8:30 a.m. and it was 1:30 p.m. the first time I looked up. It was then that I realized that this was the magic tool I had been searching for my whole life… the tool that could take me away from my conscious environments and put me in a realm where time and space ceases to exist… where every creative person seeks. And I realized I could get there anytime I picked up this little tattoo machine. That’s when I realized I had a passion for tattooing.
When it comes to education, you definitely have an impressive resume, having attended the Art Center School of Design and Chouinards School of Fine Arts. Do you feel this traditional method of art education has translated into your tattooing? If yes, how so?
I started drawing when I was four years old. Of course, when you go to art school, they teach you all kinds of techniques, styles, and histories. So, every bit of information you gain is valuable. What really worked for me was going to Art Center School for Design. I learned to use rapidiograph pens and make flip charts as presentation devices. I learned to use brushes and French curves and elliptical templates.
What I learned in graphic design school was more important to my career in tattooing than painting. I never wanted to be a painter. I never wanted a second career as a painter. But the technical side of graphic design arts education was a huge asset for me.
Do you find it is important to study art in a traditional sense? Is it something you would recommend for those entering the industry?
Of course. The more you know the better you are. You get good at what you practice. Color theory, blending, composition, negative space… all those things are hugely important and that’s what you learn in a technical art training. You also learn materials, different kinds of paper and mediums. All of which are very important.
Let’s talk history for a moment. You were involved in the monumental 1971 show called “Tattoo!” which was held at the Museum of American Folk. At the time, tattooing was banned and extremely taboo. What drove you to get involved with such a public show during a time where the industry was so illegal? Were you concerned with any backlash or consequences?
Backlash and consequences? (laughs) The museum had constructed a replica of Huck Spaulding’s tattoo shop from the 1950s in the front window and right on the front glass, they had written in curved lettering about 2-foot-high TATTOO! Because tattooing was illegal, on the first day we had five detectives thundering up the steps of the museum, trench coats flapping, with arrest documents in their hands ready to cart all of us off to jail for opening a tattoo shop on 53rd street. That was the best publicity we could have ever gotten for the show. Of course, nobody went to jail.
The main reason I got into tattooing is because I love the people involved in tattooing. My grandmother was responsible for this, dragging me off to all the circus sideshows and carnivals when I was a child. TV hadn’t been invented so these were our primary sources of entertainment. One of my first memories is putting my little five-year-old fist thru the wedding ring of a giant. My grandmother encouraged me to talk to the giants and the fat ladies and the tattooed people. I found their lifestyle intriguing. It was a family lifestyle. It was a gypsy lifestyle. I became very fond of outsider’s lifestyle and tattoo artists have that. They were all carnival people. And the things that drew me to tattooing … the freedom of being a tattoo artist, having the ability to go anywhere anytime and make marks on people for food or money or adventure, that’s part of my passion for it. It is absolutely the best life I ever found.
Were you the first in your family to get tattooed? How did you parents handle your affinity for the industry?
The first tattoos I remember seeing were on my Uncle Jim. He was a long-distance truck driver and would stop by our Utah farm for visits and coffee on some of his trips. He had a couple of tattoos on his arms. I was about 8 years old. I would stare at these and think they were badges of his travels … like stickers we got on our car when we went to Yosemite National Park. It was a sign he had been somewhere. It was a sign he had done something.
Nobody else had tattoos. Nobody else liked tattoos. No one else supported me in tattooing… except my grandmother. She believed in anything I did. I could do no wrong. I’m an oddity and a freak in my family… I don’t have much to do with them.
When you entered the industry, feminism had yet to make its rise and women in the tattoo industry were sparse. Did you find it difficult to get clients and other tattooers to take you seriously? Did you ever feel threatened or consider abandoning the industry?
First of all, feminism had already started… in the late 60s … so it was already a huge force in the New York City and therefore a factor in my life. I was already a feminist when I started to tattoo, but that wasn’t the issue for me. I didn’t have any predecessors. The only ones I knew of were the two women far-flung across the globe that I mentioned before. It was perceived as man’s work. And I had a career that I really loved where I was succeeding. I have been threatened many times in tattooing. I have had to run for my life many times. I have been attacked physically and verbally. But life has always been a test for me… nothing has been easy… ever.
As far as my clients are concerned, being a woman was an absolute boon to my career. People came to me because I was a woman. I was a novelty. A lot of men would bring me their girlfriends or wives because they didn’t want a man handling them. They trusted me because tattooing has had a real dark history of sexual predators. More than a few male tattooers have served time for sexual misconduct. In the past, it was a very abusive situation for women and it still prevails today. Tattooing for many years was controlled by “bikers.” Women could not enter unless they would perform sexual favors. Thank God I never had to take that route and most of the “Old School” women I know who have prevailed and risen to a level of some prominence in this field did not allow themselves to be sexually manipulated. Those women are the real strength of this craft.
Every tattoo artist has an off-the-wall funny story about a client, a situation, or a tattoo that has come across their chair. If you had to pick a story that strikes you as the funniest of your career—what would it be?
People ask me all the time: what’s the weirdest tattoo you’ve ever done… or in this case … what was the funniest tattoo you remember doing? I don’t remember them in that way. I never have classified my clients in that way. Tattooing is about healing and so I have stories about helping someone with tattooing.
A woman came to me when I was in Buffalo, she was trembling and green with grief. She and her husband had just moved to Buffalo from San Antonio a couple of days prior. When they were finalizing their packing in San Antonio, everybody was distracted by all the chaos and their two-year-old boy, for just a second, cut loose of them and sat right in front of the tire of the moving truck. She had one photo of her baby, everything else was in storage. The picture was blurry and out of focus, but she wanted me to tattoo it on her, so I took the deposit. It was Labor Day weekend and I told her I would be out of town for a Labor Day party, but I would call her when I had the drawing finished. I went to the party out in the country and my phone rang the following morning. It was this lady. She asked if I had the drawing done. I said, “Well no, I’m out here in the country having a barbecue.” Then she said: “Well I’ll just sit by the phone then and I’ll wait until you call me to tell me that it’s done.” I realized that this was the only thing that was keeping her sane. I immediately went back to the studio and I drew it and called her the next day and she came in and got her tattoo. I saw her about a week later when she came in to get a healed photograph of the tattoo and she thanked me for giving her back her son.
It’s moments like this that I remember. Or the man who had muscular dystrophy. He had absolutely no muscles in his body. Holding his arm was like holding a chicken wing but I was able to do his tattoo. It was a musical staff. He loved it and it helped him to reclaim his body. These are the tattoos that I remember.
You’ve been referred to as “America’s Tattoo Godmother,” so it’s safe to say you have a good handle on where the industry has been and where it is headed. When you first started, tattooing was taboo and often illegal. Today, it is featured in television shows, movies, and books. Tattooers have been able to reach celebrity status on an entirely different level, becoming household names in some cases. Are you proud of what the industry has become and where it is heading? Is there anything you wish you could change?
You know, this is a really wide question. I’m so grateful that I had my beginnings with the people that were the forefathers of American tattoo… Sailor Jerry, Paul Rodgers, Huck Spaulding. These men were the guardians of our craft. They wrote the laws. They monitored the business, so it stayed healthy. They brought sterilization into the shops. I’ve never worked one day without sterile conditions. Hospital sterilization was brought into this business by Zeke Owen in 1966. He discovered that the reason that New York City was illegal was because supposedly in 1961 there were some 13 cases of hepatitis spread by tattooing, although none of this was ever proven. He immediately contacted Sailor Jerry and told him that they had to start sterilizing because if they could shut down New York they could shut down the country.
Sailor Jerry and Zeke Owen understood and began practicing what Zeke called the chain of sterile events. and instituted autoclaving into the tattoo craft. When I went to work with Sailor Jerry that system had already been in place. The tattoo artists in the past monitored and protected the industry, and they did it sometimes by burning shops down. They did it by running scab vendors, as we called them, out of town. It could get a little brutal but they kept this business in the right hands… There’s a certain code that still exists amongst the Old Timers, like Stanley Moskowitz, and I’m very grateful and honored that I am considered to be in that Old School.
The magazines started exposing tattooing to the general public and all of us would say, “Oh my God! It’s the end of tattooing” and then supply companies started advertising (and that was a real nail in the coffin, when people could buy tattoo equipment, and it became more accessible. Back in the old days we had to make our own tubes, our own needle bars, our own needles, we had to make our own inks. It was a real hand-crafted business.)
The biggest threshold to abrupt change was the introduction of the Thermofax to make stencils. If people had to carve and use acetate stencils again, probably 50 percent of those working today would quit. The Thermofax made stencils easier to apply, designs much more complicated, and stencils that would remain on the skin forever. Acetates left just a thin thread of carbon that was floating on a smear of grease like Vaseline on a nervous sweating client. So, the push to make tattooing faster and more easily accessible to the general public was the first thing that changed it, and then of course there was the TV. Once you put something on television, that’s how you become a celebrity. If you have very little education or very little knowledge of the field that you’re representing and you’re suddenly a celebrity, you’re going to make shit up. You will use whatever you have. It doesn’t have to be true or really deep. Suddenly you’re an authority. People begin to water down the rules, and the techniques, and everything that is involved with the industry. So, the television to me has become a real problem.
Now on the other hand, it also exposes people to really great tattooing, and great artists. But it is a dramatization and it’s not reality. We don’t behave the way that these “actors” portray us. Those people that are on those TV shows are paid to create drama which is created to sell us laundry soap. I despise all television. It is all fake and eats up your life. Because of the television, because of the celebrity status, and because of the people wanting to be famous, it’s turning tattooing into the soft porn industry. For me to be on a tattoo TV show, it would have to be my television show, under my conditions. So, I may never be a household name.
Where I see tattooing going now is not into a good place. We don’t have any way of knowing what laws are being enacted. We don’t have what is a lobbyist for the industry to protect it from lawmakers who just want just make anything up. I had to take 6 blood borne pathogen tests in the past 6 months because people don’t accept one or the other. I’ve had to train so many health inspectors during my career. I also AM a tattoo shop inspector for the state of Utah. I know how really truly ignorant some of these inspectors can be.
There are incredible tattoo artists out there. The art in tattooing has just become so phenomenal, based on the advances in the techniques, the colors, and so forth. We could have never done color portraits or done things like Jesse Smith’s little creatures with 7 needle outliners and 7-mags. We had to change everything in order for the art to become what it is currently.
Everybody now realizes it is the most commercial art. You could paint paintings forever and put huge price tags on them and stay poor in a studio somewhere and not make any money. However, you can open a tattoo shop in a strip mall, and the day you open up you are going to make money. So it is seen as probably the most commercial of all arts, considered by Lyle Tuttle to be the highest achievement of human endeavor. And it is… tattooing encompasses all the sciences: chemistry, biology, anatomy, medicine, electronics, metallurgy, and every aspect of ART itself. Even people like Mick Jagger thinks tattoo artists are the real rock stars. So, it’s a double edge sword. I’ve never sought fame, I have just sought adventure. I’ve run around the planet a lot… enjoying many friendships along the way. I have been very lucky.
In today’s day and age, do you find you face any discrimination or stereotyping due to your tattoos outside of the industry?
People look at my tattoos and tell me how much they love them. And, sometimes I will get on a plane and forget to put on my jacket when I head to the loo at the back of the plane and I see snickers, gossiping, whispering behind hands. But generally, in America, tattoos have a positive place in my life. Tattoos are magnets. They’re either going to bring people to you or they’re going to repel people from you. I choose to cover up my body with clothes so that people just look at me like I’m some little old grandma. I often play that up because, as I say, the magnetism of tattooing can draw some real unfortunate people to me. People I may not want to talk to. But over my lifetime I have seen the acceptance of tattoos change dramatically in the public eye.
Recently, you participated in a panel in NYC and have been featured in many talks, lectures, and documentaries about the tattoo industry’s long history. Do you think it is important for tattoo artists to understand the industry’s history in its entirety?
Absolutely. You have to know who preceded you. You have to know whose shoulders you are standing on. Tattooing is an oral history. There’s not been a lot written, and some of it is what I call a MYTHOLOGY, and it’s not really accurate. That’s one of the challenges that I’m facing right now, to correct some of that mythology. I’m the only one who can do it because I’m the only one who is still verbally able to, or who is willing to do it. People should be grasping for it now from the people who still remain, like Stanley Moskowitz and Lyle Tuttle. And yes, like me and Jack Rudy, and the other people that are still able to remember of all the stories. It is important that everybody hear those, because it was a very different world then from what it is now, and it was so much better. All of those stories carry with them lessons and that’s why they’re important to hear. Also, tattoo artists need to understand the medium that they deal with, and that’s the human body. Painters know their mediums. They know their papers, and canvases, and drying agents, and brushes, and the qualities of oils versus acrylics. Most tattoo artists don’t know anything about the body. I went to nursing school for two years, so I would know the skin and the body, the healing system. I think all tattoo artists should spend a couple of years in their study of biology, physiology, and anatomy
Having worked through the legalization of the practice, you have clearly experienced all the varying degrees of regulations that have been put upon the industry over the last few decades. How do you feel about these regulations? Do you think we should be regulating the industry more or less? Or do you feel we’re on the right track?
As I said earlier, the people who safeguarded this industry were the Old Timers, those who actually worked in the industry. They knew and conversed with each other about all of the elements that made this practice safe. We didn’t need somebody to come along and tell us to autoclave. We realized we needed to autoclave. We don’t need anybody to come to tell us that Mercury was bad for the pigment. We didn’t have anybody tell us that. We figured that out within the craft.
The Old Timers wanted to discover a wider pallet of colors other than the four that were historically available: black, red, yellow, and green. If we wanted brown, we mixed red and green together to get the shade of brown we desired. I was involved in the expansion of that color pallet. I designed fake letterhead that said that we were a sign painting company and with these fake documents, we solicited free samples of dry pigment from Sun Chemical and other companies. Then the color packets were divided between Huck Spaulding, Sailor Jerry, and Paul Rogers… these men had their own “recipes” for mixing colors. They would tattoo these sample colors into their own bodies to see if they reacted. If they didn’t, that is a color we would pursue… if they did, Sailor Jerry, for example, would dig out the bad color with a flat head screwdriver and move on. This is how they found “safe” red and yellow and also blue and famously purple… trial and error. When the pigment companies learned we were actually tattoo artists and not sign painters, they refused to send us any more pigment unless we bought it in 55-gallon drums. Thus, Huck Spaulding’s tattoo supply company was born. WE DID THAT. No one came to us with tattoo colors premixed in bottles… we had to find the medical supply companies who would sell us the bandages, tapes, gauze that we needed. We had to pretend that we were something other than tattoo artists.
Tattoo artists really have been the champions of this field. The regulations come from someone else sitting somewhere in a cubicle, who generally doesn’t know anything about the history, the medical and the technical aspects of tattooing. I had one regulator look in my microwave after we had been using it for a couple of days and proclaim: your autoclave is filthy! I’ve gone to a show where you had to have 500 gauze bandages. These people just make stuff up, just to sound like they know what they are talking about. There has to be people in my industry who are willing to talk to legislators and to set up guidelines that are viable and achievable, and helpful, and not just silly things that people make up because it sounds good.
Having worked all around the world, how do you feel the USA’s tattoo culture stacks up against those in the rest of the world?
Every culture has its own unique way of dealing with the ancient urge to modify their bodies. Charles Darwin went around the world in the Beagle, the greatest scientific explanation ever undertaken, in the mid-1800s. They went to every island, every coastline, the interior of every landmass. He took cartographers. He took biologists. He took botanists. They documented every animal, plant, seed, rock, and river to begin his “Origin of the Species,” and so after naming everything all over the planet, he came back and said that he had encountered lots of little isolated groups of people … from the Inuit people in Alaska all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, and on every island in the Pacific, and the Atlantic, and all the other 7 Seas. He said that there are four things that all humans share in their DNA: We all sing, we all dance, we all dress up for important occasions, like a wedding, or a funeral, and we all tattoo. So, every culture has had their own history with tattooing. The Polynesians have a very distinct way of marking their bodies for different reasons, and so do the Japanese, and so do the American Indians, and so do the Moroccans, and so do the Chinese. We have more of a casual approach to tattooing. It isn’t a rite of passage any longer for passage into puberty. It isn’t the reason that women get their chins tattooed is because they just have their first menstrual period.
Somebody once said that art history in Europe is DaVinci and Michelangelo, and art history in the United States is Walt Disney. But we do adapt and emulate and try to make something that’s uniquely ours. Tattooing is seen now as the cool thing to do. It used to be that you had to be a bad ass biker or a Hell’s Angel to have sleeves. You had to earn those, they were a sign of a lifestyle. Now, kids come to my shop that are 18 years old and have sleeves filled with band logos and meaningless images that with fade over time… One the most regrettable things that I see nowadays is this pick and poke craze that is screaming across this country. This is where kids get a kit and it has a needle in it, with some black ink and a few stupid designs, and they go to somebody’s house and they get these awful little tiny tattoos in black, just poked all over their bodies. I know young girls who are covered with these things, and I wonder: someday they’re going to realize they are covered with all this crap and then have to spend a fortune to get it covered.
I think we have this casual happenstance and attitude towards tattooing, where we have tattoo parties, where we don’t really understand placement, where we don’t understand the real ancient holy aspect to marking oneself, and I hope that in some way we can learn a little bit more about some of those things and incorporate them into our lives and not just treat our bodies as a disposable canvas.
I write a lot about women in the tattoo industry—both those behind the machines and under them—so you have always been an inspiration to me personally. You helped pave the way for not just other women, but for the industry itself, and that is no small feat. If you could give one piece of advice to young women looking to break into the industry, what would it be?
It would be the same advice I give to a man that is trying to break into this industry and that is be prepared to give up almost everything that you thought you would ever have in order to do the work. The truth in my past was that I would not be able to have children because back in the day male tattoo artists weren’t really “father” material as they are today. If I had a child I could not have ever gotten into this industry. The man would have not let them in. You’re sitting there doing a back piece on a sailor who’s leaving the next day and you have a child who fell at school and broke his leg. What you do you? If you’re a heart surgeon, you can call another heart surgeon to finish the job. If your barber, you can call in another barber to help finish the job. But if you’re a tattoo artist you just can’t call another tattoo artist to come in and help finish the back piece. So, your heart is torn because you want to be with your child and/or you give up the work to be with your child and you lose credibility as an artist. I realized early (when I was 25 years old and understood the passion that I have for this art) that I would never be able to be a mother.
And the other piece of advice that I would give to anybody else in this industry is they dedicate five years of their life to find a mentor who represents and signifies the respect and honor of this incredible ancient art and … keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut.
Okay, so I have to ask… do you prefer rotary or coil tattoo machines?
They both have their purpose. I like them both. They both do different things. It’s not whether a machine has coils or rotaries. It is who made the machine and what kind of quality it is. That’s what’s important… How does it work? How does it run? That’s what’s most important.
Is there anything other than tattooing in your life that you feel just as passionate about? Hobbies, activities, etc?
Absolutely. I’m passionate about writing. I’m passionate about travel. I’m passionate about cooking. I’m passionate about animals. I recently got married and I am passionate about my life with my new husband. I love to go to movies. Creating is my driving force. Oscar Wilde said that Art is a way of living, it’s not a thing. So, I try to embrace as much art in my life as possible in every way.