Today I am here to introduce you to none other than famous tattoo artist of New York –Shanghai Kate. She is a ‘sweet smiling godmother of tattoo world.’ Recently she was at the National Tattoo Convention in Seattle from where she replied to my e-mail interview. She has inked high profile people like Howard Stern who said that she did a great job – ‘I forgot she was doing, I was so relaxed, I was looking at this guys arm tattoo I just got up to check – I forgot she is working on me’ and recommends everyone to ink from her. In 1973 upon the great Sailor Jerry Collins’ death, she purchased his estate and published three Sailor Jerry’s Tattoo Stencil books.
Now, let’s have an insight into her life through this interview
Disha: Kate, you’re called the ‘godmother of the tattoo world’. So, how you rule the show?
Kate: Actually, that’s a very kind and generous title. Maybe GAWDmother . . . but I really don’t think that I’m anything more than an old gal trying to keep up with the incredibly talented and interesting people in this business. I’ve just been around a long time and I’m one of the very few women who have had a solid history in the business. In the old days we women weren’t exactly welcomed into the ranks and as the old saying goes, we all had to work ten times harder than most men to just get into the door and be taken seriously. But, there are many other women who are also long-time and term artists who do incredible work – Apache Jil Tong, Vyvyn Lazonga – those names jump to mind. Juli Moon as well. So am I the godmother? I look to my sisters in the business to share that burdensome title. Just call me Shanghai Kate.
Disha: When did your journey of body art started and how? Was it natural? Who is your hero?
Kate: I started tattooing in NYC in 1971 when it was still underground and illegal. I was a typesetter/creative at an ad agency in NYC on Fifth Ave and only 25 years old when I learned that the neighboring Museum of American Folk Art was going to mount a show called “Tattoo!” – based primarily on the work of CJ Fellows, a deceased sailor/tattoo artist. I had been going to tattoo parlours (mostly Thom DeVita’s) in NYC for a while and also traveling up to Huck Spaulding spot near Albany to watch Thom get work. Michael Malone and I became co-producers of the MofAFA’s show and in the process investigated and pursued tattoo artists around the world who would be worthy of joining in that show. During that period, both Malone and I began our careers in our little apartment (Catfish Tattoo Studios) on West 15th Street. At first, I was kind of the secretary/hostess because I felt that tattooing was primarily Malone’s gig and I didn’t want to be his Yoko Ono. But, one of his clients persisted in persuading me to do a tattoo on him and because I was curious as to how this all “felt” . . . I agreed. I was hooked and the rest, as they say, is history.
I have so many heroes – Paul Rogers, Sailor Jerry, Don Ed Hardy, Bob Roberts, Jack Rudy, Brian Everett, Tony Olivas, Bill Funk, Bee, Trevor Marshall (and his wife, Jan Seeger), Mario Barth. Also, Zolt and Boris from Hungary, Doc Forrest, Thom DeVita, the aforementioned women, especially Apache Jil, Horiyoshi II, and then people like Wes Wood in NYC, Don and Flo Makovski, these are people who have worked very hard to make this business whole and healthy. They continue to inspire me and set standards that I hope one day to meet. This may seem like smoke blowing but it is genuine and heartfelt. I also love the new talent (as I said before), Jose Lopez, particularly, who is wheelchair bound but boundless in his incredibly clean work. Those who continue to fight the good fight and get up another day to try to make this world a better one for us all. Rich Ives and his empathy for his clients, That’s a big one.
Disha: Is body art an obsession for you? How deep are you soaked into it?
Kate: Tattooing is my complete life. I rejected the idea of ever having children because I knew that I would be divided in my commitment and therefore I felt I would fail at two things so I decided instead to try to succeed at one – I don’t know if I’d say it is an obsession – but it certainly is my passion. I’ve found that everything else in my life can be funneled in some way into this art and that this art is so compelling that it takes all kinds of science and technology training and education to help master it. It is the complete merging of science and art and while it isn’t rocket surgery, nothing is as interesting or demanding, in my opinion. Then there are the people, the events, the constant changing of public perception. It hasn’t been dull and I’m completely soaked in now.
Disha: Who is Kate in person apart from being a tattoo artist?
Kate: A completely independent Swedish triple Scorpio who spends most of her time investigation her nature, the world around her and her spiritual nature. She’s a tomboy at heart, eager to travel the world and go to places “undiscovered by white man.” I love camping, cooking, culture and art. I love to watch the human endeavor to touch that membrane between what we perceive to be real and what is really real. I have a great sense of humor and am tremendously faithful to my friends. (Hey, this sounds like a personal ad all of a sudden!). I don’t forget but I do forgive and I wish I could produce more and be better at what I do but I am trying.
Disha: Kate, tattoos, as they have a permanent impression, are against the fleeting nature of life. What do you have to say about it? Don’t you think it mars the charm of going under the needle?
Kate: Everything in this universe is fleeting. We live in an entropic universe where everything decays but from that, decay comes a new life. We cannot destroy one atom of matter; we cannot destroy any beam of energy. We live in the eternal moment. This is what we have. We are all probably living in some kind of manifested matrix of an intelligence we cannot comprehend. So do I worry about the trivialities of time? It’s a man-made illusion. My tattoos are like my babies that I give to others and then let walk out into the world. Part of the appeal to me about tattooing is that, unlike almost any other art, there is the question of completion. We have to finish a tattoo – to some degree. But, of course, no art is really finished. We could keep working forever on a project to make it perfect. But, a client has only so much time so we have to let it go. It is important also to learn to let things to go – to bypass the concept of ownership. Life is fleeting, this moment is all we have – so why stress? It certainly doesn’t “mar” the charm – in my mind it contributes to the psychic well-being of the artist and client. To perceive that we can hold on is where greed, fear and negativity live.
Disha: What fuels the fire within you to keep going on and on? What sense of fulfillment do you get after inking a design? What else can I do?
Kate: I have to go on and on. That’s our job. As I said, I’m terribly hungry for new stuff. I have a wonderful life and many great friends and I am part of a tremendous community. This is a very interesting time and place to be. But after a tattoo? Very often, I’m drained and I concentrate too much on what I should have done better. I know where the little details are that gnaw at my mind while I’m trying to go to sleep. Sometimes I get to help people feel better about themselves or their journey. That’s a tremendous feeling. If I can do that in any way, I think I’ve done something and that balms my soul more than any amount of money or praise or self-congratulatory delusion. Then at the other end of the spectrum, I rather believe too that we are only tattooing people, it isn’t to be taken that seriously. It has to be done right, too many people “sell out” or go way beyond their level of competency. Sometimes it’s just a mark on the body to hold down a particular place or time in a person’s life. But, I believe a clear conscience is a soft pillow. So I try to remember the lessons I’ve learned and if I don’t want to do something, I won’t. To me, this is the most important art form and as an artist, I have the “artistic license” to reject anything that doesn’t speak to me. Maybe I’m a snob but I’m not in it for the money, I’m in it to feel great about what I do and who I am.
Disha: You seem to be experimenting quite a lot with the art. From where do you get ideas for your designs?
Kate: My clients bring me all my ideas for images. I facilitate their vision onto their skin. Otherwise, I love bits of stuff from everywhere. Macro-photography, natural forms, organic forms in other words. I love Gaudy, all art nouveau, artists like the Decadents, Edward Byrne-Jones and certainly the Japanese (Kuniyoshi in particular). I love Jupiter and the patterns of the clouds on its surface, corals in the sea, stuff like that.
Disha: What changes you’ve witnessed over the years in your approach and perception towards the art?
Kate: Anything you want to change. Oh my goodness, there have been so many changes from the technology to the color spectrums. Single needle to 27 mags. These changes in technology drive the artistic changes in tattooing. We could not do portraits with 7 needle outlines and 7 #10 mags that we used in the old days. And of course the Thermofax has allowed many more people to jump in – if everyone had to use the acetate stencils that were around until the 1990s, I guarantee half or more of the tattoo artists working today would stop and do something easier like roofing. Gloves, they came in during the mid-1980s, healing procedures, new and better colors and healing techniques. Knowledge about blood borne pathogens and sterilization. Even client relations have changed and more tattooists are learning marketing, PR and business procedures. The attention to the magazines, conventions and TV “reality” shows are helping to educate the clients as well. Not all of this attention is welcomed but it is helping to “demystify” what we do. I don’t know that I’d change anything except to further educate artists to be less money oriented and more long-term oriented. I would certain eliminate the focus on the money.
Disha: Kate, tattooing is more or less confined in western countries. Why is it so? Would you not like to make this sublime art a global phenomenon? What would you do to make the ends meet?
Kate: Tattooing is a global art form. Whenever a new person is born, we have a potential new client. And, every day hundreds of thousands of blank acreage becomes legal when kids turn 18. Tattooing certainly predates recorded history. Around the planet, there isn’t one tiny pocket where people do not decorate themselves in some way. And, tattooing is probably the premier form of body adornment. Anglo-Saxon cultures have a longer history with organized religion. Try as they might, the beginning Roman Catholic church tried to ban tattooing (and were successful to some degree) throughout the Roman empire (Pope Hadrian and the Council of Bishops set this ban in motion in 727 A.D. and it stood for 1,000 years). But those living on Polynesian islands and in Japan certainly didn’t have news of this ban and were blithely tattooing away until Capt. Cook discovered them in the new world in mid-1700s and reintroduced tattooing into Europe again. People love or hate tattooing, see it as a form of adornment or defilement. Depending on what they’ve been taught to believe. But show a non-programmed and unprejudiced kid anywhere a tattoo and their response is always the same: they are mystified and intrigued and awestruck.
Disha: What do you have to say to aspiring tattoo artists?
Kate: Draw, draw, draw. Read, read, read. Know that this is the hardest thing you’ll ever try to do. Get your ego outta the way and don’t do this with the idea that money is the end or desired result. Don’t believe your own hype or the smoke others will blow up your ass. Don’t lie, steal or do drugs. And stop thinking about the money. Learn the history!!!
Thanks Shanghai Kate for the interview.