Tattoo legend ‘Shanghai Kate’ Hellenbrand shares career wisdom with apprentice Erika Leal in the fourth episode of the Moneyish original series Good Company
America’s Tattoo Godmother has been granting wishes for four decades.
Kate Hellenbrand, 74, draws clients to her Austin, Texas shop and to tattoo conventions across the country because she’s a trailblazer in what has long been a predominantly male industry. One recent customer, Kayla Wernig, told Moneyish that she chose Hellenbrand to tattoo a Sailor Jerry design (another tattoo icon) on her at the United Ink Summer Vibe Tattoo Festival on July 1 because she was “a strong female in the field, even when it wasn’t popular to be.”
Hellenbrand remembers when sailors and military men in would line up for hours on their paydays in San Diego in the early 1970s to get a tattoo from her. She reminded them of their mother, their sister or their girlfriend, she says — and that made her not just a novelty, but also an economic threat.
She didn’t consider herself an oddity, however. “I was about the work. It’s all about the work,” she said. “And I worked as hard as any man, or harder.”
In the decades since, tattooing has gone from the domain of sailors, bikers, prisoners and rebels to become mainstream. About three in 10 Americans — and almost half of millennials — have at least one tattoo, according to industry research firm IBISWorld, which notes that tattoos are now a $2 billion industry and climbing. The rise of tattoo conventions and TV shows like “Ink Master” have contributed to their surging popularity.
Tattooing was illegal in New York City when Hellenbrand and her photographer friend (and later boyfriend) Michael Malone began immersing themselves in the underground ink scene. They helped organize a 1971 tattoo exhibition at the city’s Museum of American Folk Art, and soon began tattooing out of Malone’s apartment, ultimately transforming it into the Catfish Tattoo Studio.
Hellenbrand, who was working as a graphic designer, said she served as something of a hostess at the studio at first (although she also designed the studio’s business cards). But after a man who knew about her art school background asked her to tattoo a flower on him — her first work of ink art — she was hooked. He even returned for two more from her: a peacock and a dragon.
She went on to learn from Sailor Jerry Collins in Hawaii and work with Ed Hardy in San Diego before going on to shops across the U.S. and Europe, where she spent months backpacking as a traveling tattoo artist, plus the Philippines and Mexico City. Along the way she adopted the name Shanghai Kate, and the honorary title “America’s Tattoo Godmother.”
“I love the demands of art on demand. When people come in and want a specific image, I have to create it for them, and meeting my clients’ expectations is very gratifying,” she added. “I love what it affords to me: freedom, travel, financial freedom and adventure.”
And she is as passionate as ever, working out of her tattoo shop in Austin, Tex., traveling for tattoo conventions and occasionally mentoring young artists. She recently sat down with her apprentice Erika Leal, a 27-year-old at the start of her tattoo career, to share her stories and advice. The pair talk in the fourth episode of Good Company, a Moneyish original series that matches millennials with veterans in their field for mentorship and conversation. (Watch the video.)
Leal, a graphic designer from Mexico City who loves to draw and paint, had struggled to find a tattoo shop there that would teach her. She was on the verge of giving up her dream after several bad experiences.
“A lot of people don’t want to teach you, maybe because they feel like you are going to become their competition,” Leal said.
One of Leal’s friends was working in Hellenbrand’s shop. When Leal stopped by during a trip to Austin, she was shocked to see Hellenbrand — a hero of hers whom she’d seen in the 2013 documentary “Tattoo Nation” — open the door herself. Now Leal works there too, tattooing clients and posting her designs on Instagram to help attract new customers.
“It’s amazing to me to think about how someone can have a piece of art on his or her skin forever,” she said.
Hellenbrand is happy to pass on the lessons she’s learned while demanding respect over her career.
“This is your craft, this is your room,” she told Leal. “So you put your foot down in the nicest possible way, but if it takes more firmness, do not be afraid to apply it.”
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