MINNEAPOLIS — Seventy-year-old “Shanghai” Kate Hellenbrand’s voice-mail recording announces, “Leave a message at the beep, yo.”
America’s tattoo godmother has been drawing tattoos since Nixon’s first term. Sporting a wild white mane and seen-it-all grin, she calls her shop in Austin, Texas, home base but still gallivants the globe, with a stint in Germany and a Columbia University lecture on tattooing’s history “from voodoo to Vogue” on her agenda.
Q: What attracted you to tattooing?
A: I’d always loved graphic design and working with tools. In the late ’60s I helped my boyfriend Michael Malone (a well-known tattoo artist who died in 2007) with a tattoo exhibit for the Museum of Folk Art. It was illegal then, and very underground.
My grandmother used to take me to all the freak shows and make me sit on the giant’s lap and talk to the fat woman. So I grew up with an affection for those living outside the norm. Of course circus people had a lot of tattoos, but they were colorful in so many other ways — their experiences, their traveling. I’m drawn to the fringes.
Q: What was the first tattoo you drew?
A: A little flower, because there are no straight lines. If you mess up a petal, it doesn’t show.
Q: What was it like to compete in what was then such a male-dominated profession?
A: I was ridiculed, called crazy, even physically attacked. I was an economic threat because I was a cute girl and when the military guys came in on leave, they always picked me over others with more experience. I smelled better, too. But along the way I was honored to learn from the best, including Sailor Jerry, Zeke Owen, Huck Spaulding.
Q: Howard Stern raved about you on his show. What work did you do on him?
A: He had a Capricorn sign he wasn’t happy with, so I drew some dragons. They sent a limo to pick up the drawings and within minutes he called. I thought he was a misogynist and didn’t want to do it, but after meeting him, he’s much kinder and gentler than people think. Then I tattooed wedding rings for him and his wife, Beth.
Q: What are the most interesting places your career has taken you?
A: I’ve had shops in New York, Salt Lake City and Mexico, and traveled all around the world. In the early days I’d go from bar to bar in Europe, start drawing, and then do tattoos right there and split the money with the bartenders. I’ve been to the hinterlands of the Philippines and Eskimo country doing tribal work. The Kuna Indians in Panama bartered embroidery and carvings.
Q: After 40-plus years, does it ever start to feel repetitive?
A: No. There are so many different schools. Old-style Americana, the black-and-gray photo realism that started in prisons, tribal tattoos so rich with meaning, Japanese style where a single image telling a mythological story covers an entire body. It’s science and art melded together, plus all the history.
Q: Will you ever retire?
A: From what? Living an interesting life and making money everywhere I go?