We're celebrating Women's History Month with a new blog series, Revolutionary Women in the Tattoo Industry. In this series we'll be featuring interviews with trailblazing female tattoo artists and diving into the history of tattooing. We couldn't imagine doing this without featuring Shanghai Kate, a truly unstoppable tattoo artist. She started her career in the industry 50 years ago and still actively tattoos at her shop Holy Work Tattoos in Austin Texas. She has earned the title of 'The Godmother of Tattooing' for her passion, dedication, and relentless hard work. She's always enjoyed explaining the history of tattooing and from the start of her career has documented the work of various legends in tattooing, including herself. Her award winning work and captivating experiences have earned her respect from artists and tattoo enthusiasts across the world.
How long have you been tattooing?
50 years, this is my 50th year.
We recently opened a new shop now called Holy Work Tattoos.
I'm passing on my knowledge.
I started in 1971, prior to that, however, I was hanging out with Michael Malone. We were buddies, partners, and then he discovered tattooing before I got involved. He ran into Tom DeMita, he was trying to be a photographer. So one day he was out taking pictures of tiny plants, popping up through sidewalk cracks (perseverance little plants trying to survive at all costs) and Tom's leg was in his viewfinder. He had this incredible dragon tattoo that was done by Paul Rogers. Michael struck up a conversation with him, they hit it off and before I knew it Tom was in my house and so I started helping Michael take photos of tattooed people. We were traveling throughout the East Coast originally (New York City, fundamentally) finding people who were tattooing out of their apartments because it was illegal. It gave us the perfect opportunity to photograph them. We did this project of documenting all the tattoo artists that we could find in the New York area and the work that was being done.
When I started there were no supply houses, there was no place you could go to get pigment, there were only four pigments in existence for tattooing red, yellow, black, and green. No blues, no purples.
What did you do before becoming a tattoo artist and how did that lead you to where you are now?
I was a graphic designer, I was working for an ad agency, a very high-level ad agency in New York. So I could manufacture fake letterheads, I started making fake letterheads for sign painters. We positioned ourselves as sign painters on the east coast. We told some chemical houses that we wanted another pigment that would last long in the sun. They started sending us two ounces of dry pigment. We'd open it and completely contaminate our apartments, everything was just dyed green. We had green first. We got a blender and a rock tumbler we'd take little pieces from the package they'd send us and from that we'd send portions to Huck Spaulding, Paul Rogers, and Sailor Jerry; these were all our friends. They would mix it up with their own recipes (which I have in my little black book here). They would tattoo it in these tattoo crossword kind of grids they had on their legs, little squares they had marked off and if any inks became inflamed or had a reaction they would get it out of them and move on to the next one.
What was it like getting supplies in the beginning of your career? What challenges did you face?
At one point the chemical companies said if you're tattooing with this, we can't support that. We're not going to send you any more little packages of pigments. You're going to have to buy large 55 drums of these. That's why Huck went into supplying pigments because he wanted to continue supplying good pigments. He mixed up his own colors and that's how the supply companies started. He was a great guy, I loved Huck.
We were still making our own stuff largely. We were ordering needles from Germany or England, (sewing needles) and then clipping the little hooks off of them. I remember when we wanted to make ourselves safe, we would get boxes of pampers for bandages and go to medical supply houses and try to buy tape, but unless we wore scrubs or had documents that we worked for a hospital they wouldn't sell to us. Tattooing was illegal so they hated the idea of supporting it in any way, that went on for a number of years. There was no online shopping, no Amazon, no supply houses. Huck was the first to have a supply company. It was difficult to get any help or information. Tattoo artists were considered the scum of the earth, there was no respect for artists. Though tattooing is the most ancient of all art forms and the most global form of art.
When do you think tattooing started to be taken more seriously?
Around 1890 Sam O'Reilly put together a modification to Thomas Edison's machine and was able to make it harder and faster. They were able to make more money and that's when people started to get involved. They were never involved with tattooing before that.
I think it's really important that we know where we come from.
My Grandmother, who was the angel of my life. She decided she would take me every weekend and every summer vacation and show me the world. She did all of these overreaching things for me as a child. One of the places she took me was to circus sideshows and I became enamored with people who lived their lives on their own terms. I fell in love with these people because they were a family that came together and lived a life that was an outsider's life, it always drew me. She introduced me to that lifestyle.
Have respect, particularly men who get into this business...practice humility, be curious, tolerant, and patient. Those are the things that really matter to me as an artist. Respect everybody in this industry, everybody in the world, respect animals. Respect our planet, it's the only one we got. Respect children, respect their curiosity and their desires; they have a lot to teach us...that's what I'd like the whole world to learn.
We hope you enjoyed reading this as much as we loved interviewing Shanghai Kate! For the full video interview head over to our YouTube. Don't miss the next installment in this series where we'll be featuring another voluntary female tattoo artist!