Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Tattoosday Book Review: High Voltage

As a viewer of the cable show Miami Ink, I watched with great interest when Chris Garver brought his friend Kat Von D. into the shop as a guest tattooer in the show's early days. Kat's portrait work is phenomenal, and she is an extremely charismatic person.

The problem with reality shows like Miami Ink, its spin-off L.A. Ink, and the A&E Series Inked, is that the producers feel, and perhaps rightfully so, that a show filled with tattoos is bad for ratings. When I was getting my second tattoo, in 2005, I asked my tattoo artist, Peter Cavorsi, what he thought of these shows. He shrugged and said "too much drama" and told me he didn't watch them. He struck at the core of the tattoo shows' problems: the purists in the tattoo community generally are frustrated by the fact that the personal relationships often overshadow the occasional tattoo. Fans of the shows will tell you: drama drives ratings.

Kat Von D.'s popular success is not due solely to her skills as a tattoo artist. I am not saying she isn't talented. She's immensely talented. But I admire her just as much, if not more, for her ability to parlay a dramatic turn of events (her conflict with Miami Ink's chief protagonist, Ami James) into what is appearing to be an empire. Kat Von D. may be a great tattoo artist, but she's also a hell of a business woman, as evidenced by her shop's success in L.A., her show's ratings, and her successful side projects, like the Tattoo/Music festival "Musink," her cosmetics line at
Sephora, and, most recently, her book High Voltage Tattoo. In other words, Kat’s not just an artist. She’s a brand.

People generally either love Kat Von D. or hate her. She has a devoted fan base and a huge following. She is indisputably the most popular tattoo artist in America. But with success of such magnitude comes detractors. The tattoo community has always been a very close-knit, insular, society. Tattoos have never been so popular, and there is significant resentment among "old school" tattoo aficionados, that trendiness breeds sell-outs, and a dilution of the purity of tattooing as an art form.

Personally, I understand this sentiment, but at the same time, I admittedly am part of the handful of people who are riding the wave of tattoo popularity. Tattoosday was in-part inspired by the Miami Ink phenomenon. My knowledge of tattooing was limited when I got my first two tattoos. I am much more knowledgeable now than when Tattoosday was "born" a year and a
half ago, but I hardly think of myself as an expert, nor do I pretend to be. I am just writing about what interests me and ultimately, in its purest form, that is what Kat Von D. has done with her book High Voltage Tattoo.

This, ultimately, is a first for Tattoosday. It is a bona fide review. Have I sold out the original concept behind Tattoosday? Hardly. I am just writing because that's what I do, like a tattooer tattoos because that's what they do.

So let's take a look at the book, which any L.A. Ink viewer knew was coming, as the story behind the book was one of the many episodic plot lines in the show.

First and foremost, let me first say this is a beautiful book. The production value reflects the care that went into its engineering. The first printing has a thick padded cover (the second printing reverted to basic hardcover with dust jacket) which enhances the feel of the book. The pages are thick and bright with colorful graphics and photographs. For the simple fact that the book has on display so many beautiful tattoo images, it is worth the list price, purely for its aesthetic value.

Drilling down into the contents, High Voltage Tattoo offers a great introduction to not only Kat Von D., but to the art of tattooing in general, perfect for the average person looking to know more about tattoos.

The 175-page project is built around the High Voltage motif which has inspired Kat Von D.'s shop in West Los Angeles.

The five sections of the book are named after AC/DC songs: "Highway to Hell," "Let There Be Rock," "Back in Black," "If You Want Blood, You've Got It," and "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap". Each chapter takes on another aspect of Kat's journey, from her biography, to the genesis of High Voltage Tattoo, to a portfolio of portraits, to a section profiling some of Kat's work, and ending with a brief selection of artists who have inspired her.

This is certainly geared to the Kat Von D. fan, but there is something for everyone. Most compelling is her biographical chapter that gallops through her career, astonishing considering she is celebrating her 27th birthday today (March 8, 2009). We only get the highlights, which is understandable because what is often underplayed and lost on television, is that the life of a tattoo artist may seem glamorous and exciting, but there is an insane amount of hard work and tedium involved. At the same time, the most interesting biographical tidbits seem glossed over. I was very curious to get more of her take on the whole conflict with Ami James. To her credit, she doesn't take any real shots at Ami, and doesn't exploit the drama, despite the public's appetite for such controversies.

Aside from her biography, I really enjoyed the small section on tattoo machines. It certainly gives the reader a better understanding of the basic mechanics and the variations in design. It's not just a tool that gets plugged in and runs. Kat's rudimentary introduction paints a broader base on machine knowledge than one normally sees.

Another fascinating part is the several pages devoted to her own physical canvas. She catalogues her tattoos and answers the burning questions about her ink and their provenance.

I especially like her "yearbook" leg, the left limb on which her friends and family have tattooed their marks. It shows a lack of pretentiousness that is appealing to me, at least; that she is not all about the perfect piece in the perfect spot. It drives home the point that many tattoo snobs
don't get: the meaning behind the tattoo more often than not outshines the quality. And that's completely okay.

Other elements of the book that are useful are Kat's "dos and don'ts", although a lot of it is common sense. But given the lack of sense some people display, these pointers will certainly spare some artists the grief caused by otherwise clueless clients.

I was a little bit put off by some small features of the book, like her lists of things she’s inspired by and the catalog of items she collects. Whether this was just filler, or something the author thought the fans wanted to see, I would have preferred more artwork. In the grand scheme of
things, how important is it that Kat’s inspired by “The F Word” and that she collects leg warmers?

Another section is devoted to what terminology to use and not use. I knew that the expression "tats" is generally not favored (unless it is) and I was corrected early on in this blog's history not to refer to a tattoo machine as a "gun". But I was chagrined to see the expression "ink," referring to tattoos, as much of a no-no as "tats". There aren't a lot of synonyms for tattoos a writer can use, and I was annoyed to have another one frowned upon. Especially since the three most popular shows about the craft all have "ink" in their title. But I'll get over it.

This is a Kat Von D. Production through and through. You can tell she put her heart and soul into this book, and it's certainly a testament to her perseverance and success.

The worst criticism I have is that she certainly makes herself out to be a craftsman devoted to the art, but she doesn't really dwell on her own faults. She acknowledges that she is still learning, but it's hard to find faults in the rosy facade that she paints of herself. She cautions that one
should never get tattooed while under the influence. Sage advice, but she seems to revel in the fact that a lot of her early work (both given and received) was delivered while in "party mode". But if you can get beyond those small contradictions, then the book is a treat for the eyes and the

I have tried to paint as an objective review of High Voltage Tattoo as I can. The bigger the personality, the more controversial the figure. If you strip away the small aspects and focus on the larger facts: that Kat Von D. is an immense talent, that she is a savvy businesswoman, and, most importantly, has a devout love for her art, then you should derive immense pleasure from this testament to a career that is flourishing in an industry at the height of its popularity.

Not to mention the fact that she is rock and roll, through and through.


Anonymous said...

Love this review, mate! I couldn't agree more about most of what you've said.. though, I kind of liked those two little side parts of what inspires her and what she collects, I thought it just made it a little more personal =]
You can really tell from reading it how much she's put into her art, and about how she's more about the meaning behind tattoos than anything else.
Nice job mate!!

Anonymous said...

Nice review!

No offense, but I think it's misleading to chalk Kat Von D's career up to her business sense. She obviously has TLC, the discovery channel, managers, agents, and lawyers behind her. They are running her career, not her.

Bill Cohen said...

No offense taken, and Anonymous raises good points, behind every successful celebrity is a team of professionals that directly or indirectly guide them to their successes. Nonetheless, my opinion is that she's gone more than good people behind her, but she has an instinct and drive that helps her attain her goals. To imply that her career is run by others and that she's being run by others is, I think, a disservice to her talents and abilities. How else to explain her emergence as a rock star among a pack of very talented tattooers (in some cases, more talented than her), other than that she has that "it" factor that helps properl her success?

Anonymous said...

That is true, Kat is very driven. And I'm sure she has her own ideas for her career. But she, or any celeb really, would never have had these chances or opportunities without the right people behind her.

Many more people then just Kat are making money off her (TLC, Shepora, Collins, etc) She is not the only one in control of her career now, these companies have their own game plans that she is contractually obligated to follow to sell their products. She doesn't own the TV show for instance. She's just the star. They are not going to leave it up to her when they have loads of marketers, agents, managers, etc., that do that for a living. Not to mention all the agents, managers, etc., that are on Kat's side of these deals. They have input as well. As much as Kat works, she's only one voice in that entire group.