Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand is regarded as the pioneer in the art of tattoo in America, with the longest career of any female in the arena.
Recently named one of the top 10 American tattoo artists by AOL, Kate says the phone has been ringing off the hook ever since. Currently in Texas, Kate does a lot of traveling to shows and for personal clients, saying, “I have a huge body of unfinished work out there.” Get inked by Kate once, and you’ll need her back for more. And she’s had her share of celebrity clients (Kate with Howard Stern, top image).
Kate’s the artist of choice among tattoo artists. “I’ve got that convention in Austin next week,” she says, “and I’ll always be busy because when the other artists aren’t giving tattoos, they’ll come to me.” Kate’s email address is email@example.com, and the dame’s ink is a badge of honor among her own. When we suggest she might rest up for the long convention days ahead, the sexagenarian asks, “For what? No. I carry my energy with me. I’ll rest when I’m dead.”
Kate started tattooing in 1971, after the women tattoo artists that were born of WWII, like Painless Nell and Mildred Hull, and before the new generation. She mentored under Sailor Jerry, an icon in the business, when she was his last student and he was her first teacher.
Kate has owned a few shops in Buffalo, but has been doing her most recent work out of Carl’s in North Tonawanda. “There are a lot of shops all over the country that shouldn’t exist because they aren’t owned by tattoo artists. I tried that once, and it didn’t work for me. Now I refuse to work for anyone who isn’t born of the blood of the art of tattoo.” Carl fits Kate’s requirements. “He’s a great, stand-up guy, who loves this business.”
Kate describes the business as unique, saying, “It’s part carnival, part sideshow, the military, a rite of passage. It’s the oldest art form that art history forgot. The first art, that predates cave dwelling.”
A historian and author, Kate knows her tat lore. She shares that nomadic tribes and ancient hunter gatherers first practiced the art of tattoo, and for much of the same reason people get them now. “Since the dawn of time, tattooing has been used as a way to memorialize people and significant parts of life.” The example Kate gives is the hunter/gatherers who roamed the earth looking for food. When a family member died, they would burn the body, slash their own, and rub the ashes in the wounds.
“They were their own graveyards,” Kate says. “They bore their ancestors. People still get tattoos for the same reason and we know this.”
She mentions a book she has from the 1600, of which there are three copies in the entire world, Anthropometamorphosis, which looks at “practices of manipulating the body,” including tattooing. If not for the 1,000 year ban by the Roman Catholic Church, Kate reasons, tattooing might have always been recognized as one of the greatest art forms.
“Not until Captain Cook happened upon the Polynesians, was it reintegrated into civilized society,” she says.
Kate also has a regular column in Skin & Ink, and writes for International Tattoo Art and Inked. For more on Kate, visit her website and myspace page.