An Indelible Mark : Trends: Kari Barba, who owns a tattoo studio in Anaheim, has drawn a reputation as a master among American tattooists because of the care and artistry she puts into her work.
Tattoo artist Kari Barba won’t do satanic or drug-related symbols. Also off-limits are drunken sailors, young teens and anybody with a bad attitude.
“I won’t take the responsibility of putting something stupid on somebody’s skin,” said Barba, who at age 30 is considered a master among American tattooists. “A part of me goes onto somebody’s skin forever. I don’t want them waking up years from now cursing me.”
Take a quick look at Kari Barba, and she’ll strike you as a PTA mom with an ashy smile and an easy-going attitude.
With two children and a home in Riverside, she and her husband, Michael, have settled into a suburban lifestyle. But as one of the premier tattoo artists in the country, Barba is also punching out a spot for herself in a world once dominated by gruff men and thick black lines.
Her colleagues say her crisp, richly detailed artwork is distinctive among the works of hundreds of tattooists who are expected to attend Orange County’s first national tattoo convention April 4 through 7 in Garden Grove. Barba is one of the convention’s organizers this year.
With women now making up nearly 20% of the National Tattoo Assn. membership, Barba represents a trend not only toward women getting tattoos, but also toward women learning the art of tattooing, said Flo Makofske, the association’s secretary.
“Tattooing is still very male-dominated, but women are softening the edges,” said Barba, a former doughnut maker and foundry assembler. “It’s like driving a truck. It used to be that only men drove trucks, and it was macho. Now women drive trucks and do just as well.”
Tucked away in an inconspicuous Anaheim shopping mall, the Twilight Fantasy studio is flanked by a dollhouse boutique and a Japanese noodle house. There are no flashy signs or lights to greet customers to the shop. A simple “open and closed” sign decorates the windows along with a poster advertising the date of the convention.
Barba and her husband manage two tattoo shops in Southern California (the other is Melrose Tattoo in Los Angeles). She spends two days in Anaheim and one in Los Angeles. On her days off, she sketches and designs her work on paper at home.
The front room of the Anaheim studio is lined with 23 of the awards Barba has won in competition. Among the most prestigious are two National Tattoo Assn. Tattooist of the Year awards, which she won in 1987 and 1988.
On a recent morning, Barba sits in the back room puncturing ink onto a customer’s back.
Harry wants two ninja warriors below his right shoulder blade. The warrior images are from a magazine, which Barba has propped up to use as a guide as she works.
She sits in a padded chair with a leather apron covering her black denims and striped blouse. She wears latex gloves in case the needle accidently draws blood; she always uses sterilized needles. Signs on the wall decree that customers must be 18 or over, as well as sober, before they can get a tattoo.
A constant buzz from the tattoo machine--much like the sound coming from a busy hive--fills the room. Only Barba breaks the noise with an occasional, “Are you OK?”
Harry mutters “Yes,” and she continues.
Harry already has a number of tattoos on his back, most of them portrayals of women. Most of the faces are crudely drawn and flat, their eyes unfocused and dull. As the first lines of Barba’s etching take shape, there is already a noticeable difference. The warriors are three-dimensional; their eyes piercing into unseen enemies.
“When I do a tattoo, I put myself into the same scene of the warrior, the animal or whatever I’m working on,” Barba said, shadowing the ninja’s shoulders. “Sometimes, the person I’m working on sort of disappears, and I’m all alone with the tattoo. I want to make it come alive.”
Dragons and wizards are alive and well along Paul Black’s left arm. Near his elbow is a three-headed dragon that roars in front of a castle complete with tiny bricks and shingles.
Black, 26, is Barba’s apprentice. He heard about Barba’s work while he was living on the East Coast. When he moved to California, Black looked up Barba’s shop for a tattoo and later asked permission to be her apprentice.
“There are some tattooists who would stamp a design on you and get you out of the door as quickly as possible,” Black said. “This woman is not like that. There’s quality in her work.”
On employee Kelly Hart’s back, Barba has drawn a giant iguana with pink- and lime-colored skin. The animal perches next to her spine and appears to slowly wriggle up to her shoulder.
Barba has five tattoos herself, but has drawn none of them. She has a rose with her husband’s name on it; two kingfishes on her right leg; an orchid and a butterfly on her left leg; and two phoenix birds and flowers on her back. She once tried to color in the rose, but she found she couldn’t press the needle hard enough on her own skin for the dye to take.
Twilight Fantasy and the Melrose have a wide variety of customers. One recent morning, for example, a businessman walked into the Anaheim studio during his lunch hour; another customer was a roofer. There is no particular type of person who wants tattoos, Barba said.
Most customers request tattoos straight out of the Twilight Fantasy catalogue kept in the front room, but others want Barba’s more specialized work.
“Men are more daring with the art they want on their bodies because tattooing is not new to them,” Barba said. “Society is not as surprised when they see a big tattoo on a guy. But I don’t get a lot of women customers who want the big jobs.”
For those customers who do not know what they want, Barba asks them to draw what they visualize. The technique helps her sketch designs on paper and lets her customer see the artwork before it’s immortalized on their skin.
“A lot of my tattoos come from the feelings a person puts down on the paper for me,” she said.
One of Barba’s greatest triumphs involved painting a ruby-red samurai slashing his sword at an octopus--a piece that involved 59 hours of work on a man’s back.
At first, the customer wanted the samurai to battle a ferocious tiger. But Barba didn’t think the tiger would flow smoothly on his back and torso. Instead, she persuaded him to allow her to etch out a giant octopus with tentacles slithering down his legs.
He agreed, and the results were award-winning. Even though the tattoo did not cover his entire body, Barba managed to win second place in the 1988 National Tattoo Assn.'s best overall tattooed male category because of the floating imagery.
More than 60 men had entered the contest, most of them with tattoos covering almost their entire bodies.
“When you’ve worked so long on somebody, it’s like . . . you’re married in a way,” Barba said. “You learn so much about that person. It’s more than some husbands know about their wives.”
Barba says she never thought about tattooing when she was young. Raised in a working-class family of eight in Minneapolis, Barba was the third-youngest. The closest thing to artwork was drawing robins and blue jays when she was a kid sitting on the family porch.
When Barba was 20, she learned how to tattoo by practicing on her husband, Michael.
A friend, noticing Barba’s constant doodling, first suggested tattooing. She tapped out a black rose as big as a silver dollar on her husband’s calf. During the hour it took for her to complete it, she made her husband keep his eyes closed.
“I was surprised it even looked like anything,” Barba said. “But there it was--this rose. He loved it.”
Shortly after that, the Barbas were both laid off, so they moved to California, where they worked at odd jobs.
In 1983, they opened the Anaheim studio. Michael Barba does not tattoo anymore, even though he used to help with the smaller pieces. Now he oversees the accounting books and helps customers decide what kind of artwork they want. Barba won’t say how much she and her husband make from their business, but they say they are comfortable financially.
The tattoos have fascinated their two children, who sometimes tag along when the parents work. Both children have brought their mother’s drawings to school for show and tell, have written reports on tattooing, and have bragged about their mother’s occupation to their friends.
When 12-year-old Jeremiah was younger, the Barbas kept a cot in the back room of the studio for him to take naps. And when Barba was pregnant with their second child, Nakia, now 7, she didn’t stop working until two days before giving birth.
Customers still tease Barba about how she tattooed them when she was pregnant.
“When I see some customers, I can tell how old their tattoo is by the age of my kids,” Barba said.
Already the tattoo business is rubbing off on the children. One day she heard her daughter making buzzing sounds in her room while playing with her dolls.
“She was going, ‘Eeerrrr, Eeerrrrr, ' so I asked her what she was doing. She told me she was tattooing her dolls.”