Marked sensation

Special to The Times

It was 9:30 a.m. on a recent drafty morning, and 325 people were wrapped around the La Brea Avenue block outside High Voltage Tattoo. They were gathered to help Kat Von D (born Katherine Von Drachenberg), star of TLC's reality show "LA Ink," set a world record (as in "The Guinness Book of . . .") for completing the most tattoos in 24 hours. It was all being filmed for the show, which begins airing new episodes at 10 tonight.

But there was a slew of problems: The clock that was meant to keep track of the official time fell off a truck and broke. A fire marshal was enforcing strict rules -- mandating limits on the number of people in the shop and cordoning off areas with caution tape. And six L.A. sheriff's deputies were attempting to keep the burgeoning masses orderly, decreeing that many eager fans would have to be sent home without any new ink.

And when Von D arrived at her shop just before 10 a.m., she was greeted with the most recent piece of bad news: The official from Guinness was stuck in a snowstorm and wouldn't be able to make it.

"He's gonna miss a party, dude," Von D said, smiling and shrugging as she took off her jacket. Underneath, she was wearing an "I Heart L.A." tank top, short enough to reveal the cursive "Hollywood" tattoo scrawled over her midriff. She was taking slow drags of a very thin cigarette.

Von D, 25, wears an immense amount of eye makeup -- a blue, glittery shadow both above and below her lids paired with cherry red lipstick. Despite her severe look, she manages to escape looking clownlike -- her dark hair angles around high cheekbones.

Just an hour later, there were a thousand fans trickling over to Fountain Avenue. Mostly twentysomethings, the crowd was largely tattooed and pierced, outfitted in head-to-toe black with the exception of neon Mohawks and knotted dreadlocks. Occasionally, they broke into an uneven chant: "Kat! Kat!"

At the front of the line, Jose Flores was pressed against the shop's glass door. He had camped out since 7:15 the previous evening, eager to receive the first tattoo Von D would dispense.

"It wouldn't matter what the tattoo was of," Flores said. "I just want to get tatted by her because she's a bomb artist."

Flores would be the first patron -- after Von D's closest friends and family, including the likes of Internet personality Jeffree Star -- to receive the tattoo, which says 'LA' and comprises half of the TV show's logo.

Von D charged only $20 for each tattoo, and the profits from them and from the merchandising at the event were said to be going to Vitamin Angels, a charity committed to eradicating childhood blindness by 2020.

Von D said she never expected this many people would show up to the event she posted on her MySpace page, but she also didn't anticipate the success of "LA Ink," which brought in a loyal enough audience since its debut in August to call it a modest hit. Around that same time, Von D's winsome figure was plastered alongside high-rise buildings across the city.

Von D gained recognition for her intricate fine-line, black and gray portraits on TLC's "Miami Ink," where she was featured as an artist for two seasons. But after butting heads with Miami co-owner Ami James, Von D decided to move home and open her own shop.

Her spinoff reality show documents the tales behind the tattoos while trying to further the image of women in the tattoo industry. Von D's shop employs female artists Hannah Aitchison and Kim Saigh, shop manager Pixie Acia, and resident male artist Corey Miller.

Von D was born in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, to Argentine parents and moved to California when she was 4.

As a teenager influenced by the punk rock scene, Von D felt the weight of the stigma of being a girl who was heavily tattooed.

"I'd be at the mall and parents would grab their kids and be like, 'Honey!' It was like that scene in 'Pretty Woman,' where the women on Rodeo Drive think Julia Roberts is going to shoplift," she said, laughing. "Now people just come up to me more out of curiosity -- everyone from grandmas to soccer moms."

Von D's body is a museum, covered with so many tattoos it's hard not to gawk. She's got portraits of her mother, Beethoven and Mexican actresses Maria Victoria and Elsa Aguirre, along with less serious art, some of which was drawn by her friend and MTV's "Jackass" star, Steve-O.

Von D got her first job at a professional tattoo shop at 16.

"This gnarly biker dude hired me, and he knew I was underage but he didn't care," she recalled. "There was a lot of trial and error, because the art was there but the skill definitely wasn't."

A move to True Tattoo in Hollywood aligned Von D with artist and current "Miami Ink" cast member Chris Garver, who helped to bring her to Florida.

"In Miami, the tattoos were very touristy because you had more European tourists," she said. "People were looking for small, collectible tattoos that could be mementos of their vacations. In L.A., I think tattoos are more accepted. You can have a tattoo on your neck and still work at the library."

"L.A. is a mecca for tattooing," Von D continued. "Fine-line black-and-gray is very Southern California because it has a lot to do with Mexican culture. A lot of that realism comes from them because that's what they were doing in jail, making machines out of guitar strings and melting pieces of checkerboard to make pigment with."

The sunny weather, she adds, inspires locals to show off their bodies as well.

High Voltage Tattoo in West Hollywood is surprisingly small and boxy, especially when filled with cameramen. The walls are lined with glam-rock trinkets: black-and-white pictures of Kat, autographed guitars, a poster of the L.A. skyline and a skateboard ramp.

During most of the daytime hours, the shop is closed for filming, but at night, walk-ins are welcome. Those who appear on the show apply through a casting website and receive no monetary compensation.

"You know, I'm 25 years old, and not a lot of 25-year-old girls start a shop and pay taxes and all that," Von D said. "The moment I had to pay my first mortgage payment I was like, damn it, I'm adult now. And I don't always like that responsibility -- the hiring and firing."

Von D said the new episodes will push her to the limits of her artistic abilities as she gets to work on larger back pieces. Viewers will see her attempt to organize a three-day music and tattoo festival, MusInk. And the drama behind the world record attempt will unfold in an episode on March 4.

And the attempt was about to kick off. The crew asked the people in the room to quiet down, and suddenly Von D began talking to the camera, giving a monologue about her nerves and the lack of sleep she got the night before. Amid the tumult, it was easy to forget that there was an actual reality show being filmed.

The cameramen moved over to the two beds where Von D would be tattooing. Von D's boyfriend, Alex "Orbi" Orbison -- son of musician Roy Orbison and drummer in the band Whitestarr -- pressed a clear nicotine patch onto her lower back. Karoline, Von D's sister, lay on a table. The tattoo gun started buzzing and everyone began counting down the seconds in unison.

"You're gonna get the shakiest one," Von D said, grinning.

"I think people should just get a tattoo that they want to look at forever," she said, her eyes darting around her shop. "People read into the meaning behind every tattoo, but in reality it's just aesthetics. It's something you do because you have the power to alter your body. I mean, it's not a doctor's appointment, man -- it should be a party time."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World