‘Black Ink’ star Katrina ‘Kat Tat’ Jackson returns to reality TV making new marks on the tattoo world
Reality TV shows within the tattoo community are a little bit like strains of COVID-19. When the first big one hit (TLC’s “Miami Ink” in 2005), it changed the world. But now, it’s hard for even the most informed and passionate fans to read anything more than a headline when there’s news. While tattoo reality shows have become something that we’ve just learned to live with, there are still some that can make more of an impact than others — particularly within certain communities.
When “Black Ink Crew” premiered on VH1 in 2013, it didn’t quite garner the same global impact as “Miami Ink.” By that point, the TLC show (and its spinoff, “LA Ink”) had given millions of viewers across America a peek into a subculture that had long been considered taboo. But while Ami James and Kat Von D were introducing the art form to suburban families, “Black Ink Crew” showed representations of highly skilled African American artists who were typically ignored in an industry dominated by white and Latinx tattooers.
“When I first started tattooing, it was a very closed-off industry — especially for tattoo artists of color,” says Katrina “Kat Tat” Jackson, who starred in the first three seasons of “Black Ink Crew: Chicago” and recently returned to the franchise as a part of “Black Ink Crew: Compton.” “It was not easy to walk into a shop and get an apprenticeship, and I felt like most Black tattoo artists were looked at as ‘scratchers,’ because we weren’t professionally trained and had to start out of our basement or dorm room.” When Jackson was first starting out in the early 2010s, she says it was pretty much impossible for a Black artist to get white tattooers who owned shops to agree to give them apprenticeships. “Apprenticeships and Black-owned tattoo shops were just not really a thing,” she says.
Fast forward nearly a decade, and Jackson says the contrived drama and inconvenience that come with starring in a reality TV show are worth the trouble in exchange for both the platform she’s earned and the impact she and the show have potentially made on the next generation of Black artists.
Over the course of her three years on “Black Ink Crew: Chicago” and the half-decade since, the 30-year-old has seen a significant change both in her own life as well as the tattoo community as a whole. As the industry gets more diverse, the cast members of all three “Black Ink Crew” series have become some of the most recognizable faces in the industry.
“We were literally a talented group of young, Black artists who did amazing work,” Jackson says. “We all came together in Chicago, and then we got a national platform. It was like ‘OK, now we’re changing the narrative of how Black tattoo artists are frowned upon or that we’re not professionals.’ Despite all the drama or whatever personal things we had going on in our lives, anytime that camera filmed us doing a tattoo, it was an amazing tattoo. I think television has a lot to do with the progress of the tattoo industry, especially for Black tattoo artists. It would be one thing if we got on TV, did horrible tattoos and added to that stigma or stereotype. But to get on there, do beautiful work and be respected for it, we’re kind of pioneers in the shift of the tattoo industry.”
Since her initial departure from television in 2017, Jackson has spent her time and energy building a life for herself away from the cameras. She became the first Black woman to own a tattoo shop in Beverly Hills with Enigma Tattoo, gave birth to her first child (and is currently pregnant with her second). She’s also landed partnerships across the beauty and fashion spaces, and recently signed a deal with Paramount to develop and produce her own show. Now, she’s taking the next step in all facets of her life by filming the next season of “Black Ink Crew: Compton” while fully renovating her shop and shopping for a home with her fiancé, NFL linebacker Jamie Collins.
Munching on a breakfast burrito on the patio of Tarzana’s Blu Jam Cafe, Jackson’s current life is a far cry from where she was when she first got involved in tattooing a dozen years ago. Upon showing her work to an artist in Minnesota while getting her second tattoo as a teenager, the celebrity tattooer’s career began as an underground side hustle while she attended college. But it didn’t take long for Jackson to follow her artistic passion, quickly landing a role as the first female artist at 9MAG, the shop featured in “Black Ink Crew: Chicago.”
Since growing a global following through VH1, Jackson made the biggest decision of her professional career when she left “Black Ink Crew” in 2017 and opened Enigma Tattoo in 2018. Shifting from simply being an artist to the responsibilities of ownership presented a whole new batch of issues and opportunities for the lifelong artist. Instead of putting all of her energy into creating the best tattoos she possibly could, Jackson suddenly needed to understand things like logistics and management.
“I’ve never really looked at myself as a boss, so I don’t really run the shop like that,” she says, picking the last bits of egg from a whole wheat tortilla. “But you have to be tough like that in some positions in order to get things done, or else you’ll fail. I’m not really a pushover, but I’m also not the most assertive person, and I really had to take ownership of being in that boss position when it comes to making those tough decisions like firing people or just not tolerating certain things.”
As the boss at Enigma, Jackson pushed any semblance of maternity leave to the side during her first pregnancy, tattooing through the first eight months before finally stepping down to give birth. This time around, she’s been so busy with renovating Enigma’s current location from the ground up while also expanding her brand in new directions and filming “Black Ink Crew: Compton” that she hasn’t even had the opportunity to tattoo as much as she would like to this time around.
Even if her return to TV now means relying on her fiancé to watch their toddler and fitting tapings in between renovation contractor appointments and real estate showings, Jackson’s more excited than ever about her return to the small screen — particularly if it means she can continue to open new doors for women of color in the industry.
“I’m just really, really excited to be back,” Jackson says of her return to “Black Ink Crew.” “Having left the Chicago show a while ago, I’m just really fortunate for the television opportunity to come back around now that I have my own shop and have been knocking down these walls for tattoo artists of color. I’m just really excited to keep moving that needle forward and keep adding to the change that we’re seeing in the industry.”
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