Hearing this come from the mouth of “Shanghai” Kate Hellenbrand, known far and wide as “America’s Tattoo Godmother” was startling. In a world now filled with so many incredible female artists, it’s hard to imagine a time when there were no women in the tattoo industry at all. Having now worked within it for over 40 years, there are few who have better insight into this significant shift than Kate.
While helping to curate a groundbreaking tattoo-centric exhibition at The Museum of Modern Folk Art in the early 70s, Kate reached out to Sailor Jerry and a slew of other “old timers” to showcase their work for the first time in a formal gallery setting. “All of these tattooers, specifically Sailor Jerry, believed their work was gallery-worthy,” Kate explained. “It didn’t belong in a gutter where it was at that time, and illegal as well. So, by virtue of us doing this show and putting him in it, recognizing [tattooing] as art, that was how we began our dialogue with him and were able to ask if we could learn from him.” Sailor Jerry obliged, offered Kate residency at his home in Hawaii, and the rest of was history. “Jerry was a tough, ratty old man — but he was so kind to me.”
We had the chance to speak with Kate at the Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention about her long, remarkable career, what first sparked her interest in tattooing, and her undying passion for the craft. Moments after memorializing herself on a fellow woman within the tattoo industry, Kate told Tattoodo, “I’ve had a very wonderful career, a very long career. But you know, I just do what I love to do. I’ve been the luckiest woman in the world that I get to do what I love, and have this great following.This is what I’ve done for 46 years, this is who I am.”
When Kate isn’t on the road taking conventions by storm or visiting other shops around the world, she’s holding down the fort at her own shop in Austin, Texas. Check out the video above for a peek at our exclusive chat with Kate in Philly, and be sure keep up with her latest news on Instagram or by checking out her website.