Kat Von D, Stretching Her Canvas
The Tattoo Artist and TV Star-Author Is Thinking (and Inking) Big. But Will It Last?

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009

Kat Von D strides into a bookstore in Lutherville, Md., on a rainy and overcast afternoon, looking like the wilder side of L.A. personified: Tall, thin, tattooed, electric, rock-star gorgeous. Black tights, three-inch heels on knee-length boots, a red bikini top under a black tank. Several rings, a cross-adorned necklace that drapes to her waist, red lipstick. Tattoos? Everywhere. Dark eye shadow, brown eyes, high cheekbones, standing maybe 6 feet in the heels.

Some 500 people are jammed into the aisles. They've been waiting hours for her to sign copies of her glossy bio and book of skin ink, "High Voltage Tattoo." They're craning necks and holding up cameras.

"Kat!" someone calls out.

Katherine Von Drachenberg is a 27-year-old testament to American possibility. She's a high school dropout who is the wildly popular host of the Learning Channel's "L.A. Ink" (3 million viewers per week, tops on the channel), the business entrepreneur who runs her own ultra-hip tattoo shop in Los Angeles, the style icon who has her own line of cosmetics at Sephora.

"She's not afraid to be who she is, and she's not afraid of what people think," says Rhianon Gingerich, 28, who brought her mother and her daughter along for the signing.

"Sexy as hell," says Kevin Reich, a heavily tattooed Baltimore City police officer.

"I like how she says her tattoos are everything she's been through," says 12-year-old Shannon Watson, nervously waiting her turn. Her little sister, Kayla, 7, is clutching a "Miss Kitty" purse in one hand and a copy of "High Voltage Tattoo" in the other.

How did this happen?

"Kathy is really who I am -- for friends and family, you know -- and Kat Von D is, for lack of a better term, a product," she says. She tends to pick at her fingernails, which are painted black. She is an extremely talented artist. She lives in what she calls "the Frankenstein Castle" in Los Angeles, a 1931 Gothic stone structure built to replicate the good doctor's home in the classic Hollywood horror film.

She blew into Baltimore about 5 a.m. She was aboard a tour bus with her current squeeze, Nikki Sixx, the 50-year-old bassist for Motley Crue. She set up her 30-stop book tour to track the band's gigs, so they can spend some time together.

We caught up with her just before noon, in an empty bar in a posh hotel by the harbor.

Right away, she tells us to be sure to speak up, as she's going deaf in one ear. So is Sixx. He perhaps from nearly three decades of playing heavy metal; she, her audiologist says, perhaps from leaning so close to her buzzing tattoo machine for 10 or more hours a day for more than a decade.

"When we lay down to go to sleep, we have to remind each other, 'Put your good ear up!' " she says. "He'll say, 'I love you!' And I'll say like, 'Who's Lauren?' "

She sits at the bar's baby grand piano, takes off her boots ("I always play barefoot") and starts into Beethoven's Piano Sonata in G. She has a firm left hand, a fluid right. She stops and says: "Do you want to hear a piece I wrote when I was 7? It's so totally Charlie Brown." We do. It is.

She was born March 8, 1982, in Montemorelos, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, the second of three children born to missionaries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The family moved to Colton, Calif., near San Bernadino, when she was 4. The family was dedicated, she recalls in her book, to music, medicine (her grandfather and father are doctors) and art. Her grandmother instilled both love for Beethoven and the discipline of the piano: two hours of practice per day.

She could draw almost from birth, pencil or ink portraits, landscapes, anything. By the time she was 14, Karoline, her sister, had introduced her to punk rock, heavy metal, Metallica, AC/DC, the Ramones. She fell in love with a kid named James, who sported a mohawk. She got her first tattoo, a "J," on her ankle. She loved it.

Her doting sister helped them run away to Georgia on a Greyhound bus. "I thought it was totally romantic," Karoline Drachenberg says now. "Of course, I was 16 at the time."

Her parents were frantic. She called home twice before coming home three months later.

It was not a happy homecoming.

"It just didn't really work out," Drachenberg says. "There was lots of therapy for everybody. I left again when I was 16."

She started tattooing at a place called Sin City in San Bernadino. She didn't really know what she was doing at first, working with the armature and the machines for lining and shading, injecting the ink under the skin to flesh out the tattoo. But she worked hard and moved to Los Angeles to hone her skills. She put in long days at shops with names like Blue Bird, Red Hot, Affliction. At age 22, she married another tattooer named Oliver Peck. By 2005, she was so well known in the trade that when a reality tattoo show on TLC, "Miami Ink," wanted to add a "girl" to the cast, she was the pick.

She partied every night and drank even more. Tequila only; PatrĂ³n preferred. "I was really a lot of fun. People loved hanging out with me."

But, you know, you can't be 24 and drunk all the time. "The drinking went from being fun to functional, you know?"

Her marriage broke up. She was fired from "Miami Ink" after two seasons. Ami James, the anchor of the show, said Drachenberg wrote an anti-Semitic note to him in retaliation. She said it was a forgery; TLC said there was "insufficient evidence" to say that she penned it, and the incident faded.

TLC authorized a spinoff, this time with her as the lead. She sobered up. She buried herself in her work. She set up her shop in Los Angeles as an expression of herself: Candy-apple-red floors, yellow walls, candles, guitars. She describes it as her "church." She hired three veteran tattooers to work alongside her. On the show, she comes across as edgy but feminine. The guests who have come in for tattoos have been the wild, the weird, the wonderful: Rappers Eve and Ja Rule, porn legend Jenna Jameson, Motorhead vocalist Lemmy Kilmister, Olympic gold medalist swimmer Amanda Beard.

Her own body is, of course, a walking advertisement for some of the world's best tattoo artists. She has stars above her left eye (for "Starry Eyes," a fave Crue song), gray and black roses across her throat, "Mi Vida Loca" in elaborate script across her back, "Hollywood" as red-lipstick graffiti across her stomach, her dad's face on her forearm, four of Beethoven, various pin-up queens, skulls, obscenities and Los Angeles symbols.

Her show's ratings soared. Sephora called last year about creating the makeup collection. The company describes the resulting Kat Von D line as "old-Hollywood glamour with an L.A. vibe." (Painted Love Lipstick, $18; Kat Eye Brush Set, $48.) "It sold four times over their projections," Drachenberg says. "It's so gnarly."

She hired her sister as her assistant and her kid brother, Michael, to handle all of her merchandising. And then, suddenly, there was the book and the tour. She's signed a deal for a second book. She says there are tensions with TLC about the direction of the show.

How long can all this last?

"I'm an extremist in almost everything I do," she says.

Kat Von D, American Star.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company