“I just wish people would be a lot gentler with each other,” Von D says in an interview at her home in L.A.’s Hancock Park. “Because, you know, I’m equipped, like, I’ve been an outsider my entire life. So, the whole sticks-and-stones thing works with me. But imagine for somebody who’s much more fragile than I am? The damage that you can do?”
Hancock Park is one of the city's last bastions of old-school respectability. Kids ride their bikes on the sidewalk outside Von D's sprawling Victorian mansion. Charo is her neighbor. The house's dark wood paneling and crimson upholstery suggest a Gold Rush-era brothel, only tasteful. The bottom of the pool out back is painted red, so swimmers appear to be bathing in blood.
Von D is friendly, if a little wary, and warm. She hugs you when she meets you (according to her publicist, she has been vaccinated against the coronavirus). Von D is promoting her debut album, a collection of mostly synthwave-inspired tracks called “Love Made Me Do It,” but over the course of a 90-minute conversation, she’ll answer questions about everything else in her life, without hesitation, as her hairless cats weave between her feet. Nothing appears to embarrass her, and this is someone who was engaged to reality-TV star Jesse James twice.
In person, Von D looks exactly as you would imagine she would look; with celebrities, this is not usually the case. Her skin is flawless, and there’s a constellation of star tattoos at her temple. Her makeup is carefully applied, because Kat Von D is never not Kat Von D. She gets up every morning — at 5 a.m. if she has to — and puts on a full face. “I didn’t put my lipstick on for you,” she says, not unkindly. “This is how I am every day.”
Only the subject of cancel culture causes her to shift uncomfortably in her chair. To hear Von D tell it, she was never canceled, just misunderstood. But yes, she knows how all this looks. “There’s been so many terrible rumors that have been brought up about me that are completely untrue,” she says. “You know, it’s like people call me racist and I’m the furthest thing from that. People have criticized my weight, they have criticized my look, they’ve criticized my choice of boyfriends that I’ve had, which were terrible, and trust me, I beat myself up more than you will, okay? But none of that stuff really bothers me more than the racist stuff, because I feel like, you know, I’m a proud Latina.”
Von D, 39, was born Katherine Von Drachenberg in Montemorelos, a tiny town outside Monterrey, Mexico, where her family had migrated from Argentina. Her father was a missionary who was helping to establish the town hospital, Von D says. The Von Drachenbergs lived in poverty, with dirt floors and no electricity. Von D doesn’t recall ever having seen a car there.
She was about 6 when her family moved to the United States, where they would eventually wind up in California’s San Bernardino County. Von D had no conception of what America was like beyond a bootleg Mickey Mouse cartoon she had seen, but her parents had a bad feeling. “They really felt like this was the land of promise, and so we want our children to have an education, but I think they were also quite scared of American culture,” she says. “And you know, I ended up being their worst nightmare.”
She was a good kid, or at least started out that way, but something inside her felt off. She was probably 13 when she shaved her head, and 14 when she fell in love for the first time and ran away from home with her boyfriend. She eventually returned, having made it as far as Georgia on a Greyhound bus. Her parents, feeling increasingly unable to control her, decided to send her to Provo Canyon School in Utah, a residential treatment center for troubled teenagers. “These programs, they prey on scared parents,” Von D says. “You know, there was really nothing wrong with me aside from a lack of communication between my parents and I, that could have been solved through talk therapy.”
She was taken from her home in the middle of the night — blindfolded, she says — and whisked away to a place that looked nothing like the brochure on the Internet. “I remember everything so clearly,” Von D says. “It’s like, cinder-block walls with no windows, so I didn’t get sunlight for six months. All the bathrooms had no doors. You have to use the restroom in front of people, in front of a counselor most of the time. I think that was probably the worst six months of my entire existence, and I’ve been through a lot.” (In a recent documentary, Paris Hilton described similarly abusive treatment at the same facility.)
Von D, who turned 16 when she was inside, was eventually released and sent to boarding school, where, thoroughly traumatized, she began to drink heavily for the first time. By that point, her parents had given up. Von D, who had begun tattooing when she was 14, soon decided to pursue it as her career.
“They associated tattoos and all that stuff with riffraff,” Von D says. Back then, tattoos signified that “you were either in a gang or a hooker or a drug addict or some kind of, you know, bad seed.” To her, tattooing, like music or makeup, was a form of artistic self-expression. She found a biker with a tattoo shop for whom she could informally apprentice, and began to practice the craft. She learned about the importance of wearing gloves and creating a sterile environment, which she hadn’t previously understood. She learned how to handle drunk people, who tended to squirm, and sobbing girls who wanted their ex’s name tattooed on their neck. She learned how to gently tell people: I think you might regret this. Or, that the Incubus tattoo you want might not age well.
She eventually made her way to a tattoo shop in Hollywood, and then to the cast of the TLC series “Miami Ink,” a reality show documenting life at a Florida tattoo parlor. Her character tested well with focus groups, and the increased airtime she got began to cause friction with the other cast members.
“There was, like, a lot of behind-the-scenes bullying, and I don’t like using that word unless it’s real,” Von D says. “They were doing pretty awful things to me.”
The trouble started here: One of the cast members claimed that Von D had given him an autographed photo with threatening antisemitic slurs written on it. She says that a handwriting analysis proved that she was framed, and attributes the dust-up to jealousy over her spinoff show, “LA Ink.”
Von D returned to L.A., where she began to publicly unravel. She got sober in 2007, after waking up one morning to a note from the person she was dating that read, “I can’t do this anymore,” and having no memory of what she had done to prompt it. She realized she had to dissociate from her old life. “I went through my phone and deleted every person who treated me like a party favor, because that’s really what I was,” she recalls. “I didn’t have a real friendship back then. I mean, a few people hung in there, but most people allowed me to self-destruct.”
Meanwhile, Kat Von D Inc. was becoming a thriving concern: “LA Ink,” filmed at her shop, High Voltage Tattoo, was one of TLC’s most successful shows. Von D wrote best-selling books, opened an art gallery, released a clothing line and, later, a vegan shoe line. Sephora approached her about starting a makeup line, which became one of the store’s most successful brands after its 2008 launch.
As her fame has grown, the public controversies have exponentially grown. A lipstick in her line was named “Selektion,” a German word commonly associated with Nazi death camps. Von D, who says she named the lipstick — which was never released — after the work of an Austrian artist she admires, says she had no idea about its alternate meaning. “I don’t want to blame my ignorance on not going to high school, but I dropped out of high school when I was 14. I don’t really know all of everything, you know?”
In 2018, Von D married Rafael Reyes (also known as Leafar Seyer), frontman of the cholo goth band Prayers, in a ceremony at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She wore a red dress, with matching horns on her head. The swastika tattoo on Reyes's neck (he said it represents spirituality in general, in a separate phone interview), complicated his wife's efforts to put accusations of antisemitism behind her. He has since had it removed. (Jesse James, whom Von D dated in the early 2010s, also had his own Nazi-related photo scandals.)
“Love Made Me Do It,” a pristine and melancholy album that recalls vintage 1980s synth pop, was written before Von D and Reyes began dating. It was inspired by a previous star-crossed relationship Von D had with a musician who moved overseas and was in response to an album he had written for her. Many of its songs are now a decade old.
In preparation, she worked with a vocal coach for six days a week for two years, she says. She and Linda Perry, the 4 Non Blondes singer who wrote and produced Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and Pink’s “Get the Party Started” among many other pop hits, teamed up to write songs. “When Katherine and I started creating together she was very raw and her passion was strong,” Perry writes in an email. “I would like to think I was instrumental in helping her find her voice, confidence and words.”
After a lifetime spent diligently tattooing other people’s lyrics, Von D wants someone to get a tattoo of her lyrics for once. She wants to play concerts and experience the rush her musician friends talk about — although she feels as though she has been onstage her whole life, she is still a novice live performer. She would be happy just to know that people will show up to see her play; she’s the kind of person who throws a party and worries that no one will come.
In June 2018, Von D, pregnant with her son, Leafar, took what was left of her reputation and set it aflame, announcing in an Instagram post that she would not be vaccinating him, and adding for good measure that she would be raising him vegan. Public reaction was swift and brutal. Fans threatened to boycott her; the worst of them threatened to kill her child. Von D, who had greeted past incidents with a steely, you-know-where-the-unfollow-button-is defiance, was taken aback. She had assumed discussing vaccinations was a standard part of new mom oversharing, like discussing birthing plans or breastfeeding.
“It was really hard,” she says now. “I don’t think people understand the entire story. And I think at the time I was, you know, pregnant, and so — and I definitely don’t want to spend a lot of time on this subject, because I already have in the past — I think as a new mom you’re trying your best to figure things out, and you don’t know everything.”
In January 2020, Von D announced that she was selling shares of her makeup line to its corporate parent, Kendo. She had been miserable for years, she says now. Her beauty brand had become a monster she could no longer wrestle into submission. She wanted to focus on being a musician, and a mother.
The timing struck many as suspect. “I didn’t get canceled,” Von D says. “I didn’t lose my makeup line because of a comment I said on Instagram.” The sale had been in the works for months, she says. “I sold it and cashed out while I could, but I think it makes for a juicier story. The media tends to really, like, sink their teeth into that kind of stuff, which I think is a lot. It can be damaging.”
No one really knows whether Von D was actually canceled, or what that might even mean for someone like her. Because she is currently a free agent, there is nothing she can be canceled from. Her TV shows are no longer in production and her album is expected to be a niche seller. (The album is self-released through Kartel Music Group.) She still has more than 7.6 million Instagram followers.
According to Reyes, any dissatisfaction with his wife remains virtual. In real life, his family still can’t even go to a park without getting swarmed by fans. “Maybe on social media, sure, but never in person,” he insists of any blowback. “In person, people love her.”
The family lives part time in the tiny southern Indiana town of Vevay, where they recently bought a historically significant Italianate mansion that everyone, including Von D, assumes is haunted. They take walks along the nearby Ohio River and enjoy the solitude.
She is beginning to write songs for a new album, but it’s occasionally slow going. The songs on “Love Made Me Do It” were written by a sad person Von D doesn’t recognize anymore. “I really want to push myself to write a little more aggressively, because I think my go-to is always going to be melancholy and sad. I love sad love songs. I don’t know how to write a happy one, you know?”