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Inking her own story, one tattoo at a time Add to ...

"I'm not a rocket surgeon," says Katherine von Drachenberg, unaware that she has mangled the popular expression. "I know I can be smarter, but I'm pretty good," she says in a husky voice, shaking her long, black hair. Then, to punctuate her goofy declaration, she switches on a megawatt smile.

The tattoo artist and star of the reality-TV series LA Ink , a slinky, wild thing from the edge, holds the centre of a Toronto hotel lounge. She has landed here temporarily to promote High Voltage Tattoo , a hybrid book that includes tips on getting a tattoo and caring for one as well as a mini-biography and tattography - behind-the-ink stories about her own, and some of those the artist has created on others.

With the appearance of a fearsome comic-book superhero in low-slung gold lamé leggings, black leather, thigh-high platform boots and a midriff-baring top and vest, Kat von D, as she is known, wears her tattoos of roses, skulls and portraits (among other things) like armour against the world.

"The 'aware' on my hand," the 27-year-old says, pointing to a tattoo of the word, "came in totally handy the other day. …

"It's hard to stay positive sometimes … I am reminded to reassess a situation and try to do everything with love, you know?" she explains, turning her star-spangled alabaster sculpture of a face from a profile to a full-frontal assault of other-worldly beauty.

But if her name and looks suggest a castle-dwelling Goth warrior capable of wicked pleasures - she put a small tattoo under her chin so people would have something to look at as she downed shots of tequila - she is also, underneath all the coverings, sweet.

She's girlish in her desire to explain herself. She seems intent on proving, just as she did to her strict, religious parents, that she is just an ordinary girl, despite the inks on her skin.

"I was in a constant struggle to prove myself to my dad. He just thought I was hanging out with bikers and not saving my money. I was, like, 'Dad, I am a good person.' The tattooing thing got in the way," she says ruefully, arching her blackened eyebrows.

Her Argentine family settled in Colton, Calif., on the outskirts of Los Angeles after living in Mexico, where she was born. Her father followed in the family tradition of medicine. Education and classical musical training - two hours of rigorous practice a day - were paramount for her and her two siblings.

But at 14, she fell in love with punk music and a 16-year-old boy, James, who had a sky-high Mohawk, tattoos and a penchant for black eyeliner. She dropped out of school and hopped a Greyhound with him when her parents forbade her to see him. Her first tattoo, a J on her ankle, which she still has, commemorates the love she didn't think she could live without.

Three months later, she returned home, leaving James behind but having acquired a new infatuation. At 16, rather than return to high school, she began working in a series of tattoo shops to apprentice and develop her style as an artist. By 2005, she was well known enough to be invited to join The Learning Channel's breakout reality show hit, Miami Ink .

Fired because of mounting tensions on the show after the second season, she was also drinking heavily. In her book, she writes about getting a large tattoo, Mi Vida Loca (Spanish for My Crazy Life), across her upper back after drinking a bottle of tequila. She prides herself on her wild ways. At 22, she had married a fellow tattoo artist, Oliver Peck, after knowing him for only two months. "I do as I feel," she explains.

In 2007, unhappy with her life, she returned to L.A. to be near her family, she writes. She sobered up, left her husband and opened her own shop, High Voltage Tattoo - a space of red floors and yellow walls that she calls "my church." In her stripper platform footwear, she also strode into the starring role of LA Ink , a spinoff offered after her departure from the original.

She quickly became a fixture on red carpets and in the gossip magazines. After a romance with Alex "Orbi" Orbison, a drummer and the son of the legendary Roy Orbison, she started dating Nikki Sixx, the multiply divorced 50-year-old bassist for Motley Crue and father of four. Not one for understatement in clothing, hairstyle or words, Mr. Sixx describes her as "wall-to-wall heavy metal, a B-52 bomber dropping nuclear F-bombs on full-tilt boogie."

Her exposure increased when she launched a Kat von D line of cosmetics with retail chain Sephora last year, marketing it as "old-Hollywood glamour with an L.A. vibe."

The fame has brought a scrutiny she doesn't enjoy, however. "We don't think fame is a good thing," she says of her family, including her sister and brother, who both work for her. "We come from very private lives. We've had stalkers before. But it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make for the ability to do what I love."

It is often pointed out to her that her work is about vanity, youth and a passing trend, but she valiantly defends it. "Tattooing will never go away. It's like art." She has no fears about the eventual wrinkling of her canvas, either. (Eventually, she wants a full body suit of tattoos.)

"People always say, 'Imagine her when she's 80,'" she says, adopting a whiney voice as she screws up her nose. "But I look forward to my 40s and 50s and 60s. In my 80s, I think I'll look like an old gypsy woman. I'm going to play the accordion and have a hairless cat and live in a castle and have blurry tattoos and lots of stories to tell."

Ms. von D is a cauldron of contradictions. Just read her body. There are portraits of her parents, who divorced three years ago, and her siblings, alongside profanities. The approval-seeking daughter who often worries what others say about her has "the motto of my life" - an acronym for "Does It Look Like I Give a Fuck?" - written on the outside of her right hand. She does not seek attention, she asserts. Her flashy clothes, makeup and tattoos are "a form of self-expression." She is aware of the irony that her art, which is highly personal, is drawn on a public billboard for all to see and comment on. When photographers expect her to wear tattoo-revealing clothing, she gets upset, she says. "I'm like, this is not for you. It's for me."

More rich and layered than a character in a novel, she is a charmingly strange, marked creature with a heart of gold, full of sweet sentiments, bold declarations and glaring malapropisms.

"I think it's just like a rosary or a crucifix," she says of her tattoos' powerful reminders. "It's so easy to get disfocused," she says. "You know?"

Follow on Twitter: @Hampsonwrites

 

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