On a café patio with torrential rain beating on the tin roof, I met up with Katie Rhoden, a native New Orleanian and tattoo artist who will be featured in the Villain Arts Tattoo convention this weekend. A seriously talented tattoo portraitist and veteran of “Ink Master,” she spoke with me about working as a woman in the tattoo industry, tattooing traditions, and what to expect when getting a custom tattoo.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to start tattooing?
“When I was growing up, I was kinda weird. Kids my age weren’t doing art, painting, drawing. When I was about 14, I thought ‘Man, you know what would be really cool? If I was able to show my art to the world, if instead of on the wall, what if it was on people?’ So they became my walking billboards.
Not because I wanted to be known, I just want my art to be shared with the world. I knew nothing about tattooing, and my dad got me s***ty equipment, and I tattooed out of the house.”
Wait, how old were you?
“Fifteen, 16. My dad was more of a supporter at first; then my mom started to support.
I looked all over New Orleans for an apprenticeship, and no one even wanted to give me the time of day. And that goes with being a woman in the industry, people will give you a much harder time. Tattoos were made to be tough. It’s a male kind of industry. People won’t take you seriously unless you prove them wrong. I looked for an apprenticeship, and I just pushed for it. I found a place where I could get tattooed underage… my mom came and signed for me, and I started learning about it.
I would sit at this particular shop, every day all day, and I was also a barista at PJ’s Coffee, and I was a hostess at Applebee’s, a full-time student, and I was an apprentice. And they didn’t hire me, at first, to be an apprentice, I just came there every single day. And I just did s**t around the shop, so they would know “Oh, she’s serious.”
I worked as hard as I could, I bought my own equipment… my apprenticeship wasn’t a real one, so people didn’t take me seriously. I hopped from shop to shop—I went from Kenner, Metairie, to Baton Rouge, to the West Bank, then back to Kenner/Metairie area… I’ve been all over the place.”
Can you tell me more about the apprenticeship process that artists go through?
“Apprenticing came about when tattooing was a tough thing. You had to really earn your spot. It was considered a brotherhood. Being a tattooer, you had to go through a lot of hardships, to prove to them that you really wanted to do this.
Back in the day, they also tormented you, made you do absolutely ridiculous things. Nowadays, it’s different, but because tattooers believe in tradition, they want you to clean the shop, deal with customers, put stencils on, draw things for the tattooers, you set things up and break them down, you learn about machines. The basics.
You have to be tough, in this industry. An apprentice should learn how to build their own machine—they should do that so they can fix their own, and they can teach it, pass that on. Back in the day, everyone built their own s**t. Tattooing machines were originally meant for engraving.”
What makes New Orleans a good place for a tattoo convention?
“New Orleans is a great place to have a tattoo convention—we’re a very eclectic group of people, we have a lot of culture, music, people who are interested in wearing tattoos and body art, and being extraordinary.
The thing about conventions is, you get to meet a lot of new people, and learn more about the industry. It’s gonna be fun.”
Is there a lot of community in the New Orleans Tattoo scene?
“Yeah. It’s a really small, tight-knit community, people know each other, and if we don’t, we know each other’s’ work. Everyone I know is like “Yeah, I can point that out, and tell you who did that.” I get tattooed by local tattoo artists too.
People like Jeremy Justice, Randy Muller, Michael Bogle, everyone over at Eyecandy is very talented, that’s one of the best shops in the city. Randy is a legend. Before he was a tattooer, he was a professional skateboarder, and he’s a really nice guy. Jeremy is wonderful too. He’s working on my back piece right now, and he does Japanese traditional. It’s pretty gnarly.”
Do you connect with other female artists as well?
“There’s not a lot of them, but there’s a couple that I know of. Natasha Schmidt, she owns Tattoo Temple. She does amazing work, and Tattoo Temple’s a great shop, a really clean and reputable place.
I’m doing the convention with a group of women. The group is called Babeland. My friend Chelsea Hamilton runs it, with my friend Dierdre. A lot of the girls I’m gonna be working with are Southern, and some are from Louisiana.”
A lot of people want New Orleans-related stuff. I’m working on a few different New Orleans sleeves. It starts off with the swamp stuff, then it goes to the city. A lot of people ask for that. A lot of people assume we do a lot of fleur de lis—we actually don’t.”
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“I really don’t I’ve done a few, but over my career I’ve done probably 100—but I’ve been tattooing almost 10 years. After the Saints won the Super Bowl, though, that was a different story.”
Can you tell me about “Ink Master”?
“I went on and I did my best, it was really hard, mentally. I suffer from anxiety and depression and being under that kind of pressure… you put everything into it, and I sacrificed so much to do this job, to do what I do. I have a daughter that I don’t get to see too often because I work so much—I’m a single mom.
I went there, I did what I could, but they chopped it up so much… it’s TV, they’re gonna make you look like an a**hole. I had a rough time, I wasn’t prepared.
I just recently went back on and did a little episode, called “Grudge Match” that airs in October. But this time was different, I got to relax and be myself. I did much better this time.”
If someone wants to get a custom tattoo, how should they go about doing that, and what should they bring to the appointment?
“Bring photos for reference, and bring multiple photos. Even if they’re tattoos, the artist should know better than to steal someone’s work. Bring or email multiple photos, and if you’re doing a consultation, have a deposit ready. Just have a brief description of what you want, and please be specific… we have to have some kind of connection [on the idea]. And be open-minded—let the artist be creative. Roll with it.”
You can find more of Katie Rhoden’s work at her Instagram page (@shesarudemisfit), at Black Pelican Tattoo or at the Villain Arts convention.