By: Latoya Coleman
Edited by: Madeline Blue Schussel
Photos by: Malik Daniels
Styled by: Amanda Massi
Hair by: BJ Blaze
Makeup by: Dion Xu
“Are we done? Did we get all the shots you wanted?”
It’s around 2 PM on a gorgeous, 98-degree Thursday afternoon in Encino, California, and Kat has just wrapped her photoshoot in this stark white mansion in the hills: its spiral-stair entryway and waterfall pool the perfect backdrop for her photographs. She has just slipped out of her last outfit–a sexy silver-chain dress that nicely framed her tattoos–and slipped into black leggings and a grey sports bra.
Before plopping onto her white leather couch for our interview, she grabs her phone and turns off her late-90s-to-early-2000s Spotify playlist, which featured hits from Mya, 112, Dru Hill, and other geniuses of that era. Throughout the morning, she has provided the musical backdrop for her shoot, which started at 8 AM and is only now winding down. While everyone packs up the set, they are still involuntarily mumbling the lyrics to the songs on her playlist.
She lands in her seat and tells me she’s ready as she turns her phone face down on the arm of the couch.
Not long ago, tattoo artist, painter, and shop owner Kat Tat graced our TV screens on VH1’s hit show Black Ink Chicago. She inspired the crew not to be intimidated by the often pretentious and predominantly white traffic at tattoo conventions and showed off her skills by tatting her own left thigh.
“[The producers] wanted me to start doing things and I was listening, you know. And once I started listening, I started seeing results: I started gaining weight, my hair started falling out, I started fighting on TV,” Kat recounts. “I was just deteriorating, deteriorating–you know?” She punches her hand into her fist.
Debuting in October 2015, Black Ink Chicago was Kat’s rise to fame. And while she admits that in the end, the show caused her to “derail,” she also recognizes that “the show was such a blessing for [her] career.” One of the many blessings, she says, was a producer who pulled her aside when she was falling apart. “I won’t say her name, ’cause I don’t want to get anybody in trouble,” Kat says, leaning in. But it was in that conversation with this producer reminded Kat that she was a “light” and “a gem.” That was Kat’s turning point: she left the show, moved to LA, and opened her very own tattoo shop.
“Throughout the whole journey of television, everything I went through, ups and downs, dealing with all kinds of stuff–I’ve always stayed true,” she says.
Prior to the show, Kat was enrolled at the University of Missouri-Columbia (Mizzou), one of the first places that helped her realize that her truth was drawing on skin. As a Math major with a pretty hefty scholarship in a whole new state, Kat decided to reinvent herself. “So I’m like, yeah, I’m a tattoo artist from Chicago, you know!” she laughs. She ordered a 99-dollar tattoo kit, convinced her classmates to get her supplies like paper towels, razors, etc. in exchange for her doing some free ink on them, and she started her dorm-room tattoo shop. One of her first clients was a guy named Brandon; she added some shading and darkened his “trash” tribal tattoo. But the tat that “put [her] on” was a huge rose tattoo she felt inspired to do after a smoke-session with her friend Diamond. The rose took up half of Diamond’s back. After she posted a photo of it on Facebook, it spread all around Missouri, and the next thing she knew, she was “literally tattooing everybody.”
After realizing her passion, Kat had to face another truth: she was struggling in college. “I was focused on tattoos, so I lost my scholarship every semester–but I was so smooth-talking that I would write these appeal letters and get my scholarship back every [time].” She mimics the act of writing a letter. Kat was making a lot of money tattooing, and she didn’t embrace the struggle-through-college narrative. But she did have the full college-is-growing-pains experience, one that involved heartbreak, and of course, partying–“being,” as she remembers it, “a half-ass student and a half-ass tattoo artist.” During this time, Kat really leaned on her father for guidance, so she would call him often. “My dad jokes about it all the time. So I would call him and he would say, ‘Hey Trina-Beana.’ And there would be two types of calls–so [he’d get] nervous all the time ’cause he doesn’t know if it’s going to be a ‘Hey Daddy!’” Kat mocks in an extremely happy tone, “or a ‘Hey Daddy,’” she says fake-crying into her phone-shaped hand. It was, she tells me, after too many calls of the latter type that her dad gave her the green light to drop out of college her senior year–to pursue her dream of tattooing full time.
Growing up, Kat’s parents always supported her creative side. Both of them were business people, and she describes her father as the “disciplinarian…educated Kappa of Oklahoma State–you know, a football player.” She describes her mom as the “free-spirit boss lady.” “I would go to work with her and she would always have on these fly outfits, and [she had] a huge office.” She uses a finger to draw her mother’s office in the air. But they both supported her so much, she says, that they both asked her to give them tattoos. For her dad, she tattooed a cross on his chest, and on her mom she tattooed a tiny little Chinese Zodiac symbol of the Golden Pig. “My Korean uncle told her it says wild hog,” Kat chuckles. Her parents’ love and support give Kat the confidence to know she can do anything.
From a very young age, Kat possessed talent. She remembers her teachers always pointing out her artwork during parent-teacher conferences. But she was always business-minded, as well: in elementary school, she did nail designs in her living room, while her mom put on acrylics for her friends. At nine years old, Kat made jewelry. “I had a sale–my parents helped me and I made, like, $300.” Kat shakes her head, impressed with her younger self. But her hustler mindset almost got her into trouble at age six, when her parents found singles in one of their empty cigar boxes…Kat had turned it into a bank for her latest venture. “[Mom and Dad] had [brought home] branding products from an event they went to–like, little velvet bags. Oh yeah, I know–I think they were Hennessy bags! My parents came home with a whole stack of them, and I went door to door, selling them for a dollar. I flipped them,” she says proudly.
And now, this 28-year-old is the first Black female tattoo-shop-owner in Beverly Hills. She purposely picked Beverly Hills as the location for her shop, Enigma. After driving around LA, she found a storefront on Pico Boulevard between Robertson and Wooster Street. She recalls thinking, “I’m going to go to Beverly Hills, you know, and I’m going to hire all Black artists, and we’re about to fucking kill it.”
Tattoos are becoming less taboo (tattoohistory.net reports that 69% of people don’t see them as a mark of deviance anymore). All types of professionals are currently rocking skin ink. As a woman and a person of color, Kat is excited about the future of tattooing. “Ten years ago when I started, even twenty years ago, tattoos were associated with that, you know, that biker-like redneck type, hole–hole-in-the-wall type. But I come from a good family. I went to school, but I–I wanted to tattoo. So I wanted to help push the movement to a more, you know–like I was kind of [at the forefront] where you’re seeing doctors get tattooed, you’re seeing lawyers get tattoos. So I was right on the cusp of that.”
Kat also admits that her journey to tattooing as a woman of color had its difficulties. In 2010, Columbia University found that only one in six tattoo artists were women. Historically, it’s been a boy’s club, often closed off to anyone else who didn’t fit the mold. And Kat is one of the many female artists who are creating a new normal for the industry. Initially, she found it hard to find other women to look up to. When she was figuring out how to set up the equipment for her dorm-room shop, she drove to a tattoo parlour in Missouri where she got a rather rude response from all the men there. “I just will never forget that look of disgust on their faces. Like, ‘Who are you? What do you do?’ You know? It always made me feel super, super uncomfortable–but I knew that I could do this,” she adds. It wasn’t until she went home to Chicago in the summertime that she was able to get a local tattoo artist named Four to teach her. Having Four give her some tattoo magazines and take the time to show her how to set up really changed things for her, helping her become the “Kat Tat” girl on Mizzou’s campus, and eventually, the artist that we know today.
Kat recognizes that her life right now is one she couldn’t have imagined. “What’s that Biggie line? The ‘never thought hip-hop would take me this far’?” She starts spitting the lyrics. “I never would’ve thought tattoo would take me this far, and I don’t ever take it for granted.” Kat often gets flown over 3,000 miles to countries like Costa Rica to tattoo–an experience she lists as one of the “Top Five Dopest” of her life. Her client resume includes celebrities like actor Idirs Alba, singer Faith Evans, Grammy-Award-winner and producer Stevie Jay, and many of the Denver Broncos football team, including linebacker Von Miller.
Still, Kat is super down to earth. Like many, she laments that “dating in LA sucks!” Despite her sexy poolside Instagram pictures, you will mostly likely catch her hanging out in jeans and a tee-shirt. A chill night for Kat involves any type of red wine, and a home cooked meal.
In disbelief that people fly themselves, and her, from and to other countries and states just to get her ink, she admits that she still “freaks out” right before she does her work on anyone. “But once the needle touches the skin, I’m in my zone.” Kat’s face lights up, and she continues to glow as she talks about her shop family at Enigma and the “Starting Five,” as she calls them. After securing the shop, she had hand-selected five artists for her team through friends, DMs, and hashtag searches. Kevin Laroy (her platonic soulmate who understands her vision), Darnell Waine (the wise, don’t-touch-his-stuff granddaddy of the shop), Deshey Jones (the brace-face early bird), Travis Ross (a Long-Beach CA native), and Nelly (a female tattoo artist who Kat had Insta-admired since 2012), all began the journey with her. And the family keeps growing: she has since added Chonny (Korea-born-and-bread fine-line tattoo artist), Tans (the shop’s apprentice who Kat describes as a “bomb-ass painter”), and Diana (a California native who will join the Enigma family in October).
Kat explains how everybody in the shop had to walk away from something to enter this mysterious new chapter of their lives together. She chose the name “Enigma” for that very reason–and because it’s the name of the band that sings one of her and her mom’s favorite songs, “Principles of Lust.” Her favorite line of the song is in latin, and translates as: “take your sadness and proceed in peace.” And when she reflects on her time on the VH1 show, she feels that line really sums up how her life changed course. “With what I was going through at the time, quitting the show–like, the whole world knows that was a hard time for me. They all saw what I was going through.”
Since then, Katrina Jackson has used self-honesty as her compass. Even with her success already in the bag, she’s always gearing up for her next business venture, because it calls to her. When the dispensary next door to Enigma shut down, Kat instantly knew she wanted the property. And while the ink was still drying on that lease agreement, she shared that she was opening up Enigma Beauty and Nail Bar next door. Kat feels that tattoos, skin, and beauty are all connected, and she shares that it has always been her dream to “open up more businesses.”
Kat tells me she has two pieces of advice for women who are listening to their hearts and following their dreams:
(1) “You don’t have to be any less of a woman to do what you love,” she says, while sticking up her pointer finger to emphasize her first point. She confesses that when she first appeared on the tattoo scene, she felt like in order to be taken seriously, she couldn’t post attractive pictures of herself. “I just remember feeling really insecure about my femininity and my sexuality, and feeling like I had to hide the fact that I was who I was in order to [get] respected by men, when really, it’s just like–fuck that! Your work could be better than anybody in here, and you can still be who you are. Embrace who you are: your race, your sexuality–all of it.”
(2) “Stay true. If it’s in your heart that [art] is something you want to do, pour your heart into [it] and it will be beautiful.”
And “staying true” is the current that seems to keep Kat successfully moving through her life.