Tattoo History 17: Shanghai Kate

Kate Hellenbrand AKA “Shanghai Kate” AKA “America’s Tattoo Godmother” got started as one of America’s most well known female tattooers in the early 1970’s, and still tattoos now (though she is semi retired). She works out of Holy Work Tattoo in Austin, Texas, and works tattoo conventions with her husband.

Classic rattlesnake
1970’s flash

Kate has worked alongside some of the greatest American tattoo icons of the 1900’s including Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, Jack Rudy, and Ed hardy, and was also good friends with the late Lyle Tuttle. 

Classic pinup
Black cat and 13 for Friday the 13th

Kate has a background in art and became interested in tattooing when she lived in New York with her partner Michael Malone at a time when tattooing was actually illegal in the city. The two worked out of an apartment and would hand out business cards to anyone they came across who had a visible tattoo. Tattooing was difficult at the time, and they even had to make machines using parts bought at bike shops, or pretend to be nursing students to acquire medical equipment.

Crossed pistols and desert themed florals
1970 Jack Grice, Kate, Thom Devita, Sailor Sid

In 1972 Kate was invited to be one of the seven tattooers at what was the first international tattoo convention in Hawaii that was hosted by Sailor Jerry. This group was called “The Council of the Seven.” This lasted around one week, but when the other tattooers left, Kate stayed behind to work with Jerry for a number of weeks. Sailor Jerry was notoriously protective of tattoo culture and disliked most newcomers to the industry particularly women, but Kate seemed to be an exception and was welcomed wholeheartedly and taught a lot.

Bright and bold dragon
Fortune Teller

As well as still occasionally tattooing, Kate also sells tattoo memorabilia including old flash from the greats, tattoo books, and also gives talks at tattoo conventions around the US. 

Kate’s signature added to an old back piece by Sailor Jerry
Kate tattooing that same signature

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Elbow Tattoos:

Elbows are one of the more painful spots to get tattooed, but if you’re wanting that full sleeve it’s something you’ve got to tough out. 

Horseshoe and Flower by Caige Baker at the Brindle Room in Calgary, Alberta
Spiderweb by Tony Torvis at Mortem Tattoo in Montréal, Quebec

There are lots of designs that fit the shape of the elbow well, such as spiderwebs, flowers, mandalas, geometric shapes, and other “gap filler” type pieces. 

Mandala by Hans Joen Heggum at Blue Arms Tattoo in Oslo, Norway
Heart web done by Tasha Terror at Three of Swords Tattoo in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Elbow tattoos also often take a bit longer to heal than many other locations on the body just because it’s a joint that most of us use all day every day. All that movement irritates the area so you can expect prolonged swelling, and maybe more scabbing than other tattoos you have.

Spiderweb done by Gabriel Buison
Bright flower piece done by Jasmine Worth at Remington Tattoo in San Diego

Because the bone lies directly under the skin with virtually no “padding” on your elbow, it’s going to hurt more than the rest of your sleeve, which is why many people choose to save it for last, or choose a design that doesn’t fully cover the area such as a spiderweb or a horseshoe.

Geometric dot work piece by Tommy Birch
Bright and bold flower piece by Capa Tattoo at Tattoo Circus in Italy

While spiderweb tattoos are arguably one of the most popular elbow designs among old school collectors, you should be aware that originally this design was meant for people in prison, often signifying how much time a person has done. Nowadays most people won’t assume that you’ve been to prison if you have this tattoo, but it’s important to be aware of. 

Black work butterfly by Alin in Seoul, Korea
Colourful spiderweb by Dave at Trophy Tattoo in Hamilton, Ontario

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Artist of the Month: David O’Connor

David O’Connor is a traditional tattoo artist working out of Trophy Tattoo in Hamilton, Ontario. The shop caters specifically to those looking for American traditional tattoos, and all of the artists who work there do fantastic work.

Jesus chest piece
Old school flowers

Davids Instagram is full of classic flash and finished pieces that would have been seen on the walls of tattoo shops throughout the 1900’s and on the bodies of sailors. 

Healed Geisha
Black traditional chest piece

When booking a tattoo with David you can choose from pre-drawn flash or bring your own idea to the table. David and the rest of the shop also take walk-ins.

Tiger vs snake
Classic old school dragon

The majority of his work is done in colour, with the traditional colours of black, red, and green, but if you’re looking for some black traditional work he’s got you covered as well.

Queen of Hearts
matching forearm pieces

Whether you’re looking for a small walk-in piece or a full back, David does it all, with style. If you’re in Hamilton or just passing through he is a must see artist for all your traditional needs.

Battle Royale backpiece
Bert Grimm butterfly lady

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Gap Filler Tattoos:

Gap filler tattoos are exactly what they sound like, small tattoos that fill the gap between other pieces to make a sleeve or torso look more fluid.

Cute bondage Kewpie done by Cobra Kai Tattoo
Frog filler by Tattoo Mozart

Generally when someone says gap filler they’re referring to a more old school style, as the custom with old school tattoos is to collect lots of smaller tattoos that then form a larger piece when it’s all put together.

Flail by Gary Gerhardt at Key City Tattoo
Coffin nails by Hudson at Rose of Mercy in London

Some common gap fillers include centipedes, flowers, butterflies, spider webs, nails, snakes, frogs, etc. Almost anything can be a gap filler if it can be made small enough and can have some diversity in placement to fit those odd angles.

Old school flower by Aaron at FHC Tattoo in Melbourne
A happy little sun by Daniele Delligatti at Sacred Circle Tattoo in Rome

If you’re going for that bodysuit look you’ll probably end up with some gap fillers unless you pre-planned your whole body before you started getting tattoos, or worked with a style like Japanese where gap fillers are less common (though not unheard of).

Pistol and butterfly by Jade Harper at House of the Rising Sun Tattoo in Winnipeg
Floral fillers by atomlenhart

What gap fillers do you have or want?

Mosquito by Dan Coy at Hobart Tattoo Collective in Australia
Dice and floral filler by Eva at Baltimore Ave Tattoo

Edited by Harrison R.

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Artist of the Month: Tony Torvis

Tony Torvis is the owner of Mortem Tattoo in Montréal, Canada. His work consists of traditional old school designs without colour, making his clients look like the brilliant black and white photographs of days long past.

Full sleeve with hand
Battle Royale on the stomach

Tony’s work is reminiscent of the great tattooers of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s but is still recognizable as a Tony Torvis piece. 

Full back featuring a dragon and ladies
Beautiful chest piece

Expect crisp clean lines and bold, powerful motifs such as dragons, snakes, lady heads, portraits, and flowers. There is original flash in the shop to choose from, or you can bring your own idea to him, or re-create an old piece of historical flash.

Pharaohs cats as part of a back piece
Angelic ladies

Tony’s Instagram page is full of both large and small scale work, from chest pieces to full backs, sleeves, and little filler pieces.

Full front torso, some healed some fresh
Bert Grimm sintered chest piece

You’ll also notice from his Instagram page that the majority of clients are repeat customers. Tony’s tattoos are kind of like chips, you just can’t stop at one! Mortem tattoo is a must visit shop if you’re in the area, and there are other brilliant artists working there as well.

Two sleeves in progress
Full back featuring ladies

Edited by Harrison R.

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Sacred Heart Tattoos:

Religious tattoos are still very popular with many collectors today, and one of the most recognizable images that has been made popular in the tattoo community is found in that of the Christian community with the Sacred Heart (aka The Sacred Heart of Jesus).

Neo-traditional sacred heart and flowers by Luan Roots
Black work ornamental sacred heart by Miss Sita at One O Nine Tattoo in Barcelona

This is an image that is particularly important in the Roman Catholic Church, and it represents Jesus Christ’s heart as his love for all humans. The earliest known devotions to the Sacred Heart occurred around the eleventh century and was brought about by Saint Bernard. In the 14th century Pope Innocent VI declared that the Sacred Heart should be idolized and worshipped. From there on it became a symbol of love and devotion. 

Old school Immaculate Heart of Mary by Alvin Aldridge at Rose Land Tattoo
Old school Sacred Heart and flowers by Basile Maurizio at Inked Soul Tattoo Studio

There are three common depictions of the heart in its original form: the Heart with a crown of thorns like the crown that Jesus was forced to wear, the heart with a cross on top to represent the crucifixion, and finally, flame surrounding or coming out of it which represents divine light of love. 

Neo-traditional take on the Sacred Heart by Ashleigh MacIsaac-Bruno
Black and grey Sacred Heart by stillink.tattoo in Italy

As a tattoo many people choose one of these three versions, or get it custom made with added flowers, decorative pieces, faces, colours, etc. The most common styles are American traditional, black and grey, and neo-traditional. 

Black and grey Immaculate Heart of Mary by Tom Cox
Old school Sacred Heart and lady head by Duan Tattoo at Sick Rose Tattoo Parlour in Shanghai

There is another version of the Sacred Heart that represents the Immaculate Heart of Mary (mother of Jesus), but this version is usually seen being pierced by a sword instead of a crown of thorns. 

Black and grey Immaculate Heart of Mary by Bram Adey at Main Street Tattoo Collective in Winnipeg
Wall flash by Jake Cordál at Kilburn Tattoo in London

Edited by Harrison R.

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Cactus Tattoos:

While existing for centuries, cacti have become extremely well known as a pop culture phenomenon more recently over the years, particularly among my fellow millennials. This definitely has something to do with how easy they are to take care of, requiring only sunlight, sand, and water on occasion; they pretty much thrive if left alone in a sunny spot. 

Black and grey cactus by Julien Perron in France
A cute new school cactus by Bronte Evans in the UK

They’ve become so popular now that you could light your cactus candle for the dinner table to see your cactus salt and pepper shakers and cactus glasses before you reveal your new cactus tattoo, all without ever having to mention the word cactus. 

Ram skull and cactus by Laura Gómez at Blessed Art Tattoo in Barcelona
Skeleton lovers, cactus, and a dreamy sunset by Kayla Gohm Webster at Kitchen Sink Tattoo

People seem to love the diversity and toughness of these prickly plants. They can come in all shapes and sizes; from tall and skinny to short and fat, perfectly round, multiple offshoots, each with their own unique personality. 

An old school cactus by Randy Sanchez at All Is One Tattoo in New Mexico
Tortoise and cacti by Maggie Campanelli at Hereditary Tattoo

This diversity makes them look great in photos, paintings, and tattoos, and their tough exterior could represent a kind of (symbolic) protection for the tattoo wearer. 

Old school skull and cactus by Nichher in Puerto Rico
Black work cactus by Chris de Arms in California

As tattoos, the most popular cacti by far seems to be the tall skinny ones (San Pedro Cactus/cereus). These pieces are often done in old school, black work, neo-traditional, fine line, or new school styles.

A classic black and grey vase and cactus by Jade Harper at House of the Rising Sun tattoo in Winnipeg
Old school cactus with swallow done by Samantha Fung at the 59 Tattoo in Hong Kong

Do you have a cactus tattoo?

Edited by Harrison R.

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Mastectomy Tattoos:

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, 1 in 8 Canadian cisgendered women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives, and 1 in 33 will die from it. In 2020, 25% of all cancers in Canadian cisgendered women was a form of breast cancer, with approximately 27,400 women diagnosed and 240 cisgendered men also diagnosed. 

Peony flower by Justin Dunwoody at Eastern Pass Tattoo Co
Black and grey bird and rose by Emma at True Love Tattoos in Norwich

Breast cancer is unfortunately quite a common form of cancer, and mainly affects cisgendered women. Often a breast cancer diagnoses leads to a mastectomy. A mastectomy is a surgery that removes part or all of the breast. There are 5 kinds of mastectomy surgeries including; “Simple” or “total” mastectomy, modified radical mastectomy, radical mastectomy, partial mastectomy, and subcutaneous (nipple-sparing) mastectomy. 

Before and after nipple recreation by Eric Eye in Seattle
Breast cancer awareness ribbon and flowers by Kerry Soraci in St Louis

For years now people who undergo various forms of mastectomies have turned to tattooing to either cover the area after it is healed, or in some cases recreate what they looked like before the mastectomy. 

Black and grey flowers by Clara Welsh at Evil From the Needle in Camnden, UK
Pastel flowers and nipple recreation by Lita Edwards at Boobs and Tattoos

Many tattoo artists even specialize in mastectomy tattoos, either covering the whole area with an image, or nipple and/or breast recreation. Many people who decide to get tattooed after a mastectomy opt for some form of cancer awareness piece, such as the breast cancer awareness ribbon with flowers or a butterfly, or something that they find beautiful to help them deal with the trauma they’ve been through. 

Breast cancer awareness ribbon and flowers by Sabrina Cruz at Skin Elixir Tattoo
Water colour style rose by Michelle Gómez in Guadalajara Mexico

Some tattoo artists also offer to do mastectomy tattoos for free if they have some sort of personal connection to it, but those who specialize in this type of work always do a great job.

Breast cancer awareness ribbon and water colour tree and birds by Louisa Kleinert at Blue Bird Inked
Breast cancer awareness ribbon and flowers by Erin Mathews at Canvas Tattoo in MN

You can donate to the Canadian Cancer Society here.

Edited by Harrison R.

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Artist of the Month: Joel Soos

Joel Soos is a tattooer working out of Sanctum Tattoo in Stockholm, Sweden. 

Classic Pharaohs Horses
Cool mythical/folklore piece

Joel tattoos mainly in classic old school American traditional style, with dark and muted colours. He also does work with no colour, as well as work in the Japanese style. 

Skeleton from Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre and traditional building
Gnarly palm skull

Much of Joel’s work features dark imagery such as skulls, demons, snakes, and reapers. When he does work in the Japanese style, he mainly focuses on Oni and Yurei (demons and ghosts). 

A very full back with a lady head, skull, snake and flowers
Matching hands of a swallow and rose

Joel does a lot of smaller work that can be done in one session if you’re just visiting the area, but he also does a lot of beautiful large-scale work such as full sleeves and back pieces. 

Sacred Heart with roses
A devilish bleeding goat head

Joel’s work is just what you look for in an old school artist, with dark bold lines and perfectly shaded colours, particularly in various shades of red, yellow, and green.

A different depiction of the Grim Reaper
A sacred heart and severed heads

Be sure to get some work done by him if you’re traveling in Sweden or if you live in the area.

Edited by Harrison R.

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