Kari Barba: An Indelible Mark On The Tattoo World
Kari Barba began tattooing in 1979, aged 19. Encouraged by a neighbour who saw her great potential, he suggested she give tattooing a shot. Kari had never imagined becoming a tattoo artist but immediately fell in love with the craft. Despite sexist attitudes in the tattoo scene of the 70s, Kari’s headstrong attitude and dedication to her craft soon silenced any critics. By the mid-80’s she had carved an indelible mark on the tattoo world, her flash sheets adorning the walls of studios worldwide.
Can you tell us about your early experiences in tattooing? How did you get your break?
I saw my first tattoo when I was 17. I thought that it wasn’t very well done and wondered why it couldn’t be more detailed; I didn’t know much about tattoos at the time, but I felt there could be more to it. At 18, I met a new neighbour in my building and he happened to be a tattoo artist. Over time, he would see me drawing and often suggested that I try tattooing. So eventually at 19, I did. It was so fun and I instantly loved it. I did a small rose in the style I usually drew in; detailed pencil style, black and grey. I had several people ask me right away to do one for them and my tattoo career took off.
Were you getting tattooed at this time, and what kind of work were you interested in?
I got my first tattoo aged 18, at my local shop in Minnesota. They were participating in a ‘news special’ and needed someone to get tattooed for the news. So I volunteered to do it. I got a small mouse. That’s it. Not a great start to my tattoo collection but we all start somewhere! I later covered that mouse and tried to do larger pieces. I really loved tattooing black and grey and started to notice artists like Jack Rudy doing it in California.
What vision did you have for the style of work you wanted to create?
I felt that as a new artist, the best thing for me at the time was to do what felt natural. I was doing detailed work so I went with that. Then as time went on, I tried Asian style designs. I would take Polaroids of people in different positions to use as reference and change them into the piece I needed. I would also do a lot of research in books and went to book stores often to look for different reference styles. I learned a lot this way.
When did you start making flash, and how did this develop?
On a trip to California in 1980, I visited Tattoo Land, Jack Rudy and Mike Brown. Mike saw my sketches and said I should do some flash. He told me about Ernie Carafa and his tattoo business, so I contacted him and he agreed to let me create some flash. Later, I reached out to Spaulding and Rogers Tattoo Supply. I believe I started with about thirty designs for Ernie and then several hundred for Spaulding and Rogers. In 1982, I worked at my first tattoo convention put on by Ed Hardy, Ernie Carafa and Ed Nolte [aboard the R.M.S Queen Mary]. At the convention, Huck Spaulding debuted my flash. On the cover of a special book containing my sheets it said, “Flash by the World Famous Kari Barba”! It was a big surprise, but also super exciting. Artists were asking me to autograph their book and flash pages. I was busy the entire convention and it was a great show, for sure. I continued to create flash for Spaulding and Rogers and then branched out on my own. I had only been working in a shop a few months on weekends at that point.
What was your experience of working at these iconic conventions?
Conventions at that time were so different, and in the States they were just once a year.
At these shows you got to see everyone, every year. It felt like old friends reuniting and it was a great experience. You competed against everyone at one show. Women and men alike would try to dress their best to show how well their shop was doing; it became a show of whose shop was thriving. Overall, it was great fun with super artists and friends.
Did you ever experience any prejudice as a woman coming up in a male-dominated scene?
When I started it was not common to be a woman in tattooing, although I didn’t realise this for a while. I didn’t know there was a difference. Men would look at portfolios and then ask for the artist who did the work. When I would speak up, it was common to have them say they that they refused to get tattooed by a girl, or that they were surprised a girl could tattoo. I was lucky that my coworkers did not share this view and allowed me to be myself as I saw fit. I wasn’t held back in the shop, just by the clients.
Sources By: tattoolife.com