Kat Von D on Getting Sober, Tattooing, and Living Consciously

By John Lavitt 10/25/16

"A lot of musicians and writers and poets from back in the day until now have used dysfunction as a muse. I don’t want to be that person anymore."

Kat Von D
Sober tattoo artist and TV personality Kat Von D speaks. Mariano Vivianco

Kat Von D, also known as Katherine von Drachenberg, is best known for her work as a tattoo artist on the TLC reality television show LA Ink. She opened the art gallery and boutique Wonderland Gallery in the space next door to her shop, High Voltage Tattoo. Kat has expanded her entrepreneurial ventures to include a cruelty-free cosmetics line that launched in 2008. Born in Mexico of Argentinian and European parents, Kat trained from the age of six to be a classical pianist. 

Kat is very open about being in long-term recovery and, by revealing her own path, hopes to help others who might be struggling. 

It has been rumored that there is a rampant problem with substance abuse in the professional tattoo industry. Is this true or is it an urban legend?

I have found that there are a lot of negative perceptions about the tattoo industry out there. Some of them rightfully so, but I feel that we are in a really great era for tattooing. The old barbaric, biker mentality has been left behind. Not only is tattooing recognized by society as an art form, but artists are also treating it as a proper art form. There is a deeper respect for tattooing, not just as a job. It’s no longer just carnies trying to make an extra buck or people trying to make money off of sailors. But I think it’s a mistake to generalize and say that there’s a rampant drug problem in the tattoo industry. It happens in all industries. Maybe we just look like it (Laughing).  

In a recent interview, you said, “In fact, I just celebrated nine years of being sober, without drinking. I never imagined it would be so exciting to celebrate this and it's a huge blessing.” Can you expand on this answer? Why is sobriety so exciting and why is it a blessing?

Looking back at my wild drinking days, I really never imagined that I would be excited about being sober. When you are on the other side of things, you have such a profoundly different perspective on life. On this side, you realize it’s something to be celebrated. That doesn’t mean that I think I should get a pat on the back when I post on Instagram or Twitter about my sobriety anniversary. I get a lot of people making comments like “Good Job!” or “You should be proud.” I am proud, but I don’t want to get extra credit for doing my homework.

Personally, being sober means that I operate better and I function better; I believe I am meant to be that way. Although I’m just returning to where I’m supposed to be, it remains important to me. I am quite vocal about it, not for the praise or to get a cake, but it’s basically to be of service. If anybody out there feels that they relate to me in any capacity and happen to be struggling, perhaps I can lead by example by showing that if I can do it, you can do it too. 

In an interview back in the day when asked about a first date, you said, “I’m more into like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna pick you up and we’re gonna go to the museum or hang out at the house and watch a movie and cuddle up.’ That’s my idea of a perfect date: hanging out and being nerds together.” Do you still see yourself as a bit of a nerd whose passion just happens to be considered edgy and extreme by normative society? In a way, do you have a lot in common with comic book “geeks”?

I definitely am a nerd and have no problem with it. If people call me a nerd, I’ll take it as a compliment because I know myself, and I’m totally fine with it. I live a very simple life and that is very appealing to me. My time is spent focused on practicing and mastering the things I am passionate about as an artist and as a person. On the subject of romance or love, people might assume that I’d only connect with people who look like me. I tend to fall in love with the mind, and I focus on the things I care about like philosophy or art. 

How has sobriety affected you as an artist? Many people fear that being sober will take away their creativity. Did you have this fear? Do you think it has made you a more talented professional? 

Actually, quite the contrary. One of the biggest reasons for me to stop drinking was to preserve and protect my art. Surprisingly, despite all of my destructive behavior back when I was using, I was able to get this far. I am still surprised that I managed to achieve what I did. I first started tattooing when I was 14 years old, and I got into my first shop when I was 16. I really felt like it was a luxury to be able to do something that you love. I promised myself back then that I wouldn’t allow anything to get in the way of my progress, including destructive relationships and drama. I have always put work before my social life. 

During my drinking years, I was acutely aware that I could be operating at a much more proficient level if I could just eliminate these distractions. More than just having the chemical addiction, I was addicted to dysfunction. A lot of musicians and writers and poets from back in the day until now have used dysfunction as a muse. I don’t want to be that person anymore. Sure, I can write a million sad love songs. After a while, however, you’re left in a room, watching the same movie over and over again. I don’t want to write the same song over and over again. There’s so many more beautiful things to be inspired by in the world. 

You are vegan and your make-up line Kat Von D Beauty emphasizes the importance of being cruelty-free. In an interview, you said, “As a vegan, you start seeing it [animal cruelty] everywhere, and it's important ethically to do what's right. You're part of the problem or part of the solution. Some think it's really silly to try, but I would rather try than not.” Is this perspective an example of living by principles as opposed to personalities?

For me, that quote is more about living consciously as opposed to unconsciously. The world is completely overpopulated, and we are bombarded all the time with these negative messages that we’re not good enough unless we use this product or follow this trend. It makes it really easy to fall into a way of life that isn’t really your choice. When I listen to music, I listen to it because I like it and not because it’s been played on the radio 20 times. It’s my choice, but it’s so easy to lose that choice and to be hypnotized or to even brainwash yourself. 

Thankfully now, with the Internet, we really don’t have an excuse. You don’t have to be manipulated by the advertising. In the 1950s, there were ads that said smoking was good for you and everyone believed it. Today, we know that wasn’t true and we are a lot smarter about such things, but it took a lot of time. The question is whether we can do the same thing today without taking that much time. There are a lot of issues out there that need to be addressed, whether it’s about the dairy industry, animal agriculture, or other parts of the food and animal products industry. We need to do the work, however, if we are going to make our own decisions. 

I want to live consciously and that’s what sobriety is about as well. I don’t want to take the red pill and go back into the matrix. I am ready for the blue pill. As nice as it may sound to be blissfully ignorant, it doesn’t work for me. In a time when the government doesn’t have our best intentions in mind, the true power has to be in the people. Time and time again throughout history, when people get together collectively and do the right thing, from slavery to women’s rights, things have changed for the better. I truly believe that kind of moment is upon us. If we’re going to wait around for our leaders to do the right thing, we’re never going to get any better. We’re just going to keep shitting on the planet, and I’m not willing to accept that reality. I believe the least I can do is try to do my best by leading by example.  

When asked about your fame, you said, “I definitely didn’t do it for the fame or the status or the money, as cliché as it sounds.” Is fame a dangerous drug? 

I remember telling my friend after my first book came out that I made number three on the New York Times Best Sellers list, and I was really excited about it. My friend said, “That’s so great, but what does it mean?” I looked at him and smiled, saying, “I don’t know.”

What really mattered was that my dad said he was really proud of me. He wasn’t proud because my book made the New York Times Best Sellers list; he was proud of the hard work and the accomplishment. Such appreciation speaks volumes compared to the other stuff like status and ego. It’s okay to be grateful and appreciate success and status, but when people become defined by it, it can be a very dangerous drug. If your happiness depends upon what others think of you, you are in real trouble. 

You have been prominent during the latest Golden Age of Tattooing in the United States. Do you feel tattoos can become addictive? Do you see people getting tattoo after tattoo, addicted to the process? Have you ever seen a connection with self-harm? Can there be an addiction to the thrill and the rush of getting a tattoo? 

The technical answer to part of that question is that tattoos are not addictive. There is no chemical dependency when you get a tattoo, but I think a lot of people, especially when they’re getting their first tattoo, they might have fear or apprehension before it happens, then they get the tattoo, and it’s not that bad. Suddenly they realize how cool it is and they think, “Oh man, I love this. I love having this piece of art that I can take with me wherever I go.” Then, you start seeing the world in a different way. You see something that might inspire you and that becomes an inspiration for another tattoo. You see people get one and then another and so on. 

Getting tattooed is not an actual addiction, but, of course, there are people that have addictive personalities in general, me included. You know I have my face tattooed (Laughing). I tend to be an extremist with whatever I do. As far as self-harm, I don’t see that connection. If you took a survey of people with tattoos and asked them how they feel about the pain, the majority of them are going to tell you that they hate it. I have never seen tattooing as being related in any way to people that feel the need to do self-harm. In fact, I have done so many inspiring tattoos on people that have overcome that and now want to cover up their scars. For me, that’s definitely something to celebrate. 

If you know a client is high or drunk, will you still tattoo them? Does your business have a policy about this issue?

I can only speak for my own shop, but we don’t tattoo people who are drunk. It’s not because, as people say, “Oh, it’s a blood thinner, and it makes you bleed.” That’s not the case. For us, we have to put our name on everything we produce and walks out the door. For me, it’s not just about fulfilling my artistic needs. It’s really to find a vision of whatever the person wants to get. When you’re drunk, it makes it very hard to communicate properly and clearly. The last thing I want to do is to mark someone permanently with something they would possibly regret. 

About your process, you have said, “I don’t have much of a social life, everything is really structured, and I work really well with that… for me, I live and breathe creating. That’s what I am madly in love with and I always have been. That’s how I do it.” Have you replaced your past obsessions with an obsession for work? Is it okay to be a workaholic if you are also an artist, doing a creative endeavor?

I definitely have not replaced my drinking with work because I was a workaholic throughout my drinking days as well. I think that has always been a personality trait of mine. I find deep joy in what I do. For example, I have never had a vacation before. Some people find that very odd. Why wouldn’t you take a vacation? For me, why would I take a vacation from my vacation? I love drawing, I love tattooing, and I love creating. Creativity for me isn’t work. Yes, there’s certainly work to be done like dealing with marketing or dealing with my landlord at the tattoo shop. Sure, that’s work. But from where I come from, I don’t know what it’s like to have things handed to you on a silver platter. Being self-made comes with a lot of hard work, struggle and sacrifice, but it’s so worth it in the end.

Talking about your decision to get sober, you expressed your thoughts in writing, stating, “Don’t get me wrong, some fun times were had during those days, but then I started to notice instead of being a happy ass drunk all the time, I would turn into Debby-Downer towards the end of each night.” Do you ever miss being the “happy ass” drunk?

A happy drunk is something of an oxymoron. I was using drinking and drugs as a safety blanket, as a way to ignore bigger issues. It was like putting a band-aid on an untreated wound. The more memorable moments, especially during the end of my downward spiral, were not happy at all. There was a lot of crying and anger and frustration. The next day was always this overwhelming sense of disappointment. It was very evident to me that this wasn’t fun anymore. 

When I got sober, it was really simple. I’m not going to say it was easy because it wasn’t easy, but it was simple. It was like one plus one equals two. If I don’t want to drink anymore, these are the things that I’m going to have to do and these are the people that I can’t hang out with. I knew that there was no way around it. I did those things, and the transition was a little bit tough. It’s hard when you realize that most of the people you are hanging out with are hanging out with you because they see you as a sort of a party favor and not an actual true friend. Moving forward is a really good thing, but it takes time. You need to respect the process. But I am living proof to anybody out there that you can do it too. I am grateful for having had experienced that struggle because it made me the person that I am today. 

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.