Kat Von D on Gratitude, Recovery, Music and Friendship

By John Lavitt 11/28/17

"I don’t look at a drug addict or somebody who has a drinking problem as hopeless. I believe everybody can evolve and find their path.”

Kat von D with guitar

Very few well-known celebrities have walked a more public path to recovery than renowned sober tattoo artist Kat Von D. Named Katherine Von Drachenberg by her Seventh-day Adventist missionary parents, she became publicly known by her registered trademark name of Kat Von D on TLC's Miami Ink. While filming  the reality TV series, which aired from 2005 to 2007, and then later on her own show, LA Ink, Kat struggled with alcohol misuse.

Instead of feeling regret that her struggle was exposed to the public eye, Kat is grateful that people were able to see her evolution from heavy drinker to where she is now. Not only is she dedicated to her own recovery, but also to her mission of spreading a message of the redemptive power of sobriety. In an interview with The Fix, Kat revealed her feelings about her past struggles:

“Gratitude plays such a huge role in my life. I am so grateful for having been a crazy drunk. I am grateful that I was on TV during the tail end of my drinking; the first season of LA Ink. I am glad that happened and that it was public because it shows people that you can change. I love having a platform where I can have a positive influence and help people recover. The TV show helps me be a walking example.”

Regarding celebrity, she views her place in the limelight as an opportunity to help others. Kat believes that no one is beyond help, that everyone is capable of experiencing the same kind of radical shift that characterized her evolution:

“I definitely was a mess, but, as human beings, we are all capable of change. We need to give ourselves that credit. I don’t look at a drug addict or somebody who has a drinking problem as hopeless. I believe everybody can evolve and find their path.”

When Kat celebrates a sober anniversary, she posts a picture of her sober birthday cake on her Instagram, where she has 5.9 million followers. Thousands upon thousands of people will congratulate her, and hundreds of thousands will like the post. Although accolades like this feel good, Kat doesn’t share her birthday for the positive feedback. She shares because she knows the extent of her reach, and if she can inspire even one struggling person to reach out for help, then she will be fulfilling her commitment to help others find their way.

Although many people find their way to recovery, few continue to give back over the years. Sober for a decade, Kat continues to be of service to people struggling. Why does she embrace such a path? How did she evolve into a person capable of turning a public mess into an opportunity for giving back to her community and well beyond?

Kat’s growth was nourished by the loving roots of her childhood. Her family moved from Nuevo León, Mexico to California when she was four, settling in Colton. From a very early age, her family supported her creative pursuits. Her first love was music. Despite money being tight, Kat started to receive classical training in piano at the age of six. Such early discipline combined with a passion for expression greatly influenced her future success and helped her find the value in being sober. As she explains, the character building that began in her early days continues to define her actions today:

“A lot of people are driven by status, finding validation in how others perceive them. I don’t know if I got lucky or if I had positive values implemented in my life as a young kid. I know I had really great parents. I think maybe just coming from a background where there was a lack of money can provide you with a really great beginning. It helps you understand the true value of things very early on.”

For Kat, the true value of things is expressed through creative endeavors. She has a strong entrepreneurial spirit and has achieved a remarkable track record in the 21st century: from 2007 to 2011, she starred in LA Ink, a reality show that celebrated the opening of her own shop in Los Angeles, High Voltage Tattoo. She is also the founder of the vegan-friendly makeup line, Kat Von D Beauty, which recently released a set of lipsticks to benefit Farm Sanctuary, an organization that rescues farm factory animals from inhumane conditions.

Although Kat works hard, she is not a workaholic. She finds balance in her life because so much of her “work” reflects her creative passion. She credits sobriety for allowing her to do this work and maintain a balance:

“I want to do the best work that I possibly can and the only way I can do that is with a clear and sober mind. I feel that my art in general and my way of life as a whole has been so much more efficient. I don’t show up late, I stick to my commitments and I remember things.”

In addition to tattoos and makeup, Kat has written a few books. She released her first, High Voltage Tattoo, in January 2009, as a compilation of tattoos and artwork. The book was ranked #6 on the New York Times Best Seller list. Her second book, The Tattoo Chronicles, climbed to #3 on The New York Times ‘Hardcover Advice & Misc’ best seller list. Her third book. Go Big or Go Home: Taking Risks in Life, Love and Tattooing, released in 2013, celebrates her lifelong principles of independence and altruism. Kat’s current creative pursuits include recording an album and creating a vegan shoe line.

Given her ongoing success, Kat knows how lucky she is to be on the path of sustainable sobriety. She has been able to reclaim her life because of her commitment to doing the work of recovery. More importantly, she does not forget the help and support she was given along the way:

“I am so grateful for the people who dealt with me and helped me, both during the times when I was drunk and after I got sober. I have made amends for the former, and I have been able to forgive myself as well.”

Two of Kat's strongest passions are tattooing and music. Given the clichéd hard-partying representation of both tattoo parlor and music studio culture, isn’t Kat’s sobriety threatened by being so deeply planted in these risky worlds? According to Kat and so many other creative people that have embraced sobriety, nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, if you look hard enough, you will find musicians and tattoo artists entrenched in the old patterns of drug and alcohol misuse, but both of these fields have gone through a remarkable change in the 21st century. Similar to evolutions that have occurred in the movie business and the art world, competition has thinned the ranks. Instead, sobriety--or, in many cases, moderation--has been the defining characteristic in achieving success.

This paradigm shift, however, is not always recognized by popular culture. Whenever a well-known artist or actor, musician or performer goes on a public binge, the tabloids rush in and the paparazzi have a field day. The success that spiritual balance, emotional maturity, and sobriety bring to the table is generally ignored. Kat discusses how her individual growth and recovery is reflected in her workplace, including her colleagues at High Voltage:

“In all of the shops I worked in the past, there’s always been the presence of some form of drug or alcohol abuse. But it’s really crazy how different things are for me today. My sobriety has really weeded out most of that abuse. I look at my shop now, and I am proud to see that the majority of my guys are also sober. We don’t have anybody on my team that has a substance abuse problem. We get high on tattooing and on art.”

Beyond tattooing, Kat has been working hard on finishing her first album. As a little girl, she loved Beethoven, but her taste in music changed over time. Now, love for her favorite bands is expressed by their emblems inked on her skin: ZZ Top, Misfits, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and more. But she hasn’t forgotten Ludwig—she has a tiny LvB on her index finger. She has also tattooed many popular artists such as Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and Demi Lovato.

Kat Von D knows that her deepest wells of strength and happiness eclipse the external successes she’s achieved. Above all, she embraces the love and loyalty of the people who have stood by her side over the years:

“I deeply care about my friends and the people I surround myself with. I don’t have that many friends, but I absolutely know that they really, truly love me. It doesn’t matter whether I am on TV or if anyone buys my lipstick. That’s not what it’s about; they love me for who I am. At the end of the day, that kind of love is so much more valuable than any external reward that people could shower you with like awards or publicity or fame.”

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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.