YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

An Indelible Mark : Trends: Kari Barba, who owns a tattoo studio in Anaheim, has drawn a reputation as a master among American tattooists because of the care and artistry she puts into her work.


ANAHEIM — Tattoo artist Kari Barba won't do satanic or drug-related symbols. Also off-limits are drunken sailors, young teens and anybody with a bad attitude.

"I won't take the responsibility of putting something stupid on somebody's skin," said Barba, who at age 30 is considered a master among American tattooists. "A part of me goes onto somebody's skin forever. I don't want them waking up years from now cursing me."

Take a quick look at Kari Barba, and she'll strike you as a PTA mom with an ashy smile and an easy-going attitude.

With two children and a home in Riverside, she and her husband, Michael, have settled into a suburban lifestyle. But as one of the premier tattoo artists in the country, Barba is also punching out a spot for herself in a world once dominated by gruff men and thick black lines.

Her colleagues say her crisp, richly detailed artwork is distinctive among the works of hundreds of tattooists who are expected to attend Orange County's first national tattoo convention April 4 through 7 in Garden Grove. Barba is one of the convention's organizers this year.

With women now making up nearly 20% of the National Tattoo Assn. membership, Barba represents a trend not only toward women getting tattoos, but also toward women learning the art of tattooing, said Flo Makofske, the association's secretary.

"Tattooing is still very male-dominated, but women are softening the edges," said Barba, a former doughnut maker and foundry assembler. "It's like driving a truck. It used to be that only men drove trucks, and it was macho. Now women drive trucks and do just as well."

Tucked away in an inconspicuous Anaheim shopping mall, the Twilight Fantasy studio is flanked by a dollhouse boutique and a Japanese noodle house. There are no flashy signs or lights to greet customers to the shop. A simple "open and closed" sign decorates the windows along with a poster advertising the date of the convention.

Barba and her husband manage two tattoo shops in Southern California (the other is Melrose Tattoo in Los Angeles). She spends two days in Anaheim and one in Los Angeles. On her days off, she sketches and designs her work on paper at home.

The front room of the Anaheim studio is lined with 23 of the awards Barba has won in competition. Among the most prestigious are two National Tattoo Assn. Tattooist of the Year awards, which she won in 1987 and 1988.

On a recent morning, Barba sits in the back room puncturing ink onto a customer's back.

Harry wants two ninja warriors below his right shoulder blade. The warrior images are from a magazine, which Barba has propped up to use as a guide as she works.

She sits in a padded chair with a leather apron covering her black denims and striped blouse. She wears latex gloves in case the needle accidently draws blood; she always uses sterilized needles. Signs on the wall decree that customers must be 18 or over, as well as sober, before they can get a tattoo.

A constant buzz from the tattoo machine--much like the sound coming from a busy hive--fills the room. Only Barba breaks the noise with an occasional, "Are you OK?"

Harry mutters "Yes," and she continues.

Harry already has a number of tattoos on his back, most of them portrayals of women. Most of the faces are crudely drawn and flat, their eyes unfocused and dull. As the first lines of Barba's etching take shape, there is already a noticeable difference. The warriors are three-dimensional; their eyes piercing into unseen enemies.

"When I do a tattoo, I put myself into the same scene of the warrior, the animal or whatever I'm working on," Barba said, shadowing the ninja's shoulders. "Sometimes, the person I'm working on sort of disappears, and I'm all alone with the tattoo. I want to make it come alive."

Dragons and wizards are alive and well along Paul Black's left arm. Near his elbow is a three-headed dragon that roars in front of a castle complete with tiny bricks and shingles.

Black, 26, is Barba's apprentice. He heard about Barba's work while he was living on the East Coast. When he moved to California, Black looked up Barba's shop for a tattoo and later asked permission to be her apprentice.

"There are some tattooists who would stamp a design on you and get you out of the door as quickly as possible," Black said. "This woman is not like that. There's quality in her work."

On employee Kelly Hart's back, Barba has drawn a giant iguana with pink- and lime-colored skin. The animal perches next to her spine and appears to slowly wriggle up to her shoulder.

Barba has five tattoos herself, but has drawn none of them. She has a rose with her husband's name on it; two kingfishes on her right leg; an orchid and a butterfly on her left leg; and two phoenix birds and flowers on her back. She once tried to color in the rose, but she found she couldn't press the needle hard enough on her own skin for the dye to take.

Los Angeles Times Articles