Not long ago, while drinking an amaretto sour at South on Main, I was asked by a colleague, "Can I see your tattoo?" It's on my right ankle.
"Sure," I said, a tad embarrassed about the dark mass of star-like shapes there, initially constructed to cover up a fairy on a moon (terrible, in both concept and execution). "It's not done yet."
"Would it be too presumptuous of me to suggest an artist?" she asked.
"Not at all," I said, glad to have some guidance from a local, new as I am to the area.
"I know this girl in Sherwood," she said. "The studio is a little hard to find, but it's so worth it."
And then she showed me Katie McGowan's Instagram account (@katietattoos). I was enamored with the adorable renderings of My Little Pony and Bambi. I was astounded by her black-and-white portraits. One art deco piece reminded me of stained glass windows I had seen in century-old buildings. For the first time in my life, I wanted a tattoo not because I was young and it sounded like a great idea or because I needed a cover-up after my great idea had gone sour, but because this was truly art that I would want on my body.
I came across a picture of Katie on the account: pouty lips painted bright red, blond bangs cut straight across her forehead, long hair cascading down her back. Tortoise-shell glasses and, yes, tattoos of all sizes and colors up and down her arms. And the frame around the pic? It read: "Ink Master Season 6 premieres June 23rd."
I was floored. My husband and I had just returned to Arkansas after living in Italy for four years. Without access to American cable, we had to work hard to stream any television shows we wanted to watch, the episodes frequently stopping and restarting due to the slow Italian Internet. But no matter our difficulties, we always, always streamed Spike TV's "Ink Master." Hosted by Dave Navarro (guitarist from '80s alt-rock band Jane's Addiction), "Ink Master" entertained us with the antics of its mostly male cast of tattoo artists and the courage of the human canvasses, who willingly offered up the use of their bodies for the competition with very little say in what would be permanently inked there.
A female "Ink Master" contestant working in my own backyard? I had found my tattoo artist.
Just as my colleague had warned me, Black Cobra Tattoos is a little difficult to reach. With no easy exit off U.S. Highway 67-167 to get directly to the shop, I had to drive one road past the shop's location and then circle back, consciously making sure I didn't accidentally end up back on the highway headed south. Located beside a Fish 'n Stuff, which proudly displayed a sign identifying it as an "Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza REGISTRATION SITE," Black Cobra was rather unremarkable from the outside. But once inside, it looked like a Gen Xer's dream. An especially striking painting of a stack of stuffed animals was flanked by portraits of Princess Leia and a Storm Trooper. Framed articles about the shop's owner from Inked and other magazines intermingled with drawings of nudes and skulls and plaques recognizing outstanding achievements in tattoo artistry. The two flat-screen televisions positioned in high corners played "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" while speed metal music blared over the speakers.
The first person to greet me was a man with dark hair shaved on both sides and earlobes extended with large-gauge plugs. He had Bat Boy (of Weekly World News fame) and Jason (from "Friday the 13th") tattooed on his right shoulder. This was Kyle Arkansas, the shop's manager and resident body piercer. He told me Katie "might be the funnest person I've ever worked with at any job. Definitely the most positive person I've ever worked with at any job." In fact, he couldn't say enough about Katie; according to Kyle, she's got the "best personality of anyone in the tattoo shop," and that "when she was gone to 'Ink Master,' it was weird not having her laugh here."
I saw Katie sitting in her station — the first one after the entryway. Her tool cart was festooned with stickers, one with a quote from the Dalai Lama: "Compassion is the radicalism of our time." She wore her signature glasses, her blond hair piled on top of her head. With her Morrissey T-shirt, navy blue jeans and black Keds, she looked like a friend I might've had in high school. She was working on a man at the moment, her tattoo gun surprisingly quiet — not the noisy dental-drill buzz I remembered from the last two times I had my ankle worked on. She smiled at me but went straight back to work, concentrating deeply on her client's right shoulder.
I couldn't help but notice that Katie was the only woman working in the shop, but that's no surprise in this industry — and it's one of the reasons I'm so fascinated by her. It occurred to me that in all the tattoo shops I've been in (admittedly, only three or four), I'd never seen a female tattoo artist. On "Ink Master," none of the judges are female, and only 19 of the 95 contestants over six seasons of the show have been female. I recently decided I'd like to know what the industry standard was, but when I Googled "number of female tattoo artists," I was frustratingly presented with the likes of "10 Female Tattoo Artists We Have a Crush On" and "Top 25 Hottest Female Tattoo Artists."
Katie's outlook on being a woman in a male-dominated industry, however, is just as positive as Kyle suggested. "I like working with guys," she told me. "I really like working with these guys, specifically, at Black Cobra. I feel like I couldn't imagine working in a job where I wasn't competing against a bunch of men. I really like doing that. I like proving myself."
"You gotta be a little bit of a goofball to work at a tattoo shop," she went on. But how exactly did Katie, who as a little girl wanted to be a doctor, end up here?
"I've always been interested in art," she explained. "I used to draw cartoon characters from my favorite TV shows when I was younger. And then when I got older I started drawing portraits of my friends in high school, and in college. I've always had an interest in art, and I walked into a tattoo shop in Conway, which is where I'm from, and as soon as I walked in I was like, 'OK. This is what I need to do. I want to be an artist and make money — hopefully.' "
I went on to find out that she attended Hendrix College and grew up on Timberlane — a street adjacent to my own current residence on Fernwood.
"I took some art there," she said of her college career, "but my major was Spanish. I wanted to be a Spanish teacher. And I still love foreign languages now, but as I was getting older, I definitely realized I did not want to be a teacher. I just felt like that was too controlling of an environment. Being an artist is a little bit more — it's a little freer. I can wear whatever I want, I can do and say whatever I want. ... I went for three years, and then finally dropped out because I was apprenticing and needed to put 100 percent into that, and it was really hard going to school fulltime and working fulltime. I kinda had to choose one or the other, and I chose tattooing."
Like many people I know, I had also wanted to drop out of college, but my mom had persuaded me, in no uncertain terms, that that would not be OK. What did Katie's parents say?
"They feel like I'm in a good spot now, but initially they were definitely bummed about it. And I think that they probably still hope that I might go back to college someday and finish that last year ... but I'm sure that I won't." Katie laughed with that unforgettable cackle. "I'm busy."
Busy she is. She just got back from her two months away filming "Ink Master." Here at the shop, at this time of year, she's booked four to six weeks in advance. But it's easy to see why she's so busy: Her personality is the epitome of bubbly. Her laugh is infectious. And her art is, well, astounding. When the man she had been working on for four hours got up and looked in the mirror, he said, "When I think of tattoos, this is not what I think of. This is art."
I agreed with him. It was colorful and sharp and perfectly suited to him. It was easy to see why "Ink Master" picked her. Matt O'Baugh, the shop's owner and her competitor on the show, confirmed it. O'Baugh was the one to first try out for Ink Master, back in Season 3. He got a "long way" in the process but ultimately didn't make it. When the producers called him back for Season 4 tryouts, he figured he was a shoo-in, but that turned out to be a no-go as well. This year, for Season 6, his wife encouraged him to go down to Austin, Texas, to try out again with Katie. The casting folks, he said, really liked her immediately. "She's sassy," he explained.
While they tried out in October of last year, it wasn't until January of this year that they found out they had "10 days to get our shit together and haul ass," as O'Baugh put it. And while they can't comment on the competition itself, Matt sings Katie's praises. "She was the one person there who pushed her style the entire time," he said. "She was the person who did her thing."
Her thing, Katie said, is "girly-traditional. Or girly neo-traditional." Translated to those of us out of the loop, we're talking bright colors, strong shapes — an almost pop aesthetic. Katie finds people tend to have particular reasons for getting tattoos, and she works to incorporate those reasons into her art. "Usually, if I can dig a little bit deeper and find a detail about why the person's getting the tattoo," she said, "then that might influence the drawing. That might make it more special for them if I can add a little something that seems like I was paying attention."
She has one approach, in particular — real pictures rendered in geometric shapes— that makes my jaw drop. Lately, she's applied it mostly to animals. "The fox one was the first one I did," she said, "and that was a design made by a graphic designer. A girl had seen it, loved it, and wanted to get it tattooed. And after that I was like, 'I feel like I could probably do my own version of that.' Like, figure out how to create it in Photoshop and tattoo it. But with people's pets. I've got a couple people [now] that are wanting to get their dogs tattooed in that style. I've done a few cats since then, too. I think it's really cool. It's an interesting way to get a portrait of your animal. I think they're fun. I'd like that to be kind of one of my niches or whatever, [to have] people come to me and get tattooed specifically."
After her season of "Ink Master" airs, I bet people will do exactly that. In the past, "Ink Master" contestants have tended to be known more for their personalities than their talent. Not so with Katie and Matt's season, Matt assured me. "This is a way more talented group than any of the previous seasons," he said. "This time it's more about the talent than the drama. The first two or three people that went home were really talented." Does that mean Katie and Matt made it past the first three eliminations? He wouldn't say. Damned confidentiality agreements.
The sixth season of "Ink Master" starts June 23 on Spike TV at 8 p.m.