While tattoo artist and entrepreneur Kat Von D is known for her successful makeup brand, animal rights activism, and TLC reality show L.A. Ink, it has taken her till now to release her decade-in-the-making debut album, Love Made Me Do It, which features collaborations with Peter Murphy, Dave Grohl, Linda Perry, Danny Loehner of Nine Inch Nails, and Ladyhawke. But as it turns out, music has always been Kat’s “first and foremost biggest passion,” ever since she started taking classical piano lessons at age 5.
“I've never fallen out of love [with music],” Kat tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I think when I when you're little — well, I guess for me — I resented my parents because they were quite strict. I would have to [practice piano] two hours a day, every day, to a timer, and meanwhile everybody else was outside having fun and having a normal life. … But now I just am just so grateful that my parents were such disciplinarians, because I don't think I would have had the discipline that I have now to follow through on all the things that I do.”
Kat was born in Montemorelos, Nuevo León, Mexico, moving to Southern California at age 4. Both her parents were Seventh-day Adventist Church missionaries, and were understandably concerned when their daughter started listening to punk music, dressing strangely, and generally rebelling against their conservative, traditional beliefs. (She got her first tattoo at 14, and quit school at 16 to become a tattoo artist.) Recently, Kat posted a brave and heartbreaking Instagram video detailing her harrowing six-month ordeal at age 15, when she was sent to Provo Canyon School (the same infamous residential behavior-modification institution featured in Paris Hilton’s This Is Paris documentary), where she says she suffered physical, mental, and emotional abuse. At the time, Kat’s mother and father didn’t realize that she was finding her own identity and voice, which would of course serve her well in adulthood as she pursued her creative passions. But as traumatic as the Provo experience was, Kat doesn’t resent her parents. “I think parenting is probably a little bit easier now than the lack of support they had. I love my childhood. I think I had a great childhood. I think my parents made a huge mistake in sending me to a school, but that was under the guise that it was going to help me in a way that it didn't. And again, I don't think it's their fault or anything,” she stresses.
“You know, I come from a different culture, a different country,” Kat explains. “My parents are from Argentina, and I was born in Mexico. So when we moved to America, it wasn't like my parents were Americanized in any way. They didn't have a sense of pop culture or understanding of any of that stuff. And I don't fault them for freaking out. We lived in a very rural area with not a lot of exposure to anything outside of what's ‘normal’ in society, or deemed normal at the time. I remember when I shaved my head for the first time and they were more concerned about that than they were about the tattoos I was getting — and I was 14 years old at the time. … They were worried about what people at the church would think, and they had these old stigmas around any kind of counter-culture. It was very scary for them.
“You know, [the advertisements for Provo Canyon School] just show you like, ‘Hey, we're going to help fix your kid.’ And then you go to the website and there's this really pretty photo of like the outside of a school — which, by the way, you're never in that school. You're in an actual cell unit away from that area. So, I think that they sell you on this; they sell parents, who are already scared, on this fake solution. It's not like they're going to tell you, ‘Hey, we're going to abuse your child now.’ That's not what most parents would sign up for," Kat continues. "So, I think it's much more deceitful, because these industries kind of prey on the fear. So, I understood [my parents’] fear. I just obviously think they could have got around it a different way. But then again, as a mom, I write notes to myself of all the things not to do that I've learned from my parents. There's a lot of things that I would do the same as well, but I want to learn from those mistakes.”
Kat, now age 39, has a nearly 3-year-old son with her husband, artist and musician Rafael Reyes of the post-punk duo Prayers. “It sounds so silly and simple, but it's just communicating,” she says, when asked about her parenting style. “My parents didn't talk [to me]; they never really asked me how I was doing and really mean it. Like, when I started to look different, for example, I think a conversation with me would have helped them understand what I was processing, versus just saying, ‘Oh no, we need to fix this!’ And so I always want to be more open with my son that way. I'm not trying to be his best friend because I'm still his mother, but I do want to be a safe place for him to go to — which I never felt. I never had that in my family. I never had the safe place. I always felt, ‘If you go into this door, it's going to be one type of bad, and then that door will be another type of bad.’”
Kat is blissfully settled with her husband and son now — see her perform on piano at their Gothic fairytale wedding at the 23-minute mark here — which makes it so interesting that Love Made Me Do It, which was written 10 years ago, was inspired by a “dysfunctional relationship” and “unrequited love scenario” with another successful musician (whom she refuses to name). “He had written an album for me and sent it to my house with like a note on it that said, ‘These are all the things that are easier sung than said.’ And so I sat down and I listened to the album, and I was just so moved by it that I was like, ‘What better way to respond than with writing [my own] album?’” she reveals. “So yeah, if you fast forward to now, I'm happily married and I have a beautiful son with my husband, and I don't really think about that guy at all anymore. But I think that that's OK, because I think that music is like tattoos, in the sense that they're landmarks in time.”
Kat describes Love Made Me Do It as a collection of “anthems for the hopeless and the hopeful romantic, because I think even though there is a sense of doom and gloom, there's still like a sliver of hope. I think we're in a time right now where like the idea of true love is destroyed. We cheapen everything. Everybody's disposable. Everybody's attention span is non-existent, and we live our life through our phone most of the time. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to really feel connected to people right now – surprisingly, with all the social media that we have, but to connect on a deeper level. And I hope that people don't lose sight of that. I don't want to sound like, ‘Well, back in my day’… but I think there was some ideals that I hope people don't let go of.”
One has to wonder, with everything that Kat has been through, if she ever imagined that she would have this wonderful life, with a loving marriage, a child, and a full-fledged empire. She is in many ways a post-punk/counter-culture embodiment of the American dream. “We have a red pool in the backyard, and I posted a picture of my son jumping into it the other day. And somebody wrote back, ‘Do you feel like you're living in a dream?’ And I do. Every day is a dream. I'm one of those people that not one day goes by that I'm not like, ‘This is amazing,’” she marvels. “And I'm so grateful, because I come from a country that does not give you all the opportunities that this country does. I love Mexico very much, but my childhood was living in a building with no electricity or running water and packed dirt floors. It's a much different world, and there was some beauty to the simplicity, but there's no beauty to like needless suffering either, you know?
“So, I'm very grateful every day for my life. My husband's awesome. My kid is beautiful and healthy. And I get to sing for people. That's pretty awesome. I don't know what else I could ask for.”
Check out Kat Von D’s full, extended Yahoo Entertainment interview below, in which she opens up about the making of her album, the music that inspired her as a teen and inspires her now, sobriety, fighting to earn respect as a young woman in the tattoo industry, being taken seriously as a musician, why she has decided to black out some of her tattoos, and a future musical collaboration with the one and only Charro:
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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jason Fitzpatrick