Last Sunday, I had my first book review in the Buffalo News in several weeks, and it was a book that surprised me. I would not normally be seeking out anything authored by Kat Von D … But I must admit, I dug it. Read on:
A pop culture pop quiz: Kat Von D is chiefly known for: a.) starring on a popular reality show; b.) having a name that sounds like a disease affecting kittens; c.) being covered with tattoos; d.) having dated fellow reality TV star and national villain Jesse James after his Sandra Bullock break-up, a figure who is to healthy relationships what Amanda Bynes is to rational behavior; or e.) all of the above.
The answer, of course, is all of the above, but now we can add something else, a book for which Von D deserves real praise. The aptly titled “Go Big or Go Home: Taking Risks in Life, Love and Tattooing,” written with Sandra Bark, is a 200-page, gorgeously photographed chronicle of tattoo art, and it is a surprisingly involving read.
Kat might be the world’s most renowned tattoo artist. Her cable reality series, “LA Ink,” ran for five seasons, she has authored two best-selling books, and, according to her bio, she even created a makeup line for Sephora, the sweetest-smelling store in many a mall.
“Go Big or Go Home,” interestingly, is less about her, and more about turning the spotlight on others. Call it “Chicken Soup for the Tattooed Soul,” a series of essays in which Kat introduces the reader to some of her clients, discusses their life stories, explains the whys behind their body art, and argues that a tattoo can be truly empowering.
Thanks to the book’s genuinely fascinating portraits, I believe her, despite the fact that I am tattoo-free, and probably always will be – I have difficulty deciding on lunch, let alone what to slap on my arms for the rest of my days.
Consider the case of “Jeffree Star,” an ultra-glam, pink-haired, heavily made-up individual who Kat memorably introduces like so: “Oh Jeffree! Where do I even begin?” Jefree “isn’t afraid of things most people find perturbing. In fact,” Kat explains, “embracing and seeing them as life lessons as opposed to curses are his gift.”
Jeffree’s chest features the faces of Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain (wearing a crown of thorns, with the words “RAPE ME” underneath), and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”-era Audrey Hepburn, along with the Mona Lisa, the shark from “Jaws,” and, in a nod to Danny Torrance (and Stanley Kubrick), “REDRUM.”
So far, so relatively normal. But, Kat writes, “With the exception of the Spice Girls … the subjects of Jeffree’s obsession seemed to lean toward portraits of tragic icons.” Wait – the Spice Girls aren’t tragic icons? I suppose not, when compared with JonBenet Ramsey, Princess Diana, Sharon Tate and Elizabeth Short, a.k.a., the Black Dahlia.
On paper, these all sound strange, and, well, they are a bit strange. But Kat sees them as essential to Jeffree’s sense of self. “There is,” she says, “something liberating about embracing your own uniqueness.” She does not delve deeply into Jeffree’s past, but she does indicate that the struggles of his past led to the art adorning his body:
“I think being picked on and even bullied at times for being gay or dressing differently is a big part of why he’s been so outward with his self-expression: his loud hairstyles, extreme makeup, and even all the tattoos he’s collected quickly over these past few years.”
“Duh,” some might say. But “Go Big or Go Home” shouts down that attitude, with authority. Plus, Kat’s got celebrity on her side. One chapter focuses on Obi-Wan himself, Ewan McGregor, and while I had always imagined Ewan with a giant tattoo of the worst toilet in Scotland on his bicep, what he actually has is far more personal:
“His virgin skin was permanently marked with art that represented the most important things in his life, his wife, Eve, and their three daughters. When Ewan and Eve eventually added a fourth little girl to their family, he wanted to add her name to his tattoo.”
It’s an impressive creation, likely the kind of thing that causes nightmares for Hollywood makeup artists. But while the celeb cameos are fun – also included are Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, songwriter Linda Perry, and comedian-filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait – it is the “real” people whose stories stand out.
The text is simple, and sometimes surprisingly elegant, but the images are what make “Go Big or Go Home” a worthy creation. Each tattoo tells a story, for the tattooed and for the artist, and even if the book will likely draw in only those already invested in the world of ink, it should still be considered a success.
At the very least, Kat Von D has demonstrated why a tattoo is never simply a tattoo. See that guy, with Alfred Hitchcock on his calf? Yep, there’s a story there.
“Go Big or Go Home: Taking Risks in Life, Love and Tattooing”
By Kat Von D
208 pages, $29.99