Shanghai Kate's Tattoos

Industry 'godmother' establishes Austin studio

Branded by colleagues as "America's Tattoo Godmother," Kate Hellenbrand embraces her distinction as an industry pioneer.

"I definitely hold my own because you have to in this industry," said Hellenbrand, who has been tattooing since 1971. "I think that's why I'm so respected, because I survived and I'm still humble—I didn't sacrifice any bit of myself."

The owner of Shanghai Kate's Tattoos, open on Guadalupe Street since February 2013, said she screens clients before agreeing to tattoo anyone, an experience she considers an energy exchange.

"Too many people think of themselves erroneously as Christmas trees—just put another ornament on," she said.

Hellenbrand's career path includes experience with industry greats Sailor Jerry Collins, Ed Hardy and Jack Rudy, who nicknamed her "Shanghai" Kate.

"When Jack Rudy gives you a nickname, you take it," she said.

Hellenbrand said she earned her "godmother" title by becoming the earliest-known and longest-active modern female tattoo artist. Working at the Museum of American Folk Art in 1971, she and Michael Malone—a.k.a. Rollo Banks—recruited tattoo artists for a New York City exhibit.

"[Tattoo artists] were considered scum at the time," she said. "So they were so grateful we would do this because it actually gave them some legitimacy."

After two years of watching industry greats perform their craft, one of Malone's clients recommended Hellenbrand try her hand at tattooing given her art school education.

"I realized that this is the magical tool—this is what I've been looking for," she said.

Hellenbrand makes guest appearances at panel discussions and tattoo shops throughout the world. She was also featured in the 2013 documentary "Tattoo Nation."

But between her extensive travels, Hellenbrand calls Austin home.

"There isn't a town that really cherishes handmade art as much as Austin," she said. "Austin has some great artists, and I'm very lucky in that I get to call many of them my friends."

Notable career highlights

After 43 years in the tattoo industry, Kate Hellenbrand has gained a great deal of knowledge about the craft, which she considers to be the oldest of all arts. She has also gained much notoriety as one of the earliest-known modern female tattoo artists. Her lecture series, "From Voodoo To Vogue," has been featured in Germany and at Columbia University in New York City. She highlights the historical roots of tattooing, including the early involvement of women, and the global appeal of body art. She has also inked many celebrities, including Howard Stern (at right).

Shanghai Kate's Tattoos, 4405 Guadalupe St., 512-551-3573, www.shanghaikates.com, By appointment only

By Joe Lanane
Joe Lanane’s career is rooted in community journalism, having worked for a variety of Midwest-area publications before landing south of the Mason-Dixon line in 2011 as the Stillwater News-Press news editor. He arrived at Community Impact Newspaper in 2012, gaining experience as editor of the company’s second-oldest publication in Leander/Cedar Park. He eventually became Central Austin editor, covering City Hall and the urban core of the city. Lanane leveraged that experience to become Austin managing editor in 2016. He managed eight Central Texas editions from Georgetown to San Marcos. Working from company headquarters, Lanane also became heavily involved in enacting corporate-wide editorial improvements. In 2017, Lanane was promoted to executive editor, overseeing editorial operations throughout the company. The Illinois native received his bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University and his journalism master’s degree from Ball State University.