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Kat Von D
courtesy of Kat Von D Beauty

Kat Von D: the tattooed beauty mogul creating the industry in her own image

We speak to Kat Von D about her inspirations growing up, how tattooing informs her make-up, and what beauty means to her.

The first time I came across Kat Von D I was 16 years old and watching old re-runs of Miami Ink over the Christmas holidays. She had full sleeves, red lips and could tattoo as hard as any of the boys there. I was hooked (in hindsight – crushing hard) and I wasn’t the only one. Von D proved so popular on Miami Ink that TLC offered her own spin-off show LA Ink, taking place at Von D’s Hollywood studio High Voltage Tattoo. A year later, Sephora executives came knocking with a proposition; sales associates were being bombarded by queries about what red lipstick “that tattoo girl” always wore and did she want to collaborate on a range of lipsticks. Thus, in 2008 Kat Von D Beauty was born. 

After an initial drop of four red lipsticks, the brand expanded into more colours and more products: contour kits, eyeshadow palettes, a concealer strong enough to cover tattoos. A lipstick in the shade ‘Lolita’ turned into a bona fide phenomenon, becoming Sephora’s best-selling lipstick in the US, with one dusty rose shade being sold once every minute around the world. According to WWD, Kat Von D Beauty was expected to generate about $2 million its first year. Instead, it made an estimated $12 million. Now, over ten years later, the brand is still one of Sephora’s most successful brands.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, Von D has had her fair share of controversy over the years. In 2013, Sephora pulled a Kat Von D lipstick called “Celebutard” after receiving customer complaints. The shade “Underage Red” caused similar outrage, although was not renamed. Last year, Von D faced backlash over an announcement that she would not be vaccinating her then-unborn baby, leading some to boycott her make-up brand. She has since clarified that she has not an anti-vaxxer. Shortly after that fans took issue with a tarot card-inspired palette which they felt was not respectful of the culture. Von D has also long been dogged by allegations of anti-semitism. In March, over 10 years after the initial accusations, Von D finally responded, defending herself against the claims and explaining it as the result of an attempt to sabotage her by a male castmate on Miami Ink.

Despite all of this, however, Von D continues to go from strength to strength. An outspoken vegan, in 2016 she announced that all her products, already cruelty-free, would be reformulated to be vegan. The brand just released its latest vegan foundation, True Portrait, with a campaign fronted by Jhene Aiko. And with a new baby, an album on its way and an upcoming line of vegan (natch) shoes, Von D shows no signs of slowing down. Here she chats to us about her inspirations growing up, how tattooing informs her make-up, and what beauty means to her.

Tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up.

Kat Von D: I was born in a little pueblo in Mexico and didn’t migrate to the US until the mid-80s. Both my parents are from South America, so I feel like I was lucky to grow up with a Latin upbringing, Spanish being my native tongue. A lot of people don’t know that I am a Latina and it’s something that I’m super proud of and shows in my art background.

What’s your earliest beauty memory?

Kat Von D: My first beauty memory is probably similar to a lot of girls. I got caught by mom going through her make-up drawer and trying on way too much make-up!  From the beginning, I truly fell in love with the theatrics and drama of makeup. To me, it never was about “beauty” per se but more about an outward expression of whatever it was that was going on inside of me.

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?

Kat Von D: I was inspired by music, music, music! I remember once I discovered punk rock music, it wasn’t necessarily a style that I was emulating, but I subscribed more to the feeling of being free. The honesty that comes from ‘not giving a fuck’. That’s what really shaped my style.

How did you get started in tattooing?

Kat Von D: I started tattooing at the early age of 14. But, didn’t get into a professional tattoo shop until I was 16. It was honestly love at first sight! I'm still as madly in love with tattooing as I was when I first started. When Kat Von D Beauty really took off, people assumed I had given up tattooing, but I have been balancing both worlds the entire time.

Did your tattooing experience inform your beauty brand?

Kat Von D: From day one, I have been responsible for all the artwork you see on all of the beauty packaging! It’s obvious that tattooing lent a heavy hand into the art direction of all of my packaging. Aside from that, many products have been inspired by my art background including our famous Tattoo Liner whose fine brush tip was inspired by the precision of a tattoo needle!

You’ve continued to tattoo alongside your beauty work, but have shifted into doing tattoos for free. How and why did you come to this decision? 

Kat Von D: A long time ago, I made a decision to work really hard and get to a place where I wouldn’t have to rely on tattooing for money. I wanted to be able to tattoo freely and offer my craft as a gift to whomever I tattooed. For me, it was liberating to take the financial part of it out – but it's not something I necessarily ‘promote’.

Who have been the most influential forces on your career? 

Kat Von D: Kind people. It feels like most industries are lacking in kindness and empathy. Anytime I meet anyone who is successful in their own right – yet managed to maintain a humble and compassionate heart – those people, to me, are true heroes.

All your products are vegan and, from the inception of the brand, cruelty-free. Why was this aspect so important to you?

Kat Von D: I wasn’t vegan when I first started the brand over a decade ago. So, the more I became informed on veganism, the more I wanted to ‘walk-the-walk’. I had no idea, at that time, that animal-derived ingredients were used in make-up. Once I learned more about what was going into formulas, I decided, along with my team’s support, to transition all our non-vegan formulas to be 100 per cent vegan. Yes, it took time, money and effort, but all worth it to me.

Where does your inspiration for new products come from? What do you enjoy most about the development process?

Kat Von D: I'm the biggest make-up fan myself; I believe making products that fill my heart with joy is where it should always start. Instead of just creating for the sake of making sales or keeping up with a ‘trend’, I would rather focus on making products that are actually missing in the beauty world.  

Tell us about your new mascara! 

Kat Von D: Go Big Or Go Home Mascara is my all-time fave mascara formula! If you haven’t seen the ‘before-and-afters’, get ready to be pleasantly shocked. You can check out the back of the mascara packaging as just one example! 

Staying true to our vegan approach to products, we worked really hard in replacing the animal-based ingredients commonly found in most mascaras and replaced them with plant-based fats (like sunflower and olive oil). This formula feels so great on your lashes, and gives you extreme volume without drying your lashes.

What’s next for the beauty brand – anything to share regarding people, products, new country launches? 

Kat Von D: I can’t wait for you guys to try our new True Portrait medium coverage, vegan foundation, launching this Fall. It is the most lightweight, comfortable formula that will give you the most immaculate airbrushed-like finish imaginable. We are launching 40 shades and I can’t wait for you to see the campaign featuring vegan singer (and cat mom) Jhene Aiko. 

How does Kat Von D Beauty define beauty? What would you say your beauty brand stands for? 

Kat Von D: We are an artistry brand for everyone. And, when I mean everyone, I mean it!  KvDB has always embraced the outsiders, the rebels, and most of all people who are passionate about art. My dream has always been to create the tools to help people express themselves in whichever way they want.  

What’s next for Kat Von D the person? 

Kat Von D: I have so much going on at the moment! Now that my son is getting a bit bigger, I’m excited to finally release my album, and do an international tour launching in spring 2020. Aside from that, my vegan shoe line, Von D Shoes launches this summer, as well as a bunch of new and exciting launches for Kat Von D Beauty. I have a full plate – but an even fuller heart!