“I ain’t getting tattooed by no chick.”
Kari Barba was told that by a man at a tattoo convention, after he had picked out one of Barba’s drawings from her photo albums.
Barba, who will celebrate 42 years as tattoo artist in April 2021, now runs Outer Limits Tattoo in Long Beach, the oldest continuously operating tattoo shop in the U.S. and second oldest in the world. Her photograph hangs on the walls alongside all of the tattoo legends that first started working there, long before it was acceptable to society.
Barba loved to pencil sketch with charcoals and experiment with colors using pastels in her teenage years.
In 1979, Barba, 19, created her first tattoo after a neighbor, who was a tattoo artist in her building, encouraged her to take her sketches from paper to skin and incorporate those techniques with a needle. Barba’s first creation was a small rose similar to the detailed pencil sketch that she drew on paper.
This black and grey style that she developed early on has remained a signature part to Barba’s work today, which has traveled with her throughout the world and has been showcased in various conventions and exhibitions like the Museum of Latin American Art’s 2019 exhibition INK: Stories on Skin, which celebrated the social and cultural evolution of tattooing. “When I saw her work, I knew that was my girl,” Anthony Janos said, regarding his search for a tattoo artist. “You walk in [Outer Limits] and it’s a welcoming feeling.”
Janos proudly wears a tattoo sleeve on his left arm done entirely by Barba, who is now working on another piece for his right arm. He said that people are generally surprised that Barba is the artist behind the work, because people typically assume that his tattoos were done by a man.
Along with her successes and milestones, it took undeniable grit to overcome the stigmas in a male-dominated industry. But Barba felt that she was always prepared for it.
“My mom and dad had split up when I was about five years old,” Barba said. “I was predominately with my father and not having older kids in the house anymore, the responsibility of a lot of things landed on my shoulders.”
Barba explained that those responsibilities of helping to manage her father’s household broke down gender roles and without those stigmas around her upbringing, it helped her have the confidence and work ethic to surpass the sexism she would later encounter.
Over the years, Outer Limits has gradually been surrounded by high-end lofts, which secludes the one-story, 93-year-old building that was built in 1927.
“I’m super involved and honored to work in such a historic place under amazing talent,” Matt Hand said, who has worked at Outer Limits for nearly 13 years and is now the floor manager.
Before the high-end lofts, people were able to see the oceanfront from the shop, according to Barba, who took over in 2003.
The shop also housed the first female tattooist, Dainty Dotty, who was also a famously known circus lady that weighed 600 pounds during the shop’s early beginnings.
Outer Limits boasts a long list of tattoo legends and pioneers whose art and faces are recognized on vintage photographs taken throughout the 20th century. The shop’s museum and the photographs honor the history and the pioneers who made their mark inside these walls.
One of those pioneers is Bert Grimm, the founder and first owner of the shop.
Grimm was a tattoo artist based in St. Louis, Missouri and moved to Long Beach to continue with tattoos. The Navy ships would dock along the port and sailors would line up outside of the shop waiting to get inked.
This was also a time when the Pike was the central hub for tattoo connoisseurs and artists alike in Long Beach.
The Bert Grimm style introduced the traditional American style tattoo that is known for its thick linings, bold and simplistic figures and experimental, but limited color palette. The sailors, who were the prominent customers, would leave the parlor with these Bert Grimm style tattoos.
Today, this way of tattooing is used throughout the industry, making it one of the most popular styles. It has also paved the way for other artists to experiment with colors, newer ideas and techniques.
“At that time, tattoos weren’t very acceptable,” Barba said. “So, the shops would hide under different things like a barber or a cleaner.”
In 2002, Outer Limits, then called Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo, was in the process of closing down its building. At the time, it was owned by the Shaw family, a well-known family of tattoo artists who also owned other shops around the country.
“The area was changing rapidly, and buildings were being demolished and the Pike was completely demolished in 1979,” said Barba. “So, it was really difficult for them to keep the building.”
The Shaw family are known to be one of the oldest tattoo artist families in the U.S. In 2003, Barba took over the building after them to continue to keep the business alive.
It’s latest challenge now is trying to remain in operation during coronavirus regulations.
Outer Limits was forced to close down for several months before it reopened its doors under social distancing guidelines. Each station is spaced out at least 6 feet apart and masks are required at all times.
But, there is still lingering uncertainty throughout the local business community in Long Beach as to when things will become normal again, especially for tattoo parlors.
With the vast number of tattoo icons that have walked through the doors, Barba continues to strive for diversity in an industry that has been dominated by men. Barba has taken women like Jenny Vo Nguyen under her wing and hired them as artists for Outer Limits.
Nguyen’s style is unique and one of the latest examples of tattooists experimenting with colors on skin. Her work features both anime and Pokémon characters, like the Pikachu tattoo she did recently.
Barba stressed that homophobes, racists and misogynists are not welcomed at Outer Limits, and they shouldn’t be welcomed elsewhere, too. According to Barba, there is such a thing as “negative tattooing,” meaning that tattooists could typically be in the industry just for the money or working without helping to progress the industry.
“The world is in a very difficult place right now,” Barba said, as her eyes swelled up with tears. “Because of everything that’s happening, I just want us to move forward positively.”