Kari Barba has been tattooing since 1979 and is the proud owner of Outer Limits Tattoo since 1983. She is a prolific and talented tattoo artist as well as a highly skilled painter. She has carved a legendary path for the shop while breaking every barrier faced by women in the tattoo industry. Kari's story is unique. Her portfolio is unparalleled. Although she is a complete badass, she's truly one of the nicest people you will ever meet.
Read her story below
How did you get into art and tattooing?
I've been drawing and creating art since I was a kid. I used to love to sit outside and draw birds and trees. My dad taught me how to carve bars of soap into fish and other fun things. So creating has always been with me. I had a friend who was a tattoo artist when I was young, (19 years old), and he had always told me I should try tattooing and thought I would be good at it. At the time I wasn't really interested in it and knew nothing about tattoos at all. I hadn't even seen one until I was 17 years old. Growing up in Minnesota, there weren't many around. Once I did my first tattoo I fell in love with it. Initially I wasn't sure what I was going to do for a career, but once I tattooed a bit more I thought I could make a living at it. I tried to do everything, every style... trying to accommodate every client's wishes to fill the dream of their perfect tattoo story.
"I'm very lucky to co-own and operate the oldest tattoo shop in the nation, second oldest in the world."
Has rejection ever affected your creative process?
People judge without understanding, and this has always been an issue not only for me in my business but for many. I decided to keep pushing forward, do the best I could, and try to prove them differently. There are many times that we are put down and held back. To keep moving forward is the key. I used to spend 6 days a week tattooing from at least 10:00 am to midnight each day. If a client came in at midnight, they got their tattoo. I would go home after working those hours and draw the designs for the next day's appointments. I was exhausted, but I was young and just kept moving forward. These days, after almost 42 years, I have slowed down and work shorter days. I still have the same passion and want to continue to grow.
Describe your perfect day out and about locally. Do you have a favorite local mural or piece of street art?
A perfect day out for me in Long Beach might include a good breakfast, maybe at Starling Diner and then a bike ride along the water and through the city. Once done, I love to pick up lunch at Ubuntu café. We take it to the park and enjoy a lunch surrounded by trees and water. I also love to golf, so it could be a day of golf. Possibly pick up a glass of wine at The Wine Crush and enjoy with friends.
My favorite piece of local art that I see often is at the corner of Pine and Seaside way. It's hidden from Ocean Blvd so you have to go down to view it. I love the creativity and uniqueness of this piece. There are so many great pieces of street art though, so it is hard to pick.
What’s a work day like at your Tattoo Shop?
A day at Outer Limits Tattoo starts early for me as far as tattoo shops go. I work on one client a day currently, for about 3-5 hours actual tattooing. My work is large scale so I will be working on the same person for many appointments. We have a staff of 12 tattoo artists currently. The vibe is fun, the creativity high. It's amazing to check out our museum area and our shop itself. Many of our items have been borrowed by museums for exhibitions, including the Natural History Museum LA, and MOLAA. Our shop is in the old Pike area, and has the energy within that has much been lost.
I like to turn on my favorite music and just zone into my tattoo. Lately I've been really into tattooing many things, but octopuses have been a very prominent recurring theme for me. I even got to tattoo one for The Natural History Museum LA on a cast in silicone of a human arm.
"Before I tattooed I did many jobs but none really were creative. I was a donut baker, and bookbinder, a mini blind maker, and a foundry worker. I was even a hotel cleaning lady. Who knew tattooing would pull me out of that. Donuts were fun though... all you can eat."
Creativity or knowledge? How does your work march us to a better future?
I hold more value personally in creativity, but without knowledge, we won't get far will we? I don't have much of an education and am very lucky to have what I have and succeeded as I have. I'm not sure if my work will take us to a better future, but I sure hope the way I run it does. I try to be fair, and open. I love diversity and try to keep that visible in my shop, not only in work styles but in people. We honor history at Outer Limits and house a museum of tattoo items and photos of past and present tattoo artists in the shop.
In my field in the past we learned to tattoo through apprenticeship, today I still believe this is the best way to learn. Just jumping in and going for it puts you years behind. I, myself, had to somewhat relearn to tattoo more correctly after a couple years of tattooing.
If you could move to any other place in this or any universe where would you go?
If I could live anywhere... Where is my happy place? I love nature, a stream, a river, or an ocean. I love trees.. I would love to live where trees meet the water, birds sing in the trees and butterflies fly. The sky is blue and people are scarce, but true friends are not far off. My wife near my side, my kids and grandkids walking in the distance. Lots of warm waters for swimming and music in the air, the sun shines every day... does this place exist??? Well in my mind it does, and there are a million stars in the sky. I would love to lay in the grass like we did as kids on a warm summer night and gaze at the stars in the sky.