Berkeley , California
Karen Roze—Sacred Rose Tattoo
By Bob Baxter with photographs by Bernard Clark
Karen Roze runs a successful tattoo shop in Berkeley, California, the legendary college town just across the bridge from San Francisco. Karen started at the bottom as an apprentice, and even after becoming a shop owner in the City by the Bay, was wise enough know when something works and when it's time to move on. After nearly twenty years of dedication and learning, Karen Roze has gathered together a dozen like-minded artists in a working environment that is far more family-oriented and spiritual than your typical rock-'em sock-'em tattoo parlor. Karen talks more of healing than hurting, and, when you're in the business of pushing ink into people's delicate skin, that's something to admire.
After graduating from the California College of the Arts in 1989 with a degree in painting and print making, Karen had ideas about moving to New York City and becoming a famous painter. "A very lofty idea," she remembers. "But I ended up in an art supply store in downtown San Francisco and it was near Goldfield's Tattoo, so Henry Goldfield would come in, as would Richard Cyr from Pat Martynuik's Picture Machine. They were older guys with tattoos all over their hands and everything. This was between 1989 and '91. I was fascinated, but I didn't have any ink at the time. I just never got around to it. I guess I wasn't confident enough or something.
"At the time, I had a girlfriend who was really punk, and she was being tattooed by Eddy Deutsche and Ed Hardy. I didn't know these guys from Adam, so I didn't realize that they were the greatest tattooers in the Bay Area or probably on the whole West Coast. I just got lucky and went in with her one day to watch her get a tattoo from Deutsche, and he said, 'Okay, you're next. What do you want?' I said, 'I'm just watching,' and my friend Stacey called me a pussy. So I just looked up on the wall and pointed to a kanji. I just got a kanji and that was all.
"I secretly always wanted a tattoo, but I had never gotten it. I just needed an excuse. When I was getting the tattoo, I was really enjoying it. I don't really like to get tattooed anymore, because it hurts more now, but, back then, I was twenty-three or twenty-two and I thought it felt good. The smell of the green soap was intoxicating. I just thought, Hey, I want to get more tattoos. So, my second tattoo was my whole leg. My only exposure, beside the punk rock scene, was Japanese art work. There's a painter named Masami Teraoka who did a traveling exhibition called 'Waves and Plagues,' large watercolors that look like ukiyo-e woodblock prints. He lives in Honolulu and it turns out he's friends with Ed Hardy, which I didn't know. So I had Richard Cyr, who used to shop at my store, put on the tattoo. And I immediately took over the process. First, I drew the whole thing on tracing paper, then I made the stencil. I didn't know I wasn't required to do all that. I thought I was supposed to do all the ground work, so I measured my body and I did the whole placement and even drew on my skin. I basically came in with most of the work done. Richard didn't realize what I wanted was so big, so it ended up taking about six months to complete. And during that time I decided that tattooing was what I was going to do. It was just meant to be. It was serendipity. I just had to be a tattooer.
"This was back in 1991, and he tried to dissuade me. The only women tattooing in the area were Laura Vida and Deborah Valentine. Laura was there and this kid, Ichinohe Yushi from Japan, who owns Scratch Addiction in Tokyo, now. And Paco Deitz who owns Graven Images in Redwood City. Jen Gallagher was there, too. She now works at Ed Hardy's Tattoo City. Picture Machine also had Jef Whitehead—he was just learning—and Chris Conn. Jef taught me about the rules of classic bold work, and Laura re-taught me the value of hygiene and precision. Because of my early associations, I learned to work in all styles and enjoy the history of the American tattoo as well as the ancient Japanese and Pacific Island styles.
"All these artists who are really popular now were just beginning, so I kind of ensconced myself into an apprenticeship. The fact is, I just wouldn't leave. I'd come in with coffee, I'd clean up and, pretty soon, I was making needles for people. When Richard told me it would cost five thousand dollars to learn to tattoo, I thought it was a joke. I think he was just trying to make me quit. He tried everything to make me quit. But they had an apprentice at the time who was hurting people and doing just terrible work, so they let me stay. My first tattoos where just fixing his. I guess they figured it couldn't have been worse. It was an old-school shop, open from noon to midnight.
"As soon as I picked up a machine—after about a year of apprenticing, making machines, making needles and such—I was working twelve-hour shifts. It was like throwing me into the deep end of the pool, but I am very grateful, because back then it was still not overcrowded. There were only about fourteen shops in San Francisco. I don't know how many there are now, maybe forty. We had a first-come, first-serve policy. People would just walk in and sit on a bench, so I was really busy all the time. That was a really good start.
"I worked there about five years, managing the store and everything—unofficially, I might add, because Richard was the official manager. It was a cool apprenticeship, because I got to cut springs and wrap coils, all the stuff that old, bearded guys at conventions talk about doing, although I don't do all that anymore. I buy my own needles and have other guys fix my machines, but I'm glad I learned that way. It's like learning a hot roller set in beauty school, but you never really do it. That was a tough shop and I'm really grateful that I had the chance.
"In 1998, I got fired along with everyone else in the store, kind of unceremoniously. I think Guy—Pat died in 1989 and Picture Machine became the property of Guy, his son—wanted to bring in new kids or something, so I just left, not really knowing what I was doing. I found a nice space, borrowed some money and started a shop. We just opened the doors and began tattooing. I was already booked three months in advance, back then. It was me and the guys from work. I brought them with me. We were tattooing on milk crates before the furniture arrived. All of us were very fortunate and blessed with abundant business.
"The shop was in San Francisco, but, two years ago, I decided to open another shop in Berkeley and have two, because, I thought, everything seems to run itself. I figured that I lived in Berkeley, I had another child and I didn't want to commute. But it didn't run itself, because as soon as I pulled out my energy, the shop fell apart. So, I sold it. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I was complaining about how I couldn't control it and raise an infant at the same time, so this woman offered me the right amount of money and I walked out. I just took my machines and left all of the flash, most of the library and all the artists. I didn't realize how much I was holding it together with my energy. Now, it's a different shop with different people and some of the artists came over to Berkeley to work with me. Sure, there was some resistance at first, because, if you live in San Francisco, Berkeley seems really far away. And that was a walk-in shop. My current place is more custom, because we don't have a lot of foot traffic. My shop is a friendly place where you will feel at home, whether you're getting your first tattoo or an entire body suit. All of the artists at Sacred Rose are great folks who are dedicated to the art of tattooing and customer satisfaction.
"In the past two years I have been incorporating Reiki and Buddhist healing philosophy into my business. It's kind of an undercurrent in the shop, so we are definitely more grounded. We're not outwardly saying this is a Buddhist tattoo parlor or anything, but four out of ten of us who work here are practitioners. So four of us have the dharma healing techniques that we can use on customers, if they ask. I don't mean to sound hippie or anything, but we do clear the energy of the store at night and in the morning. Because of it, we find that people will walk into the store and feel comfortable, and not really know why. So, now the store is more a lifestyle store rather than just a business. It incorporates the spiritual aspects of tattooing and my regular life. I think people feel a healing energy here without even trying.
"We feel it's a bonus for customers and helps those of us who do this practice not to be carriers of negative energy, because usually when you tattoo people all their negative energy comes out, like at a therapy session. Even if they're quiet, it still comes out, because tattooing is an intimate thing that you're doing one-on-one. And as an artist and a practitioner, I have to protect myself from that. I'm lucky because I know certain techniques to protect myself as well as give customers a blessing as they go out the door. So, even if we're listening to Motorhead and doing a big skull tattoo, we still feel really good when they leave. And I think we get a lot of repeat business from the feeling they get from this relationship.
"Plus, the people that work here are much more mature. I'm older now, too. I'm in my forties and I don't have anyone here under thirty-five. Except for my front desk girl, a college student. Actually, we say we ruined her because she graduated from Cal Berkeley. She's the first college graduate in her family with a Poly Sci degree, and she decided she wants to be a tattoo artist. She's our shop apprentice, and we have all taken her under our wing. She gets to be an apprentice with ten teachers."
Now what could be more creative and healing than that?
SACRED ROSE TATTOO
1728 University Avenue
Berkeley, California 94703
Phone: (510) 883-1083