june city beat cover

June 2, 2011

I wrote over 2000 words and they chopped it down and gave each paragraph its own title based on what was said in the paragraph. Managing Editor here I come! Originally posted online here.

Kari Barba and Outer Limits pay homage to our tattooed past

The steady buzz emanating from the front door of 22 Chestnut has been nearly constant for the last 74 years. In that time, the deed has changed hands at least five times, the surrounding area has been redeveloped twice and most local residents have all but forgotten about the Nu-Pike’s “Walk of a Million Lights” that once ended near its front steps.

Yet the unmistakable sound of a tattoo gun—with a quality somewhere between a swarm of bees and a dental drill—still remains.

Last Building Standing

“It’s the last building standing after all these years,” says Kari Barba, a world-renown tattoo artist and the address’ current owner. “And this particular spot is the only active store that was a part of The Pike that is still in the same position.”

Since 1927, the northeast corner of South Chestnut and West Windsor Place has been inking people up, making it the oldest operating tattoo shop in the country and the second-oldest one in the world. Though the site’s early history remains unclear—rumor has it that a German woman opened the first shop there and later disappeared from the scene—it was purchased by celebrated artist Bert Grimm in 1952 and spent the next half century as Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo, the epicenter of modern, West Coast tattooing.

Today, it is Barba’s Outer Limits, the flagship of her long-standing body art enterprise, which now includes four stores, all known for their obsessive cleanliness and focus on custom, artistic pieces. Barba not only saved the relic from permanent closure by purchasing it from the struggling previous owners in 2003, but she also turned part of the sprawling floorplan into a tattoo museum that pays homage to all the legends that have walked through its doors.

Though she inherited only the skeleton of a tattoo shop—the place is still affectionately known as Grimmy’s—and the 1921 building’s plumbing and electrical wiring had never been updated to modern standards, Barba was determined to preserve the place’s history.

 

“They’re not even here for a tattoo”

After buying back photos, old tattoo guns, letters and other memorabilia, and navigating hurdles of red tape, Outer Limits opened three years later as a more-functional, minimalist—yet historically respectful—version of what it was before.

The bright-colored art samples have been taken out of the windows providing a clear view inside. The column planted in the middle of the corner sidewalk is painted a fresh, clean white. And the only thing that says “tattoos” is the shop’s classic-looking neon sign that greets customer from above both sides of the front entrance.

“At least a couple of people a week will come in and say they remember the place,” says Jeremiah Barba, Kari’s son and one of Outer Limits’ main Long Beach artists. “They’re not even here for a tattoo—they’ll just walk around and quietly look at the old pictures.”

Tattoos with bold, black outlines and minimal shading prevailed throughout most of the shop’s early life and enthusiasts came from around the world to get work done by one Long Beach’s pioneering ink slingers.

But in the early ’80s, something changed.

Barba remembers not being satisfied with the thick linework and chunky color fills that were predominant when she picked up her first needle in 1979. “Why do the tattoos have to be so simple?” she asked herself. “Why can’t they be more detailed?”

 

Life At Sea

Injecting ink into the skin by puncturing it with a needle is a practice that goes as far back as Neolithic times, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that it became an indelible part of American culture.

A once-taboo form of body modification used only by society’s more unsavory, carnival-bound characters, tattooing found early residence among the anything-goes alleyways of The Pike, Long Beach’s waterfront amusement park.

During World War II specifically, inking up became popular as military servicemen came into contact with tribal tattoos of the South Pacific. It’s no surprise, then, that Long Beach—home at the time to the Navy shipyard and a bustling commercial port—was the first stop for sailors looking to adorn their bodies with a permanent reminder of life at sea.

By the time Barba moved to California in 1980, tales of Long Beach, Grimmy’s and the shoreline’s half-dozen other tattoo shops had made their way around the world. And while the traditional tattooing style honed on the seedy streets of The Pike remains an important foundation for today’s tattoo industry, increased technology during that time allowed a new swath of innovators to emerge.

No Flash in the Pan

As an artist first (she only started tattooing after a friend saw her notebook and suggested she try drawing on skin), Barba didn’t want to draw two-dimensional pin-up girls or spot-color hearts. She wanted to do black and grey fine line work, realistic animals, photo-worthy portraits and detailed Japanese-inspired pieces.

“I didn’t know it, but there were other people starting to tattoo like that at the time. But that’s just how I drew—with pencil,” she says modestly. “So when I picked up the machine, I thought of it as a pencil and tattooed like that at first.”

After settling in Riverside with her ex-husband and a young Jeremiah, Barba first gained recognition by drawing up flash for distributors. Flash is the pre-prepared tattoo designs commonly seen in shops as examples of the type of work you can get done and so even though she continued to have chairs at various shops, Barba was known for her intricate, forward-thinking designs before she was known as a tattoo artist.

Something Pretty On Me

In 1982, Three-E Productions—which included supplier Ernie Caraf and artists Ed Nolte and Ed Hardy—hosted the now-famous 1982 Long Beach Tattoo Expo, the first independent event of its kind. The National Tattoo Association had been holding traveling conventions featuring the talents of its limited member base for a few years, but the three-Es invited names from all over the world to board the historic Queen Mary and showcase the latest in tattoo artistry.

“At that time, we were pulling away from traditional styles,” Barba says. “Black and grey was hitting its high. Detailed, fine line was hitting its mark and color detail was just emerging. Until [the Expo], there wasn’t a specific convention showing it.”

Barba had a booth at the epic ’82 Expo and it was there that she met her future business partner. A year later, with that person’s help, she and her ex-husband were able to open Fantasy Twilight Tattoo in Anaheim, which would later be renamed as the first Outer Limits.

Tattooist of the Year

A petite woman of 50 with a fiery red pixie cut and bright, smiling eyes, Barba doesn’t look like the media’s representation of a typical female tattoo artist. In fact, in her faded corduroy pants and orange babydoll T-shirt, the only visible ink is a brown Hopi armband wrapped around her left bicep. She has more hiding on her legs and back—including a king fisher designed by Ed Hardy in 1984 and a bug done by Tin Tin, a famous French artist—and for the first time in her life, plans to get more.

“I didn’t get tattooed just to put something pretty on me, but now I’m starting to be that way,” she says. “I’m trying to convince a few of my artists to do my sleeve, but I haven’t been able to yet. They’re too nervous.”

Before there was Kat Von D’s High Voltage Tattoo or Corey Hart’s Hart & Huntington, there was Kari Barba’s Outer Limits. Tucked away in an Anaheim strip mall, the original Outer Limits is a different kind of tattoo shop—or at least it was when she started it almost 30 years ago.

“I opened my first shop trying to have a different feel,” she says. “Tattoo shops at the time I thought could be cleaner. I thought they could be nicer. I thought they could be more salon-like—more welcoming so that anyone would feel comfortable when they walk in the door.”

Different Vibe

In a time when most tattoo shops were man-caves wallpapered in excessive flash, this approach to a streamlined tattoo shop was groundbreaking. Her holistic approach to giving tattoos more artistic merit was also a game changer and her dedication to the craft—not the profits—set her apart.

Barba was one of the first shop owners to exclusively hire tattooists based on their talent as artists, not just as machine technicians, and she is also the first person to wear surgical gloves during the tattoo process (“I got tired of washing blood and ink off my hands,” she says).

Barba has no idea how many people she’s tattooed in her career and even less of an estimate of number of tattoos she’s completed. But for a hint at her significance, she has won over 400 awards and she stopped entering contests in 1991 (when she swept all seven categories at the National Tattoo Association’s convention, including winning Tattooist of the Year for the third time).

As for her son, after a rebellious phase in which he attempted to reject tattooing as a possible career path—he held down jobs at Taco Bell and PETCO instead—Jeremiah eventually returned to Outer Limits to take a chair next to his mom.

“It’s a different vibe now especially since I’m older and I’ve worked at other shops,” Jeremiah, 33, says. “I’m more grown up and more comfortable where I’m at in my career. I get to come in and see what she’s doing and we can feed off of each other. It’s cool.”

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