Katie Williams '92: Body language

By Mary Boone

If you think tattoos are just for sailors and Harley riders, think again. Tattoo artist Katie Newsom Williams ’92 is busy leaving her mark on the arms, legs, chests, backs—and other body parts—of men, women, athletes, musicians, and regular Joes who want to express their creativity, mark a life passage, or test their bravado.Williams has owned House of Tattoo on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue since 1996. It wasn’t exactly the path this fine arts major intended, but it’s one she clearly excels at: Her body art has been featured in industry magazines such as Tattoo, Skin Art, and Tattoo Planet.

“It really is art. It’s just that my ‘canvas’ is skin,” says Williams.

Williams’ plunge into tattooing was innocent enough—she got a small lizard tattoo when she was 18.

“I really hit it off with the owner and he talked with me about apprenticing,” she says. “He felt like tattooing was about to go more mainstream, and he thought it would be a good field for me. Turns out, he was right on.”

Williams stayed fairly tattoo-free until about five years ago when she realized her affiliation with the art form was going to be longer term than she first anticipated.

“I guess I got to a point when I thought, ‘Hey, if I’m in this for the long run, I might as well commit,” she says. She’s since gotten 11 tattoos—many of them quite large. She still travels to Portland to have her artist-of-choice work on the vine and fruit illustrations that cover her arms.

“I was extremely picky about who was going to do my tattoos,” she says. “I guess I was the kind of client I like to work with. I did my research, knew what I wanted, I found someone with a style I liked and who I felt I could talk with. I know somebody isn’t really ready for a tattoo when they come in and say, ‘I don’t care what I get or where I get it, I just want one.’”

Williams’ shop has a handful of out-of-the-box tattoos that are designed and ready for the choosing, but she and her eight fellow tattooists specialize in custom work.

“I sit down with people and talk to them about what matters to them. I want to know what styles they like,” she says. “Plus, I think it’s really important that we get along. Some of these tattoos take 40 or 50 hours to complete, so it’s important to like or respect someone you’re spending that kind of time with.”

Sure, lasers can erase tattoos their wearers later regret getting, but Williams advises making decisions that don’t result in regret.

“You really ought to consider this a permanent thing, so you need to choose something —and someplace—you can live with for the rest of your life,” she says.

And, because tattoos are enduring, Williams feels a certain pressure.

“I just can’t make mistakes. I can’t,” she says. “About seven years ago, a guy came in and wanted an American flag and I pulled one out of the box. It wasn’t until it was too late that we realized the thing only had 12 stripes. That was the worst mistake I’ve ever made and I still think about it. That’s how careful I have to be.”

Customers describe Williams as a “real workaholic” and she admits tattooing even as she entered the early stages of labor with daughter Lydia in late March.

“How would you have liked to have been that client?” she jokes.

But will Williams and her husband, Kevin, let Lydia get a tattoo when she gets older?

“No way,” she says. “Of course, because Kevin and I both have them, she’ll probably rebel. She probably won’t even want one.”