Kari Barba next to memorabilia (including a vintage tattooing chair) in her Long Beach shop's museum. Photos by Jason Ruiz.
Kari Barba's Outer Limits Tattoo shop chain will celebrate its 30th anniversary Saturday at a two-part event surrounding its flagship location in Downtown Long Beach. There will be an art auction, raffles, giveaways and live entertainment, but most of all there will be tradition and history, something owner Kari Barba notes as the tipping point in her decision to make her newest location at 22 Chestnut Ave. her primary one after purchasing the location ten years ago.
“This particular shop has a history that the other shops don’t have so it just kinda happened naturally,“ Barba said. “This is the oldest [operating tattoo] shop in the Americas and it’s the second oldest shop in the whole world. So the history and the development of this shop is super important for the historical aspect of the tattoo community in general.”
The corner shop, tucked between the luxury apartments on Ocean Blvd. and the Pike at Rainbow Harbor’s parking structure, has continually served as a tattoo shop since 1927. Renowned artist Bert Grimm purchased the site in 1952 and made Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo a fixture of the West Coast tattoo scene. When Barba acquired the shop in 2003, she appropriated part of the shop to serve as a museum—a daily reminder of the great artists that worked in Long Beach before her.
Barba entered the tattoo circuit in 1979, and when she opened her first tattoo shop four years later, the industry was unrecognizable by today’s standards. Shops were haphazardly decorated, cleanliness was optional and female artists were almost non-existent.
A lot has changed over three decades, with Barba helping to champion a movement for a more sanitary and salon-like look for shops. Cleanliness and compliance is enforced by the state and women artists, like the tattoos they apply on their customers, are less taboo than the early years. Barba alone employs six.
“I think some of it is my fault, actually,“ Barba said, laughing. “I really started to hate the feel of things like the blood and the ink drying on my skin. So, I started wearing gloves just to keep myself from having to do that. And I went to a convention and did that and people were like ’Kari, oh my God. Don’t do that. Now we’re all going to have to do that if they all see you doing that.’”
Cleanliness has always been the standard at all three Outer Limits locations (the others are in Orange and Costa Mesa; an Anaheim location closed last year). So has innovation and creativity. As tattoo acceptance has grown so has the demand for bolder, more intricate tattoos. That challenge is something Barba has embraced and has asked her artists to tackle as tattoo culture continues to evolve.
“In the early days, tattoo artists were technicians,“ Barba said. “Some of them drew but they were basically a guy who they trained how to work the machinery. Some of them happened to be artists but most of them were not. Now it’s artists and a lot of them go and get their masters and train for years and then become tattoo artists.”
Old tattoo flash from the Bert Grimm days still hangs on the wall.
Barba, who herself has remained visibly un-inked, said that now that the stigma is starting to wane she plans to add art to her own canvas. She says that the cultural acceptance of tattoos has been a slow process that has been recently expedited by the popularity of tattoo shows on television that are broadcasted world wide adding that regardless of era, the generalization of tattooed people is inaccurate.
“Its hard when people judge because of that,“ Barba said. “Because it doesn’t change the person inside when they get tattooed. Good person or bad person, either can have a tattoo, it doesn’t matter.”
What will matter on Saturday is the fact that her string of shops has prospered in an increasingly saturated market for 30 years. The celebration will begin at Outer Limits from 6PM to 8PM where live entertainment, raffle giveaways from local businesses and a silent art auction will take place before moving to the Rock Bottom Brewery on Pine Ave. for free appetizers and desserts. Diamonds and snakes will be the theme of night to commemorate the diamond anniversary and the Chinese calendar.
All proceeds from the auction are being donated to the Long Beach Memorial Breast Care Center. Barba, who uses her tattoo expertise and ability to create 3D like images to perform areola reconstruction on breast cancer patients, said selecting a charity was easy.
“I have seen such a huge growth in the number of women coming in that have had breast cancer that I think that donations just need to go there,” Barba said.
Kari Barba's Outer Limits is located at 22 Chestnut Place. Outer Limits' 30th Anniversary party will be held Saturday, April 6 from 6PM to 8PM at the studio for art auctions, live entertainment and raffles; then from 8PM to 10PM at Rock Bottom for food and drinks. Rock Bottom is located at 1 Pine Ave. For more information, visit the event Facebook page.