Upon entering Karen Roze’s Sacred Rose Tattoo, it seems like a run-of-the-mill tattoo parlor: Americana flash sheets on the wall, a needle’s gentle hum, rows of sterile inkbeds. Yet, it feels cleaner than other shops, and not just in terms of the Department of Public Health clearance hanging in the window and a slight tinge of isopropyl alcohol in the air.
I found Roze with a bundle of burning sage she attentively waves around the front lobby. “There’s a lot of interpersonal energy at a tattoo shop,” she explained in an interview with The Daily Californian. “If I let that stuff just linger in the shop every night it’s yucky.”
Roze is the master of fusion, and this isn’t just limited to her blend of spirituality and tattoo art. She doesn’t bend to fit tattooing; she makes tattooing an extension of herself.
That being said, her tattoo journey started via external pressure. Accompanying a former girlfriend to her tattoo appointment at Ed Hardy’s Tattoo City, the artist asked Roze if she would be getting one. “My girlfriend says, ‘she’ll never get one, she’s a f—ing p—y,’ ” Roze recalled. “So I said ‘Give me that,’ and I pointed out a piece of flash on the wall and got it.”
After that, Roze was hooked. “Tattooing was just calling to me,” she remembered from her first parlor experience. “I was fascinated and everything overcame me; the smell of the shop, the music, the energy, the kind of artwork that tattooing was.”
Her first apprenticeship was at Picture Machine in San Francisco. “I felt like it was because of my moxie,” she said. To be sure, Roze does have moxie. She commands the room even now, carrying herself with energetic governance. “I never stopped bothering them. I actually said ‘if you don’t teach me, I’m just gonna be your competition,’ ” she recalled.
Looking back at her time with Picture Machine, she recounted her apprenticeship fondly. The 12-hour shifts, cramped hands and taxing designs aren’t for everyone, but Roze spoke of it with a big smile and wistful gaze: “I’ve nostalgia for that.”
Yet, her face darkened as she remembered its realities. “Women weren’t really welcomed in the industry then,” she said. “I saw a lot of genitals and they’d mess my s—t up on purpose … Lots of sabotage, lots of unwanted sexual ribbing and teasing, that kind of stuff.”
As a young woman living through the ’70s and ’80s, Roze developed a tenacity and desire to succeed. However, there was only so much she could do to push through this environment.
“Promptly at about five years I got booted from Picture Machine with the other woman who worked there,” Roze said. “They made up a reason … Let’s just say the guys didn’t get fired.”
Then, she smiled wryly: “You persevere, right?”
So she went home, took the clients she had booked up for a month and set up a 1-800 number. For about a month, she tattooed out of her extra bedroom and eventually raised the money to buy her own place. “None of those guys own a shop,” she proudly boasted.
Twenty-five years ago, Sacred Rose was born with Roze’s experiences in mind. “I think what I’ve created is the antithesis of what I experienced growing up in the industry. And I did it consciously,” she said.
Sacred Rose is a safe space. Clients and fellow artists come in and fall right into the rhythm of the shop’s energy. By stepping foot into this sacred space, they become part of its lifeline.
“You know, I trust them,” she said in reference to her team. “Trust: I think that’s probably the main word for the whole shop.” She only has one rule for her artists: “Get your s—t together. Then you come in grounded.”
Trust is important in tattooing — it’s permanent. But Roze has never cared much about the technicalities of “forever.” “It’s just your meat suit,” she says.
“The only thing constant is change, right? So when people say, ‘I’m worried about forever,’ then I say, ‘Don’t even get a tattoo then,’ ” Roze said. “But if you do, don’t hate it. You’re not allowed to hate it … It’s forever so just deal … Love your tats.”
If “love your tats” had a poster child, it would probably be Roze. Her fondness for the art of body modification runs strong. “I think a good tattoo is actually a craft,” she said. “Like making a beautiful piece of furniture by hand, writing a song. You have to get it right the first time with tattooing, though.”
However, Roze still recognizes that there are rules for tattooing. This may seem ironic given that the general belief about tattoos is that they go against the rules. They’re subversive.
But Roze sees the modern world of tattooing as less subversive than one may think. When she was young, she was never made to feel like they weren’t cool. “I mean, I was hanging out with gay rock ‘n’ roll people — San Francisco in the ’90s was the s—t,” she noted.
Roze’s view of tattoos as obedient doesn’t stem from their punk popularity, but from an understanding of tattoos as instinct. “Maybe, in our subconscious, there’s something in everyone that compels them to decorate their body,” she says. “Perhaps our collective unconscious has been used to being tattooed for millennia … I think that the compelling urge to get a tattoo sometimes is just that.”
She sees it as more subversive to resist such a subconscious desire. “If you don’t do anything to yourself at all. I bet that’s probably the most subversive ever. … That’s punk.”
But perhaps the most punk thing in the room was Roze’s vision for the future. “My dream right now is to buy a corner lot and build the Addams Family House on it and have a tattoo parlor in there.”
On May 6, Sacred Rose will be celebrating its 25th anniversary at the Ivy Room in Albany. It’s no Addams Family Tattoo Parlor, but if one eventually appears in town, stop in and ask for Karen Roze.