Cat Palmer, An Award-Winning Photographer, Has Some Thoughts on Tattoos, Art, and Activism

Cat Palmer is an award-winning photographer who sat down to talk to us about her art, her passion, and her tattoos.

Content warning: this interview contains a brief mention of suicide.

Photo courtesy of Cat Palmer

Thanks for talking with us, Cat. Where are you from?

Originally I am from Orange County, California, born and raised. But, for the last 20 years, I have resided in Salt Lake City, Utah and love it here.

As an award-winning photographer, how did you go from appreciating photography to creating it?

In high school, I had an amazing photography teacher “M.” I attended Villa Park High School. He let me push the envelope and taught at an advanced level. He turned me on to Diane Arbus. In 1997, I went to college for photography. For a long time, it was a hobby…an obsession. At some point, in my early 20’s I realized I could shift to making art and then eventually focused on building clients and doing it more full-time.

How long have you been a photographer?

Thirteen years ago, I started doing it full-time and left my job. (For reference, I am now almost 42.)

A lot of your work centers around portraiture. How did you get started in your specialty?

People intrigue me. In the 90’s I was particularly interested in the people of the streets in Los Angeles. I have never been one to photograph landscapes. I would rather see nature with my own eyes. I like people’s interesting faces. I like capturing people’s beauty and helping them see them how I see them.

You capture everything from weddings to pet portraits. Which sessions are your favorite?

Pets and maternity sessions are probably my favorite. I love animals—sometimes more than people! Ha! I also love the beauty of pregnancy. It is fun to get creative in both settings.

Photo courtesy of Cat Palmer

Which photographers have influenced your work?

Diane Arbus was my biggest influencer at a young age. She saw beauty in everyone. She saw beauty in the people that society would often shun. As someone that has struggled with lifelong suicidal ideation, I could also relate to that. Sally Mann is also brilliant but had less of an impact on me as a kid.

Aside from photography, what are you passionate about? What causes do you support?

Activism is something I am passionate about! I do a lot of activism through my art for reproductive rights, gay rights, transgender visibility, peace to the middle east, clean air (SLC has some terrible air), domestic violence, consent culture instead of rape culture, black lives matter… the list goes on. I have been at this a while! I love using my art as a platform to make my voice heard.

What do you think that the composition of a great photo and a great tattoo have in common?

Photography and tattoos are both art. All art is subjective. What I love and am drawn to might not be for someone else. I slowly started covering my body because I was not in love with my body. But I thought of it as art. Now I see art when I look at my body, and I love it. I see that with photography and the art I create as well. There is beauty everywhere, if you choose to see it.

Photo courtesy of Cat Palmer

When did you first know that you wanted to get a tattoo?

My mother kind of peer pressured me into my first tattoo at age 34. There was some miscommunication. I was visiting her in the East Bay Area on her birthday, and I thought I was just going with her to get a tattoo for her. I did not know she had paid for both of us, and I would be getting my first one that day. I decided to just go with it and got something simple on my left shoulder…that way, if I ended up not loving it, I at least did not have to look at it. A mama bird with two little baby birds (my kids). It was over after that. I was hooked.

You have so many gorgeous pieces. I especially love the floral piece on your forearm. But if you had to choose, which is your favorite?

Thank you! I love the vulva flowers on my arm, too, and that sleeve is pretty special to me. I recently had Jane the Stranger do a full moon series on my left arm that I am pretty in love with currently. It has animals’ skulls, and the line work is incredible. My partner and I are currently working with Alex Gregory planning our next pieces, and I could not be more thrilled.

Photo courtesy of Cat Palmer

Do you have any plans in the works for future tattoos?

I have a lot of plans for tattoos, and I feel like I am running out of space!! I want a beehive on my left thigh to go with my queen bee knees. I want more poetry everywhere (I have Warsan Shire on my left leg, JulieAnn Carter-Winward on my back; I want some Andrea Gibson somewhere and maybe Nayyirah Waheed). I want another leg sleeve on my right leg, and I am up in the air about what it will be exactly.

My bestie & I have talked for years about getting an octopus together. I have a Max Grundy piece on my left leg that Madison Teaze did (she has done most of my body). I used to think I wanted a big dead tree on my back, but now I think I want to find an artist and let them design something. I like to collect art on my walls and body. Sigh… I need more time, money, and skin!

Photo courtesy of Cat Palmer

Where do you look for tattoo inspiration?

My tattoo inspiration has been different over the years. With my right sleeve, I just knew I wanted my favorite flower (peony) with vulvas in the center. I knew the overall theme, but I let Madison design it because I trusted her. At that point, she had done over 45 hours on my body. This sleeve represents my journey out of a repressive religion and coming out of the closet. There is hidden symbolism throughout it.

With the hexagon 1/2 sleeve, I just like bees and hexagons. I reached out to Max Grundy before having his art tattooed on me (tattoo ethics are important to me—probably because I am a full-time artist). I would have hired him. He is an old friend and said any good artist could tweak his work. He gave his blessing. I wanted a female in front of the SLC skyline but in his style. Madison killed it!

I follow a lot of artists online and love looking at their work. For example, Jane the Stranger. With my most recent one, I let Jane design it and did not know what I was getting until I showed up. I just said I wanted a moth with the moon cycle, and she added so much to it. It was perfect. She was an artist that I had been really wanting on my body. It took half a day, and I still feel so grateful to have gotten in with her.

Do you have any advice for other aspiring female and non-binary photographers?

My advice for female and non-binary photographers: know your worth. Where I live, this is a pretty male-dominated field. Find your niche, find your market, and do not be afraid to ruffle some feathers.

Most recently, I was dressed professionally. The client knew I had tattoos when hiring me. It was a two-day event. They saw my tattoos the night before. I showed up to shoot the next day, and they asked me to change even though I was dressed nicer than most people there and better than their vendors. I later found out they did not ask the male vendor with tattoos to cover up. I let them know I would not be changing and got back to work.

Photo courtesy of Cat Palmer

Find Cat Palmer on Instagram, at @catpalmerphotography!

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