Against all odds, Kristi “Dollface” Williams has been a small business owner for almost twenty years. Overcoming a have-not childhood, she turned her artistic gift into a career that changes both bodies and minds in beautiful ways – this is a story with a twist.
Kristi grew up in Venice Beach with her mom and older brother. Her dad had drug and alcohol problems, and used much of the family’s money to feed habits, but not his kids.
She had to hustle from an early age, remembering at 9 years old “selling tokens on Santa Monica Pier for money to eat.” Her mom was in real estate, which meant moving frequently. When Kristi was in high school, they relocated to the San Fernando Valley. There she became one of L.A.’s most notorious graffiti writers – at only 15 years old.
It was the mid-1980s, and the UTI graffiti crew invited Kristi (known then as “Pink”) into the fold. “We would go out in the middle of the night, tagging and doing murals,” she recalls. “We did a lot around the famous 6th Street Bridge, Hollywood Boulevard, South Gate, train yards.”
Lettering was her thing, and for what she’d come to be known. “I’d draw a lot when I was little. Then we were expressing ourselves through the art work,” said Kristi. “We didn’t have cell phones or money; we were just poor kids putting art all over Los Angeles.” Sometimes they’d actually get paid to decorate store fronts.
Her mom “wasn’t too stoked. She was afraid I’d get hurt.” Not hurt, but she did get arrested, bombing (muraling) a wall behind their apartment building. “We wouldn’t do that to deface someone’s property. These were alleyways with junky walls and we wanted to put some art on there to make it look cool.” The cops didn’t quite agree.
The family moved to Victorville to get Kristi away from the graffiti crew. Never having enough money get an education and eat, she dropped out of high school and got jobs.
Soon Mom’s work brought them to Hollywood. In 1992, Kristi started hanging out in tattoo shops on the boulevard. She dug into L.A. Tattoo, where ink legends Ric Clayton, Baby Ray, and Jason Brown were working. With her desire to create art still burning, she wanted a tattoo apprenticeship but “nobody would teach me because I was a girl.”
To prove her loyalty and willingness to work, Kristi became the counter girl in the piercing section and did “whatever needed to get that apprenticeship” – sales, merch, errands, and even drawing flash – but it never happened. “They were old school. Girls were piercers, or counter girls.” Instead, she was given the opportunity from Matt at House of Freaks on Melrose, who taught her the skills for professional and safe piercing. She became a Master Piercer and opened her own shop, Through Your Skin, across the street, in 2000.
Tattooing was never far behind. While getting a sleeve from Sunset Strip Tattoo’s Eric Blair (known for inking Thug Life on Tupac’s stomach), Kristi hit him up for an apprenticeship. She recalls, “Back in the day, you pay your dues or you don’t get in the industry. Now people are watching YouTube videos. That’s no way to learn a craft.”
By day, she was operating Through Your Skin, and at night heading into the Valley to get deep schooling from Eric. “It was some ‘Karate Kid’ shit. I could build a tattoo machine in the dark. I learned the old art of pigment-making. He really believed in me.” This went on for a year. Then late one night, after everyone was gone, she set up her station “and the very first tattoo I did in my shop was a flower on my mom’s shoulder.”
Two years ago, TYS moved to its current location upstairs at the corner of Melrose and Fuller, in the spot next to her first Melrose gig. It has lots of space, a beautiful view, and parking lot. Her crew is solid family. They collaborate on pieces, sharing the collective artistic wealth. Zara, Kristi’s apprentice, used to come into the shop as a teen. “She’s my mini-me.”
Kristi is still very popular for piercing, but loves the unlimited creativity tattooing provides. “You can only pierce so many body parts. I’ve pierced them all. I’ve pierced CEOs on body parts that would make your mom cringe,” she jokes. She recently pierced a 93 year old. But her lettering work, which calls back to her youth, is a favorite. “It’s precise, you can’t hide mistakes.” Celebrity clients include Lil Wayne, Taye Diggs, and even Beyonce has been through. A lot of young girls choose Kristi for first tats and piercings.
Kristi wears her story on her body now. “Respect” is tattooed across her stomach representing what she has given and what she has earned, the letter “G” on her face to signify all she’s gone through to reach this stage, and “DOLL FACE” on her knuckles – the nickname from her cherished grandpa, and his last words to her before passing. “I’ve never taken anything for granted in life. Life challenges you to see how strong you are and how you’ll get through.”
Now here’s the twist.
When Kristi was a child, she talked with invisible friends. As she grew up, she had premonitions. And for the past couple of years, the dead loved ones of people she’s tattooing come through to deliver messages. “I know it’s coming when my eyes start watering,” she explains. Through images and feelings, she gets names and other clear identifiers, and comforting messages from the deceased uncles, grandpas, and spouses. “People are coming to me with their tattoo memorials to see if their loved ones come through and 99% of the time they do.”
Trusting and allowing someone to create art with your body can be a personal and intense experience, and the connection with the artist is intimate. It makes sense, then, that Kristi could be a conduit for an even more intimate and delicate experience. She treats her gift carefully, but with honor.
She says, “I truly believe this is why I’m here. I truly believe I’m a messenger.”
THROUGH YOUR SKIN
7353 Melrose Avenue (upstairs)