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We Chat With Kapten Hanna: A Seattle Tattoo Artist and Dog Rescuer

Hanna loves inking pet portraits, so I had her give me a tattoo featuring two of my cats! It also gave us time to talk about her rescue work.

Kezia Willingham  |  Aug 19th 2015


I have 11 cats now and plan to get all of them tattooed on myself. As of this moment, I have five of them inked on my body. You can read more about my affinity for tattoos in my Eli Falconette interview from last year.

I recently had the privilege of getting tattooed by legendary tattoo artist Hanna Sandstrom, popularly known as Kapten Hanna, who works at Dark Age Tattoo in Seattle.

Hanna designed my most recent tattoo of Freyja, the Norse goddess of love and fertility, whose chariot was pulled by felines, and she incorporated two of my own cats into the piece. I couldn’t have been happier with the resulting artwork, and as it took more than seven hours over the course of two sittings, we had plenty of time to talk about animal rescue and tattoos!

Here's my Freya tattoo featuring two of my cats. (Photo courtesy Kezia Willingham)

Here’s my Freyja tattoo featuring two of my cats. (Photo courtesy Kezia Willingham)

In order to design my tattoo, I explained to Hanna why I wanted to get it and about my involvement in animal rescue, something we both feel strongly about. I also shared with her photos of two of my cats, the two strays who literally walked into my life off the street while my kids and I were walking our dogs.  I love all of my pets, but there is a special charm when one literally chooses you when you least expect it.

I liked Hanna immediately and felt comfortable around her in a way that I don’t around most people. Below is our interview.

Kezia Willingham for Dogster: I know you have a soft spot in your heart for animal rescue. How did your interest in rescue start?

Hanna “Kapten Hanna” Sandstrom: I have a lifelong love of animals, but my interest in rescue definitely started after I adopted my second dog, Wednesday. She was a five-year-old Pug/Boston Terrier with severe fear aggression toward strangers. I learned more from that little dog than I could ever have learned from any book. Over the course of a couple of years, she started to turn around, made a full recovery, and became the amazing happy and silly little girl she always deserved to be! I lost her in March last year at 14 years old, and she will forever be one of the serious life-changers.

Hanna at work at Dark Age Tattoo. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

Hanna at work at Dark Age Tattoo. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

I figured after that, if I could rehabilitate her, I could rehabilitate pretty much any dog, so I started fostering for a New England-based rescue called Friends of Homeless Animals. Over the next two and a half years, I had a total of about 20 foster dogs (one at a time), specializing in dogs with fear and fear aggression issues, seniors, and blind or deaf dogs. My ex-husband and I even ended up adopting one of them, a deaf Boston Terrier named Brutus. We taught him sign language, and he now lives with my ex.

Have you always had dogs?

Not until I moved to the United States in my early 20s (I grew up in Sweden). My parents worked as teachers, and we lived in an apartment so it would have been tricky, and my dad wasn’t too stoked on the idea so it never happened. I also had this idea as a little girl that you had to be retired to have a dog. My grandmother kept saying, “When I retire I’m gonna get a dog!” so I just assumed you had to be retired to get one and never pestered my mom about it.

Once on my own, after years of talking to breeders and visiting shelters, my ex-husband brought home an 11-week-old brown little puppy, a little Pug/Jack Russell mix we named Bela Lugosi. She’s still with me today, almost 12 years old now, and the love of my life. She’s my soul dog, and I don’t think another could ever replace her when I lose her; we’re pathetically codependent.

Hanna with Bela Lugosi. (Photo courtesy Hanna Sandstrom)

Hanna with Bela Lugosi. (Photo courtesy Hanna Sandstrom)

What led to your interest in pet tattoos? What is your favorite thing about tattooing pet portraits?

It was a no-brainer. Art and animals have always been my two most favorite things in the world, and after becoming a tattooer and realizing not all tattooers like doing pet portraits, I started making it one of my specialties.

I LOVE drawing animals, and I think you really have to understand and have a passion or animals in order to be able to draw them well, particularly portraits. You want to catch that special personality in each tattoo. But I think my favorite part is seeing my clients smile after we’re finished.

What do you look for when a client shares a photo of their cat or dog with you? In other words, do you have suggestions for the kind of photo a client should share for best results?

Hanna "Kapten Hanna" Sandstrom with some of her dogs at home. (Photo courtesy Kapten Hanna)

Hanna “Kapten Hanna” Sandstrom with some of her dogs at home. (Photo courtesy Kapten Hanna)

Clear, up close, high-resolution portrait-style photographs. The better the photo, the better the tattoo! And I prefer to get a few different photos to choose from. I usually ask my clients to bring or send me a few different favorite photos of their pets, usually there will be one that stands out.

How would you describe your signature tattoo style?

I was definitely trained as a traditional tattooer, meaning the more old-school tattoo style often associated with sailors. But my background is as an illustrator, so over the past decade it’s evolved and become a bit more detailed. “Evolved traditional” I suppose you could call it. It’s always line driven, and often inspired by old naturalist prints for example.

How many dogs do you have and what are their names?

My fiancé and I have five! My little 12-year-old Pug/Jack Russell Bela Lugosi; our older Pit Bull Terrier boy Matuce, who’s eight; our Pit Bull girl Dixie, who’s five; and our baby boy Pit Bull Teddy, who’s four. And lastly we are semi-permanently fostering a dog for a friend, a little Patterdale Terrier named Ivan, who’s five. They are all so cute together! They have no concept of size and all sleep and play together.

Do you have any special healing advice for pet owners who get tattooed? Are there any unique issues that pet folk must deal with, such as pet hair, dogs wanting to lick fresh tattoos, etc?

It’s pretty much common sense, but particularly in a multi-pet household (as I am very familiar with!), it can be harder to keep things clean, so make sure you change your sheets when you get your tattoo, and don’t let your pets sleep in your bed for at least a week after, as hair, dander, and dirt could irritate the tattoo. And definitely don’t let your pets lick the tattoo.

See more of Hanna’s work by following her on Flickr, Instagram, and Facebook — or contact her at Dark Age Tattoo in Seattle if you’d like to get a tattoo of your own pet.

Read more about dogs and tattoos:

About Kezia Willingham: Also known as the Breadwinning Laundry Queen, Kezia lives with her family, which includes a pack of rescued cats and dogs, in Seattle. Kezia has loved tattoos for as long as she can remember and is quite honored to be tattooed by the legendary Kapten Hanna! Kezia’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Seattle Times, xoJane, and Literary Mama. She has an essay in Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience by Samantha Waltz. Kezia is also a professional member of the Cat Writers’ Association.