By Lucy Guanuna
Like lowriders and graffiti, tattoos have been an integral part of the Chicano culture and identity of Los Angeles, however tattoo art is not yet acknowledged for its role in popularizing the imagery painted time and time again on the hoods of lowriders and cement walls. But, a new exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach seeks to change that by offering visitors a look at how tattoos became a part of the cultural fabric of Los Angeles.
Ink: Stories on Skin, is part history lesson and part live tattoo experience. A walk through the exhibition starts with artifacts from Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo (the oldest continuously operating tattoo parlor in the United States), and ends with pieces that represent the commercialization of Chicano tattoo art. All the while live tattoo sessions are hosted by the museum throughout the show’s run.
The exhibition is the first of its kind, bringing together more than 42 artists to explore the history of tattoos in Los Angeles’ Chicano culture, with new and old flash art, photography, and paintings by artists such as Chaz Bojorquez, Robert Yager and Freddy Negrete.
Despite having a rich history in Los Angeles, the show’s curator, Carlos Ortega, was hard pressed to find any research on Chicano tattoo art. It either didn’t exist or it was incomplete, Ortega said. Ortega worked with Kari Barba (owner of Outer Limits Tattoo in Long Beach, which used to be Grimm’s shop) as a consultant, to interview many of the featured artists and photographers to gather research and create a narrative for the show.
The exhibition is set up as a historical timeline of Chicano art in Los Angeles, starting (chronologically) with colorful images of sailboats, and women wearing Native American garb or sombreros that comprised the 1920’s flash art from Bert Grimm’s.
Another area features imagery created in the 70’s at Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland, the first tattoo parlor to open in East L.A. In that parlor world-renowned tattoo artist Freddy Negrete popularized the “black and grey” style of tattooing he learned in prison. The colorless pieces depict women with bouffant beehive hairstyles, the Virgen de Guadalupe and a revolutionary woman holding a rifle and wearing a military beret.
“In Chicano tattoo art there are three themes that repeat themselves constantly: family values with somebody’s last name, religion with the Virgen or the praying hands, and gang culture and street with guns or gang tattoos,” Ortega said.
Mister Cartoon—who can be credited for bringing Chicano tattoo art out of the parlor and into the mainstream by partnering with companies like Nike, Disney and Cazadores Tequila—painted an original mural for the exhibit. His grayscale mural (above) depicts a gangster skeleton with the number 13 on his belt buckle, Greek masks of comedy and tragedy, and a man with tattoos resembling the face paint of a clown are flanked by the Los Angeles cityscape with a flannel design running down the middle, prison bars to the left and a lowrider at the bottom. He painted a large “LA” in Old English font in the center.
“Over the decades, you see the growth and modernization through the designs themselves. You’ll see the history in some of the designs and the progression of that design as tattoo styles changed over the years,” Barba said.
The prison imagery continues an another area of the exhibition where ink on paper and ink on handkerchief drawings made in and out of prison are on display. Prison tableware with images “tattooed” onto them and an original prison-made tattoo machine furnished with a portable cassette player motor are also on display.
Ortega wanted the exhibition to reflect a lesson he learned from tattoo television shows: people connect deeply with their tattoos. One area features the stories of six participants who have dealt with issues of abuse, low self-esteem, and crime. They were presented with 100 images of artwork and chose the images that resonated with them most. From those images, a tattoo artist created a personalized design for each participant that will be tattooed live in front of an audience.
“These people have turned their negative pain into a positive and we as the tattoo artists are lucky to help them through this process by putting it on their body,” Barba said.
The show opened at MOLAA at the end of August and will close in February 2019. In the meantime, the exhibit will feature a runway show and six live tattoo demonstrations.
Lucy Guanuna is a freelance writer reporting on all things Los Angeles. You can find her stories on crime, social justice movements and culture at The Eastsider, FIERCE by Mitú, and KCET.