L.A. Skin and Ink explores cultural importance of tattoos


Author: Saybin Medler|Saybin Medler

Imagine walking into a prestigious art museum, seeing a world-renowned Van Gogh or a portrait by Picasso, then moving on and seeing the next installment: a large demon tattoo in black and white covering the entirety of a man’s back. Most visitors at an art exhibition would not expect to see tattoo art next to such artistic legends. However, a new exhibit, LA Skin & Ink, currently located at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM), is working to recognize tattoo art as a sophisticated and well-established art form.

Despite an inconspicuous exterior, inside the CAFAM lies an array of interesting exhibits that present the unexpected and introduce new styles of art into the local artistic community. Until January 6, 2013, The CAFAM will be hosting LA Skin & Ink, an exhibit that looks at the history of tattoos in the Los Angeles area, while also exploring its cultural implications and celebrating it as a form of artistic expression.

The exhibit itself almost looks like it could be in a tattoo parlor, with black and red walls and tattoo art covering the interior. A chair, a table and ink pots crowd the exhibit. Ink messily covers the whole station. Behind the station is a display found in almost every tattoo parlor, with several frames of different tattoos all showcasing a specific artist’s work. 

The rest of the exhibit is an assortment of photographs of actual people and their tattoos as well as artists’ paintings and designs. These tattoos span several different styles of tattoo art and showcase many prominent artists that have worked in the L.A. area, including Bert Grimm, Bob Shaw, Don Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven, Leo Zulueta, Jack Rudy, Charlie Cartwright, Estevan Oriol, Mr. Cartoon, Lucky Bastard, Zulu, and more.

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The exhibit displays tattoo styles that range from traditional skulls and pinup girls, with bright colors and sexualized characters, to more culturally expressive art, such as depictions of Aztec history and religious art, mostly black and white depictions of the Virgin Mary or biblical scenes. 

Each of the different displays is stunning in its own right but there are several that draw special attention. One of the more stunning displays in the exhibit is a charcoal drawing of a naked woman from behind. A black symbol spans the entire length of her back. This piece is not only impressive for its shear size, but for its overall simplicity and the beauty that highlights the art of tattoos.

Another display that stands out, “Fire Goddess,” reveals a colorful depiction of a female version of the Indian deity, Agni the God of Fire, with a bare chest and several arms as she sits in the lotus position. This piece has an incredible level of intricate detail and eye-catching colors. 

The last installment in the exhibit features paintings that celebrate tattoo art and the culture surrounding them. “No Pain, No Gain,” by Sergio Sanchez, depicts a tattoo artist tattooing a women in roller skates. Additionally, there are portraits of traditional looking Latino women with abstract tattoos down their arms. These pieces not only help add another dimension to the culture of tattooing, but also are stunning pieces of art in their own right.

However, this exhibit isn’t solely an exploration of different styles of tattoo art, but also explores how artistic styles and subject matter of tattoos have changed over the years. The museum takes special care to lead the viewer not only on a journey of the evolution of tattoo art in L.A., but also the evolution of of L.A. itself.

Tattooing has always been used as a form of identity expression as well as cultural expression. In L.A., tattooing
started in the military and within outlaw groups in the 1960’s. Tattooing slowly moved into
something that more and more cultural groups used and eventually became a
recognized art form in most of the world.

This exhibit will be interesting to anyone who has an interest in art, or tattoos, or both.  This exhibit gives a unique twist on the world of tattoos and creating a landscape where tattoo art can be seen as a contemporary art form.

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