BODY OF ART: Tattoo Nation

Exhibit at Fulginiti details ink as personal, sometimes troubling stories

AURORA | It’s a label that could easily mean death in the wrong neighborhood.

In the highly territorial world of the Los Angeles barrios, pledging allegiance to a specific street corner or city block carries big risks. Wearing hometown pride on your sleeve in a rival’s part of town could very well mean inviting a deadly attack.


Simon Zalkind, exhibit curator, talks about what drew him in Schwartz's work and ultimately the decision to feature his art work. Oct. 15, at the Fulginiti gallery on Anschutz campus in Aurora. Tattoo Nation will be displayed in the gallery till Dec. 19. (Danielle Shriver/ Aurora Sentinel)

But even with that risk, the unnamed subject of Eric Schwartz’s photograph looks like he has no qualms about the “SANGRA” tag that’s spelled out across his forehead in Gothic black lettering. Standing with two friends, the man in the portrait looks confidently into the camera, unrepentantly proud of the gang shorthand for the San Gabriel neighborhood that’s tattooed on his face.

“Let’s face it, this is ink under skin. That is like putting a target on your head,” Schwartz said, standing in front of the large, vivid print hanging in the gallery space at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at the Anschutz Medical Campus. “But that’s where he’s from. That’s his neighborhood. I think out of all tattoos I’ve ever photographed, that’s the most defiant.”

And Schwartz has photographed a lot of tattoos. The exhibition titled “Tattoo Nation” currently on display at the Fulginiti Pavilion is a small sampling of a documentary project that’s spanned years and included hundreds of stories. Beginning in 2006, Schwartz set out to document the history and evolution of a fine art form that many would have trouble considering fine art.

“What fascinated me was how thoughtful people were about their tattoos, what they meant to them,” said Schwartz, a Denver-based artist who originally hails from New York. “Coming from a fine arts background, I was astounded that I had no idea what the imagery meant. The images they had on their bodies had nothing to do with how these images were used in the path.”

That initial interest eventually led Schwartz to L.A., considered by many to be the tattoo capital of the world. His focus narrowed to a specific style and community. As Schwartz learned more and more about the highly detailed, highly symbolic “Black and Grey” tattoo style borne out of the Chicano communities in L.A., he felt he’d found a story that had to be told.

“I just wanted to get these people on record,” Schwartz said, pointing to the people who wore this highly individualized artwork on their skin. “The reason that people were expressing themselves in this way in tattoo came from this particular culture. I wanted to get these people on record. This whole project started out as an oral history.”

Those initial efforts to get the subjects’ feedback on film turned into a much bigger project. Schwartz collaborated with writers John Corry and Marc Jakubowicz for “Tattoo Nation,” a documentary released this year that details the history of the “Black and Grey” style. Schwartz directed the film and included feedback from legendary L.A. tattoo artists Charlie Cartwright, Jack Rudy and Freddy Negrete. The documentary also features actor Danny Trejo and musician Travis Barker.

The photo exhibition currently on display at Fulginiti is a complement to that film, a collection of vivid and intimate portraits that spotlight a distinct artistic style. Bare-chested subjects proudly show off tattoos that feature fine lines, complex detail and subject matters pulled from Mayan history.

It’s a collection that perfectly fit with the artistic mission of the Fulginiti gallery, which opened as part of the larger Center for Bioethics and Humanities last year. In addition to Schwartz’s photographs, the “Tattoo Nation” exhibition at Fulginiti will also include several screenings of the documentary.

“When we were planning the year of exhibitions here, we chose the larger, organizing principle of ‘What the Body Told,’ and it was a natural for us to do this,” said Simon Zalkind, Fulginiti’s director of exhibitions. “People turn confessional about their own tattoos, about their ambivalence about their children’s tattoos.”

This collection captures plenty of those visual and highly personal stories. Steven ‘Twoee’ Cardona, a subject of a 2010 portrait by Schwartz, bears a highly realistic landscape featuring an old, Spanish-style mission on his chest and stomach. That vista is far from random, Schwartz says.

“He took me to the mission that’s on his chest, and he took me to the cemetery that’s connected to the mission,” Schwartz said. “He showed me his ancestors’ graves.”

That strong sense of home, history and community comes up again and again in Schwartz’s portraits. It was a unifying theme as this photographic tattoo style arose in tattoo parlors and prisons in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Residents fiercely loyal to their neighborhoods immortalized their homes and histories on their bodies. Those serving long stints in prison used guitar strings and cassette player motors to commit pictures of their homes to their skin in black ink and ultra-fine lines.

“The images seamlessly blend into each other,” Zalkind said. “That’s an astonishing aspect of that artistry.”

That artistry has only become more refined since the style came into its own more than 40 years ago. Schwartz’s portraits show a father and his son, all bearing incredibly detailed scenes of ancient Mayan gods and warriors. Erika Rios’ ink is more contemporary — her back bears a number of portraits of Lucille Ball. Rios, Schwartz explained, still holds fond childhood memories of watching “I Love Lucy” with her family.

Each piece of ink tells a highly personal story. Each subject is a human canvas for a unique and unparalleled art form.

“This approach to tattoo that came out of the Chicano community is very novel,” Schwartz said. “These people are their own artwork. It’s not just art that’s put on them; it’s their expression about themselves.”

“Tattoo Nation”
Runs until Dec. 19 at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities, 13080 E. 19th Ave. on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
A screening of the documentary film is slated for 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 1.

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or

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