The Tattoo Exhibit At Long Beach’s Museum Of Latin American Art Examines The Rich History Of The Artform

Uproxx / MOLLA Selects

I’m sitting in the middle of an art museum in Long Beach, California and a man who I’ve just met (but shares the same name as me) is pushing a needle into my skin. This isn’t my first tattoo, nor my most impulsive, but part of me that is shocked this is all happening. I’m trying to be present as Frankie puts the finishing touches on a painless, perfect little origami boat — all black lines — which now claims the real estate above my right elbow.

I’m here because I’ve been invited to visit the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) and receive a tattoo from a local artist in celebration of their new exhibit, “INK: Stories on Skin.” Upon my arrival, the show’s curator, Carlos Ortega, greeted me and spent 90 minutes personally walking me through the collection. Over the course of the tour, he proved himself to be warm, articulate, and full of energy — every bit as stoked to show me the exhibit as I was for my tattoo. The museum’s mission, Carlos told me, is to expand knowledge and appreciation of Latin American and Latino art. They chose the theme for INK because they wanted to highlight an underrepresented subculture tied to Long Beach, hopeful that it would bring in people who had never set foot into a museum.

Related: These Lesser-Known Tattoo Methods Will Change Your Perspective on the Artform

“I decided on the artwork a lot faster than the placement,” I say, talking toward the mouthpiece of a cell phone being held by a friend (who minutes later will get a completely unplanned tattoo of his own). “I knew I wanted it on my arm but all my original placement ideas would have warped the design.”

On the other end of the phone is the Uproxx audience, watching this body modification happen on Instagram Live. That the entire day has been documented on social media, including the live streaming of this tattoo in its entirety, may contribute to me feeling as though I’m watching myself make this permanent decision from outside my own body.

Sitting here as I write this, the video long expired, I can’t tell you how it ends. I think I crack a joke about how the boat reminds me of a forgotten inside joke, loosely adapted from what was potentially the last good episode of HBO’s Girls (Season 5, episode 6 “The Panic in Central Park”). I chose my tattoo from a flash sheet of images pulled from Latin American works of art. The paper boat was adapted from a painting by Ignacio Gana called Barco Azul. Gana, born in Chile, frequently features origami boats in his oil paint and sculpture work. It’s thought to symbolize life’s hopes and dreams and the human longing to return to nature.

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Upon entering the MoLAA exhibit you’re cast in the role of a sailor recruited by the Navy. Uncle Sam leers at you as you travel from port to port (installation to installation) learning which symbols and techniques originated in which locations, ending with the port of Long Beach.

Long Beach was the Navy Capital of the U.S. from the early 30s through the late 70s, with over 50,000 sailors stationed in town at its peak. What did these sailors have in common? They were homesick for faraway towns, families, and lovers. They also all had a lot of downtime and easy access to grog. What I’m saying is they were the ideal customers for the dozen or so tattoo parlors that had popped up in the area.

“Tattoo artists from all over America would come to Long Beach to learn how to use the tattoo machines,” Carlos tells me. “They all knew how to hand-poke but they didn’t know how to use the machines. Some of the most well-known tattoo artists in the U.S. learned here.”

He then shows me a flash sheet of tattoo designs from what was Bert Grimm’s tattoo parlor, the oldest tattoo shop in the United States. The nautical stars and bannered hearts varied in price but none exceeded $10 (or $150 in 2018 dollars.)

From there, the exhibit spills into a new room — highlighting Chicano and Mexican-American culture. Through photographs and newspaper clippings you’re introduced to the experience of Mexican Americans in Southern California during the 40s and 50s. Starting with the Zoot Suit era and moving through the evolution of Pachuco and Chola subcultures, you start to see the same symbols and icons pop up — like the eagle holding a snake that’s featured on the Mexican flag. Eventually, that symbology became essential to the tattoo scene.

“It’s particularly the Cholo subculture than inherited those designs,” Carlos explains. “Inmates created a trend on the streets of LA and that evolved in the 70s, with the commercialization of these joint style or prison-style tattoos.” He goes on to say that eventually a tattoo parlor opened on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles called Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland that specialized in this prison style artwork. “Suddenly, you didn’t need to have been in prison or know someone who was in prison to get those tattoos.”

I have to take a moment here to acknowledge how truly insane it is that essentially every tattoo you and I have ever laid eyes on — from that guy on Tinder with a full sleeve, to your high school best friend’s infinity symbol, to the ink on my own body as I type this — was the direct result of techniques and styles invented by prisoners.

This exhibit does a great job of unpacking and documenting this, featuring prison-issued bandanas, cups, and bowls — covered in ornate tattoo style art done by inmates as practice. A glass case holds the biggest innovations in prison ink; a DIY tattoo gun made from the motor of a Norelco cassette player.

The invention and availability of this specific cassette player in 1962 made it easy for inmates to create their own tattoo machines. With that, the complexity of the designs increased, they were able to make larger more complicated tattoo pieces in the same amount of time. Prisoners, stripped of every other marker of their identity, found a way to carve who they were, where they came from. They began to draw their heritage into their skin and then improved upon it for the sake of aesthetics.

The most poignant and impactful part of this exhibit takes place in the room with the barest walls. Six television screens are mounted next to large gold frames (some empty) and smaller pieces of art. They play interviews on a loop. The subjects are members of the Long Beach community, all with a story to tell. Seated in front of a black curtain with a singular spotlight on their faces they open their deepest wounds for the camera.

These are stories of domestic violence, gang conflicts, a transgender man coming out and going through gender reassignment surgery. The six people were chosen out of hundreds to participate in the project. After their interviews, they were shown a collection of art pieces, curated by Carlos and his team, and asked to choose a handful that they felt connected to. Using the art they chose, a celebrity tattoo artist designed a tattoo for each of the participants and tattooed them in front of a live audience at the exhibit.

One of the subjects of the video installation is 63-year-old Long Beach resident Melanie Washington. I spoke to her over the phone about her experience with the project. This was her very first tattoo. In her interview, she shares that as a child she was molested by her stepfather. When she revealed the abuse to her mother she threw him out of the house. The next day he returned with a gun and shot Melanie’s mother and sister, who was also being sexually abused. He aimed the gun at Melanie but it malfunctioned, and she survived. For years afterward, she was almost completely mute — afraid of her own voice, which had seemingly caused two of her loved ones to lose their lives.

After graduating from high school, a 17-year-old Melanie fell in love and married a man who quickly began to physically abuse her. He continued to do so throughout both of her pregnancies. She got herself and her kids out, but it started to tear her apart mentally and she turned Angel Dust, to a popular street drug in LA County at the time. After an overdose, Melanie picked herself up, got clean and found God. Years later, her 15-year-old son was shot and killed by his best friend whom he was trying to lure away from a gang, the gang forced the boy kill Melanie’s son, to prove his loyalty. Facing tragedy and loss once again, Melanie chose love. Her son’s killer got life plus 15 years in prison with no possibility of parole, she visits him regularly and went to Washington D.C. to fight for his parole.

Melanie had no tattoos or any interest in getting one when her surviving son forwarded her an email with the instructions to fill out a questionnaire about her life. She remained hesitant while interviewing with a panel of museum staff, but they still picked her. Her son, she tells me, ultimately helped her change her mind. “My oldest said, ‘Mom, I think your life has a story. And the people you’re going in and dealing with [through ministry] usually have tattoos, so if you have a tattoo it’ll let them feel so much more comfortable about dealing with you because everyone makes tattoos out to be something bad.’”

Talking with her tattoo artist, Mark Mahoney, helped assure Melanie as well. He promised that it wouldn’t hurt and that she could back out at any moment up until the needle hit her skin.

A portrait of Melanie and her completed tattoo now hangs in a gold frame in the exhibit. It depicts a figure of Melanie rising above a storm over scripted text reading “Forgiving the Unforgivable.” This represents so much of Melanie’s life and her perseverance. It’s also a nod to the special relationship she has with the man who took her son’s life, she tells me “I want him to be able to have a chance at life. He was only 17, and 17-year-olds can’t really think the way they’re supposed to think and he may have taken my son’s life but me taking yours is never gonna bring him back. So that’s where I’m at and that’s what this tattoo depicts for me and I’m proud to show it.”

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The morning after my visit to MoLAA, before my eyes open, I’m running my fingers over the raised lines of my new tattoo and thinking about permanence and all the metaphorical flags we stick in the soil, to remind ourselves and others that “I am me; I am here.”

I think about my own tattoos. A massive and winding silver fern leaf across my ribs, the national symbol of New Zealand — which I got as a 20-year-old living abroad. A Microsoft style cursor on my wrist, my own version of an arrow moving forward, I got on a whim about ninety minutes after I found out my dad was going to rehab. “Don’t Spook” on my right hip in a handwriting style I jacked from artist Adam JK, a reminder to not be such a wimp. And roman numerals reading ‘four of four’ placing me as the youngest of my siblings. A tattoo we all got together, mine above my left elbow, right before I moved 3,000 miles away from my entire family.

These are all parts of the person I’ve been, the person I am and the flags I’ve stuck in the soil. And now I have this little paper boat and I will always have it. I will always have been there in that room in that museum, just a few miles away from where tattooing as we know it began.

You can visit INK: Stories On Skin at The Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach now through February 3rd, 2019. This experience was provided by the museum. You can learn more about the Uproxx press trip/hosting policy here.