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.

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“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.

Molaa Selects

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.