BOSTON — What comes to mind when you hear the word “tattoo?”
Well, yes, there is the needle. And, for some, a certain stigma or seedy association. But one in three Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 has a tattoo. And for them, it’s art.
Tattoos are art for the Institute of Contemporary Art, too. Right now, the ICA is hosting a show of tattoo-inspired work by Mexican artist Dr. Lakra.
Just to be clear, Dr. Lakra’s exhibition is not a “tattoo show.” While he does ink skin, he also puts tattoo-like illustrations on found objects. Demons, snakes and gang symbols cover old pin-up girl prints, advertisements, even plastic Kewpie dolls. That’s the focus of this show — Dr. Lakra’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States.
At the ICA, Dr. Lakra paints murals in the gallery as museum workers move crates of his art during installation.
Crouching near a lift, the bearded, soft-spoken artist moves a thin paint brush across the wide surface of a gallery wall. His hand is covered with tiny tattoos, but here Dr. Lakra is creating looming imagery, almost like effigies.
“They’re a mixture of everything — this is like Egyptian, this is from Thailand, this is from Africa, that one is Aztec,” Dr. Lakra explains, pointing to different images on the wall.
Dr. Lakra has traveled the world studying traditions of tattooing in different cultures. The themes in his vast body of work range from the ritualistic to the subversive. Even his nickname means “Dr. Delinquent” in Spanish.
The 38-year-old artist started tattooing underground as a teenager in Mexico. But today, tattoos are more accepted. And while that’s gratifying, Dr. Lakra says part of him laments the street form going mainstream.
“Before it was more, I think, not profound, but intimate, maybe,” Lakra says.
Tattooing on skin — highly personal and awfully permanent — is one of humankind’s oldest art forms. Tattoo-like scars were found on the earliest men. Ancient kings and warriors had them. Charles Darwin wrote about them. In his art, Dr. Lakra mashes this history with more modern imagery from comic books, Mexican wrestlers and Day of the Dead skulls.
Pedro Alonzo curated Dr. Lakra’s show. “He’s very informed about this, this is all coming out in his work,” Alonzo says.
“And in a way it’s a challenge to us to get over our preconceived notions and our stigma attached to tattooing and say, ‘Hey, this has been around a long time and it’s not just, you know, hookers and sailors.’”
Or criminals. That said, Alonzo believes there’s a huge audience for this type of art work since more Americans have tattoos than ever before.
An ICA Visit With The Tattooing “Old Guard”
But how is the tattoo-inspired art exhibit playing with the tattoo community in Boston? To find out, I visit Fat Ram, a tattoo artist, who opened Fat Ram’s Pumpkin Tattoo shop in Jamaica Plain when tattooing became legal in Massachusetts — only a decade ago. He was unabashedly skeptical about his preferred medium’s jump from skin to museum walls.
“The museums just like, ‘Oh, new artsy-fartsy guy has to do with tattoos, that’s trendy in the media, let’s push this as being the latest thing,’ ” Ram says. “And so my reaction is to resist against that.”
But, with a little cajoling, Ram reluctantly agrees to head to the ICA to see Dr. Lakra’s show with me.
First, Ram’s eyes linger on a group of framed photos from old Mexican pin-up magazines. Dr. Lakra drew tattoos on their flawless skin.
“It’s just funny,” Ram says, “you know the images are like traditional images from early American tattooing combined with current iterations of them and gang tattoos.”
Then there’s a dictator with Maori tattoos on his face. And a traditional wood block print of a Japanese courtesan, tattooed, blood dripping from her mouth. She’s holding a heroin needle and a demon or ghoul watches her in the background.
“I love altering images like that, and so it’s interesting in that sense,” Ram says. “It’s just so bizarre and ironic that it’s in this setting.”
In the end, Fat Ram says he is most impressed by Lakra’s wall murals. But, as for the exhibition as a whole, he says nothing has been resolved.
“All my reservations about it and my questions I would ask, and what I feel that people in my industry are going to be wondering, none of those things have been answered,” he says.
Ram thinks about it. All art, he says, is a personal and subjective experience, in the museum or — especially — on your own bicep. I suspect Dr. Lakra would agree.