East L.A. tattoo legend Freddy Negrete spent Wednesday afternoon as you could imagine he typically would: hunched over a shirtless client, a tattoo gun buzzing in his hand. The difference was the steady stream of amateur anthropologists observing him and his human canvas like a pair of sentient mannequins in a natural history museum diorama — which is essentially what they were.
A fully functioning replica tattoo parlor has been erected inside the Natural History Museum of L.A. County as part of the museum's new exhibit, “Tattoo: An Exhibition.” It's positioned just before the portion of the show that highlights L.A. artists, clients and their contributions to tattoo culture locally and at large. For the next 21 weekends, local artists of note — Lisa Bracero of Yer Cheat'n Heart, Miles Foxworthy of True Tattoo, Aaron Torres of Gold Rush Tattoo and more than a dozen others — will take turns setting up shop inside the museum's ersatz parlor. Several artists designed NHM-themed flash for the occasion. (Sadly, they're booked up till early January, which is when the museum will once again open registration, allowing prospective clients to set up appointments through the end of the exhibit's run in mid-April.)
For people who have a bunch of tattoos or have spent any amount of time inside tattoo shops, the replica parlor can feel a little mundane, as if there were a museum installation devoted to a laundromat or a 7-Eleven. But for museumgoers who are completely divorced from that segment of American subculture, it's a cool, unintimidating way to see the sort of environment in which tattoo artists practice their craft: a well-lit space with clean, checkerboard linoleum floors and framed flash hung neatly on the walls.
From beginning to end, the exhibit covers a lot of ground, from 5,000-year-old tribal tattoos customary in primitive societies to tattoos used for identification (as they were during the Holocaust) to ultra-modern day-glo tattoos that look futuristic enough to seem unreal. Alarmingly lifelike silicone limbs and torsos that have been tattooed by modern artists from all over the world appear in glass cases throughout the dimly lit exhibit space.
The exhibit was created and developed by Musee du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris and subsequently traveled to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto as well as Chicago's Field Museum, but the NHMLA iteration has 3,000 additional square feet of artifacts, all specific to L.A.'s tattoo history and extant tattoo culture. Co-curated by frequent L.A. Weekly contributor Josh Chesler, the L.A. portion is divided into two distinct sections based on two distinctly L.A. styles of tattooing with divergent stories: the black-and-gray realistic tattooing that was popularized in prisons and later East L.A. parlors, and the traditional style that thrived in the early to mid 20th century in shops that populated long-defunct Long Beach amusement park the Pike. A pair of five-minute, talking-head documentaries — one about each style — are projected on separate walls.
As artist Rick Walters explains in the doc on the scene at the Pike, the style of tattooing that originated at New York's Coney Island flourished on the West Coast thanks to Long Beach's military presence. Sailors with the Navy's Seventh Fleet, as well as those stationed at Camp Pendleton, relied on artists like Sailor Jerry and Bert Grimm to keep them in ink. The exhibit also touches on a lesser-known figure from the Long Beach scene, an artist named Dainty Dotty, who'd apparently appeared as a “fat lady” in the circus before picking up the craft. It seems worth noting that Grimm's legendary shop on Chestnut Place is currently owned and operated by female artist Kari Barba.
Meanwhile, in the ’30s and ’40s, the pinta-style tattoos that Latino men were picking up in L.A. prisons were gaining popularity in pachuco circles on the city's Eastside. The recognizable pachuco cross (a little cross with three rays coming out of it, usually located on the hand, between the thumb and forefinger) would evolve into the highly detailed, transitional pieces Chicano artists create today, an effect that's achieved by simply watering down black ink. Incidentally, a white dude from Kansas named Charlie Cartwright became instrumental in the scene when he opened Goodtime Charlie's on Whittier Boulevard, East L.A.'s first tattoo parlor and an enduring piece of L.A. tattoo history.
Speaking in advance of the preview — the exhibit officially opens on Nov. 19 — curator Gretchen Baker joked that working on “Tattoo” has inadvertently made her more attracted to the medium. “I don't have any tattoos,” she said. “But I may get one now.” I have a feeling a lot of people could emerge from this show with the same attitude.