Jerónimo López Ramírez is a world-renowned Mexican tattoo artist who used to carry the tools of his trade around in an old-fashioned physician’s bag. As his alter-ego, “Dr. Lakra,” Ramírez also creates works on paper in which he “tattoos” found images as diverse as Japanese prints, political posters, and anatomical drawings, with ink, paint or chalk. He pulls his imagery from comic books and graffiti, gang tattoos and Maori body-modification, engaging, as Frida Kalho did, with Day of the Dead iconography and the work of the famous nineteenth century Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. Lakra, we’re told, is a Spanish slang word connoting delinquency; it’s also a pun on lacra, which means a flaw or scar. If you’re at all interested in post-modern kinds of analysis, the clash of high and low art, or in thinking about cultural imperialism, the show I’ve just described will probably pique your curiosity.
If, however, you’re not interested in those sorts of things, or if you’re interested in them only as secondary to other ways of experiencing art (questions touching meaning, beauty, technique, communication, that “Big Huh” moment where, when standing in front of an image you begin to think new, unformed, wonderful thoughts) then you might have some trouble with this show. It’s hard to know what the images amount to separate from the intellectual apparatus provided by the wall texts, and being repeatedly instructed by those texts to experience the work as “subversive” and “transgressive” is tiresome. Like me, you may prefer to decide on your own when you’re provoked. In fact, the entire show rests on the supposition that certain acts—tattooing, doodling, the painterly convention of creating pentamenti—are in themselves transgressive, and I’m not convinced that here, in this place and this time, they are.
It is transgressive, for example, to draw tattoos on a picture of a luchador, a Mexican professional wrestler? A quick Google search shows that they often have tattoos in real life. Or what about on a pin-up girl from the 50’s? Weren’t such women always “bad,” weren’t such images always lowbrow? By contrast, the image “Don Getulio Vargas,” a political poster of the Brazilian president and dictator, is much more successful. Dr. Lakra has decorated Vargas’s face with a traditional Maori design and burned and distressed the edges of the paper. It’s a mysterious, wonderful image, and one I stood in front of for a long time. But I’m not sure its strength lies in that it “asks us to consider Western representations of power,” as the wall text suggests. What’s good about this image is both more and less than that intellectual question.
Dr. Lakra’s work is best when his enhancements blend seamlessly with the original images. When it takes a moment to see what he’s added, the experience is more rich, a discovery. A quartet of anatomical drawings from Munich, printed perhaps a hundred years ago, are especially lovely. Lakra has “tattooed” the forearms and torsos with pale blue marks; he has also transformed a man into a saint, blending science and religion, art and iconography, showing that decoration can sanctify or vandalize. But sometimes the tattoos add little to the original images. In a Japanese erotic print, a naked man seems to wrestle with a half-dressed woman—is she drawing him closer or pushing him away? Is it rape or lovemaking? That the man now sports a blue, full-torso tattoo (though it is lovely and echoes the movement of the famous woodcut “Great Wave Off Kanagawa”), or that there is now a demon floating against the wall, does not improve or productively complicate the image. In fact, the demon, with its stereotyped Japanese facial features, is distracting and jarring.
The curators urge us to see Dr. Lakra’s use of sexual and racial stereotypes as disruptive to racism and sexism. But despite the instructive wall texts, I’m not sure he’s doing anything besides perpetuating these stereotypes, albeit sometimes in interesting ways. One of the most intriguing series in the exhibit is a collection of black-and-white photographs, perhaps from the 1960s, of naked women in discreetly titillating poses. Using black paint, Lakra has modified the images so the women seem beset by menacing silhouettes. This series succeeds in being subversive and thought-provoking; I love the one in which a woman, looking off out of the frame with a pile of what looks like wheat in her lap, is set upon by derisive male faces jeering at her in profile. But the violence against these women seems unintegrated. It would be, I think, a stretch to conclude that Lakra is making a statement about pornography or the male gaze. In the end, these really are pictures of women coquettishly frolicking with, for example, a huge erect penis while chained by the ankle to the floor, or being stabbed with little knives by angry snakelike creatures. I think we forgive too much when we assume that Lakra intends to subvert such themes. Unlike the work of Kara Walker, who uses silhouettes and familiar stereotypes to create disturbing and readable art, this series doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say about power and sex.
And I’m willing to grant even less latitude to the racial images. The huge paintings—some applied directly to the wall, some painted on vintage posters—of carved African and Oceanic figures, seem to endorse, not subvert, sixty-year old notions about the Other, about exoticism and race. (If you want to know more about this, go see the wonderful “Object, Image, Collector” at the MFA.) And while the wall texts remind us that Dr. Lakra borrows his imagery from a diverse array of non-Western iconography, they have nothing to say about the numerous swastikas that decorate his images. Many viewers will recognize that the swastika was an Indian icon long before it was appropriated by the Nazi party, but coming face-to-face with this symbol is still jarring, given its history. It seems like rather a large omission not to engage with it, but even in this wordy show, there are no explanations. This may be a moment of real subversion, a moment when we’re forced to recognize that a symbol we want to believe we can read, can interpret without a shadow of a doubt as an icon of racism, hatred, and violence, has a life of its own in the non-Western world, has had, and continues to have, a history totally independent of us. But I’m not sure.
Ultimately, the works in this show seem like drafts—rough gestures, preparations toward new images, new art. As they are, they don’t stand up to the gaze. And they are, to a certain extent, hurt by the intensely intellectual language that accompanies them. Dr. Lakra himself is quoted as saying that “tattoos have a purpose. They have to fit the body, and abide by certain rules…The skin is alive and it will change and you have to think about this in order to do a proper tattoo. But when I draw, I don’t have to think about these factors.” This assessment seems spot-on; in these works on paper there’s a disconnect between the original image and what is added. In the end, this show seemed like a rehearsal. It made me want to see the real thing—the tattoo art made by the man who sometimes calls himself Dr. Lakra.
Katherine Hollander reviews art for the “California Literary Review.” Her poetry and literary criticism have been published in “Pleiades,” “AGNI Online,” “Open City” and elsewhere. She is currently a graduate student of European history at Boston University.