The Muse

The doctor is in

In our western world, tattooing was long regarded as taboo &- likely due to its associations with gangs and criminality (it is, after all, staining flesh with permanent ink). Though it has breached cultural boundaries and its resurgence has begun to overtake pop culture, there remains a social stigma toward the tattooing street subculture.

But that divide has rapidly begun to crumble, and perhaps no one has done more to dismantle the line between “high art” and “low art,” between art galleries and tattoo parlors, than Dr. Lakra, a Mexican-born tattooist and artist whose groundbreaking self-titled exhibit is now showing at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Born Jerónimo López Ramírez, Dr. Lakra (a Spanish colloquialism meaning “delinquent’) is a visionary of the macabre. He collects images from vintage 1950s Mexican prints &- of busty pin-up girls, wrestlers, even businessmen &- and paints their skin with tattoos. The exhibition, his first solo show in the United States, features more than 60 of his best pieces.

The small-framed man with flyaway black hair began covering himself in tattoos before he considered it a career.

“When I started getting tattoos, I started drawing, too. I just thought it would be fun,” he said at the gallery opening. The hobby led to international renown: his work has been shown in London, Berlin, Mexico City and his hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico.

In one painting, titled “Sin título / Untitled (Chocolatitos),” a woman poses seductively for a chocolate advertisement, yet her skin has been enhanced from neck to toe in inked markings (devil faces, snakes, chains) that illustrate a kitschy erotica. Much of Lakra’s work confronts the social norms of beauty, body image and consumerism by politicizing the innocence of a past era.

Other paintings and manipulated photographs occupy the surrounding walls. A 40-foot double-sided mural divides the space, commissioned specially for the occasion. It is a phantasmagoria of cultural icons &- a riot of women’s faces, tribal totems, intestine-like clouds, perched hawks &- that romanticizes the horrific. The exhibition is a carnival of the grotesque, a unification of the decadent with the diabolical, the provocative with the psychedelic, riddled in dreamy humor and sexual transgressions.

Lakra’s motifs stem from largely the commonality of cultures.

“It is incredible to see how different cultures are and what they have in common. It’s very interesting,” he said, citing those innate, primitive instincts like sex, graffiti and violence.

His designs blur cultural identities by drawing from a wide collection of gang and prison symbols, along with traditional iconography from Maori, Thai, Chicano and ancient Aztec cultures.

“I try to imagine the life of these people . . . how they lived, what they thought . . . the process of their lives that led to their tattoos,” he said of his paintings’ subjects.

Last Wednesday, SHAG hairstylist Sandy Poirier and Allen Zadeh of SmartDesign joined Dr. Lakra in the ICA panel discussion entitled “Skin” to speak on the intimacy of flesh and its texture as a design influence. Though he is a man of few words, Lakra’s work speaks volumes by de-familiarizing skin, forcing others to look at tattoos, and their wearers, differently.

Dr. Lakra’s work joins the ranks of ink-inspired art that is quickly becoming mainstream, elevated from taboo to high-end trendy (even the runway models went tat-happy in Chanel’s Spring 2010 collection). When asked about the recent commercialization and near-glamorization of tattoo design as seen by wildly popular brands like Ed Hardy, Lakra admits, “I don’t like it.” But despite what the Doctor says, tattoo art has become fashion-forward, leaving its mark on society in more ways than the literal.

The Dr. Lakra exhibit will be at the ICA Boston until Sept. 6th.

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