Tattoo Nation director Eric Schwartz on the oral history of the Chicano black-and-grey art form
When Denver-based fine-art photographer Eric Schwartz set out to photograph people with tattoos, he didn't expect to find a detailed history underneath the artwork. After a chance meeting with California tattoo legend Edward "Chuco" Caballero at a national tattoo show, the story for Schwartz's first film, Tattoo Nation, began to reveal itself -- the documentary profiles some of the biggest artists and tattoo recipients to come out of the the early Los Angeles-based, Chicano black-and-grey tattoo scene.
tattoonation.com The first home of Tattooland on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, 1978.
In advance of Tattoo Nation showing at two theaters in Denver this Thursday, April 4, Schwartz spoke with Westword on how the photography project became a film, and the people he met along the way.
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Westword: Why did you start taking photos of people with tattoos in the first place?
Eric Schwartz: I'm a fine-art photographer and about seven or eight years ago, I noticed that more people were getting tattoos; I just noticed more of them around me, and I found it really curious. So I spoke to some of them and very quickly, I learned that people who take tattoos seriously are thoughtful people. I would never, ever have guessed what [the imagery] meant to them. I learned that all of my preconceptions were totally wrong.
The earlier pieces started out with me photographing them and then doing something with text -- it would be part of the interview that I had with them. It was a two-step process for the artwork. I just became fascinated with it. I'm coming from a fine-arts background, and they were so honest and pure that it was amazing to me. What was really interesting to me was how these people were artists in their own right -- even though they would hire artists, they were just like a director of a film.
I became interested in the relationship between the artist and the person getting tattooed, the imagery, the motivation. I thought, this is an interesting subject -- and it just kept evolving as I was photographing people. I went to a big tattoo show out in California and saw this amazing work on this guy coming down an aisle; it was just purely serendipitous. I saw these incredible portraits on this guy's legs and I just stopped him; I said, you have to talk to me. By this time, I had seen a number of tattoos, but I was just literally blown away. It was like looking at photographs.
His name was Chuco (Edward "Chuco" Caballero) and he's in the film. There was an extraordinary conceptual nature to what he was doing. On one leg, he had all of these actors who played gangsters -- he had Marlon Brando, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino. On the other leg, he had pictures of the actual gangsters, which I thought was amazing. One side of his body was Western Catholic imagery and the other side was Aztec, and across his chest had to do with Mexico. It was the story of his life and his influences and his family. It was amazing to me and I realized I had stumbled onto something that was really, truly different.
I grew to learn about the Chicano black and grey tattoo art that he was part of -- that's how Tattoo Nation started.