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True Colors : Art: The tattoo, a timeless form of personal adornment, is breaking new ground. An exhibit of photographs showcases the art of self-expression.

March 19, 1992|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been called the one art form your mother really hates.

Tattooing is the theme of a new exhibit of photographs at the Bryce Bannatyne Gallery in Santa Monica. The show, which opens Saturday, is called "Forever Yes: Art of the New Tattoo." And the tattoo it celebrates is light years removed from the dermatological cries for help that sailors used to commission while semiconscious.

Among the remarkable tattoos featured in the photos on exhibit: a sinuous skeleton that snakes across the leg, back and arm of a paleontologist; a Quick Draw McGraw lunch box tattooed on the rear of one of Quick Draw's biggest fans, and a portrait of Alex Lynch tattooed on the extremely bald head of Alex Lynch.

In contrast to the crude, in-your-face messages of the "Born to Raise Hell" school (a school believed to be located in a county jail somewhere in Texas), these tattoos have many moods.

Some, such as the images of tattoo artist Cynthia Witkin, are suffused with ethnic pride. Witkin, wife of photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, is half Navajo, and her tattoos feature stylized rattlesnakes and other American Indian icons. Some are deeply disturbing, such as Angeleno tattooer Leo Zulueta's black-and-red design featuring a skull with lowrider sideburns and pompadour and the redundant slogan "Damaged."

Some are sophisticated, such as the loving parody of a Francis Bacon self-portrait that Jill Jordan tattooed onto the shoulder of photographer and Bacon admirer Vicki Berndt. And some are wonderfully moving, such as the child's drawings that Bill Salmon tattooed on a couple who wanted to display their darling's art on themselves instead of the refrigerator door. (Bill Salmon himself has a tattoo over much of his body of--what else?--a salmon, which many admirers regard as a particularly fine example of the tattoo as a form of self-expression.)

Bannatyne, who is co-curator of the show with Honolulu tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy, says the show is a landmark. It presents the tattoo at a unique moment in its history, when this timeless form of personal adornment is breaking new ground. "I am convinced this art form is what's leading us into the 21st Century," Bannatyne says.

He points to the more than 70 photographs in the show as evidence that a small but growing number of tattoo artists are creating genuine works of art on the curved canvases that are their clients' bodies. And he notes that photographers, among them the late Robert Mapplethorpe, extend that art even further when they incorporate tattoos into their work.

Virtually everyone agrees that skin art is a major commitment. Bannatyne cites the example of Larry, a 19-year-old who had San Francisco's Fred Corbin tattoo a glowing sacred heart of Jesus between his nipples. Bannatyne describes the tattoo as a collaboration between the person who gets it and the person who gives it, but it is Larry who will carry it around in perpetuity.

A tattoo belongs to its owner in a way no painting or sculpture does, Bannatyne points out. "They're going to take it into the grave with them," he says. "That's the toughness of tattoo."

Bannatyne has never gone under the needle himself. His only tattoo, he says, "is the unwritten one emblazoned all across me called 'Art Dealer.' "

Bannatyne has no religious scruples against tattoos (both Jewish law and the Roman Catholic Church forbid them). But he seems to feel that living with the image you thought was cool at 19 is a little like having to walk around forever wearing the china pattern you picked the first time you got married. Tastes usually change in the course of a lifetime. Tattoos never do.

Jordan, who appears in the show both as an artist and as a subject, has no such reservations. A former teacher at Otis Parsons Institute, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts, Jordan is one of the small but growing coterie of traditionally trained artists, many of them women, who have chosen to work in ink on skin.

As proprietor of Red Devil Studio in Hollywood, Jordan, 32, does only custom work for clients who pay $125 an hour. There is no sign outside that says tattoo parlor, and her only advertising is word of mouth. Yet Jordan's work has appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, and it is also featured on Cher. Jordan created a necklace tattoo for Cher, a contemporary pattern that students of Cher's videos will want to compare and contrast with the more traditional design on the singer's rump.

Jordan's personal tattoos are cutting edge. On one arm she has what tattooers call a three-quarter sleeve, applied by Hardy. The tattoo, which took 12 hours to complete, is a beautiful, subtly colored display of fruits and vegetables, being eaten by two rats, one on her shoulder, the other at her elbow. She has another rat tattooed on her stomach. "I am a one-of-a-kind person," says Jordan. "Even my tattoos are one of a kind."

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