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ART : FLESH TONES : Laguna Exhibit Looks Beneath the Surface at Artists and Tattoos

August 03, 1995|ZAN DUBIN | Zan Dubin covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

The summer after graduating from Newport Harbor High School, aspiring artist Don Ed Hardy had a booth at the Laguna Beach Sawdust Festival. It's safe to say that the wares he exhibitedthere didn't raise an eyebrow.

"It was around 1962, and the prevailing aesthetic was like really pleasant seascapes and clowns," recalled Hardy, who was raised in Corona del Mar.

Such pleasantries still dominate the festival. Hardy, however, now favors bloody daggers, venomous snakes and Stinky the skunk.

Hardy is a tattoo artist, who designs and applies the indelible designs, as well as a trained contemporary artist. His current project is to show how tattoos and more traditional artworks fit together in "Eye Tattooed America," a traveling group exhibition at Laguna Art Museum that Hardy curated.

"It's great to see this wild art form I've embraced kind of coming back to the old stomping grounds," said Hardy, whose works are among those displayed. "It'll be fun to see what sort of reaction it gets from people used to a more staid kind of art."

If another Laguna Museum exhibit exploring the impact of lowbrow culture on highbrow art is any indication, public reaction could be gonzo. "Kustom Kulture," the 1993 show linking custom cars, hot rods, raunchy comics and contemporary art, scored as one of the 75-year-old institution's most popular efforts ever.

"Eye Tattooed America" includes an in-your-face profusion of flash--designs of the images, such as snarling panthers, skulls, roses, hearts and U.S. Navy insignias, worn by the tattooed.

Eye-popping photographs show people vividly tattooed from bald head and bare butt to toe. But the exhibit's thrust is how tattoo art has left its mark on fine art, represented here by paintings, sculpture and etchings.

There are about 150 pieces, dating from the 1930s through the '90s. About 30 artists contributed works, including tattoo artist "Sailor Jerry" Collins, who was Hardy's mentor. There are also artists who, like Hardy, straddle both worlds and leading fine artists who have at one time or another found inspiration, imagery or both from the phenomenon of flesh branding. Among them are Ed Paschke, Terry Allen, Tony Fitzpatrick, Karen Carson, Manuel Ocampo, John Altoon and Masami Teraoka.

A bloody dagger protrudes from an envelope carried aloft by a blindfolded bird in Hardy's enigmatic, foreboding watercolor "Bad News (Tweeter Is Sick)" (1992). The disconcerting "Painted Lady" (1971), an oil painting by Paschke, perhaps Chicago's best-known artist, depicts a 1940s-era pinup beauty covered in tattoos, her sweetly smiling face included.

Fitzpatrick, a self-taught artist, tattoos animals--dogs, horses--as well as humans with cockroaches, religious imagery and spiders. George Klauba creates sculptures reminiscent of African masks, painting each one's face with tiny dots and designs evocative of Australian aboriginal sand paintings.

"Many of the works here are not directly identifiable as tattoo designs but carry their spirit: A sense of distilled and forceful emotion, regardless of subject or style, with a kind of weird beauty that is simultaneously dumb, funny, frightening and seductive," Hardy wrote in the show's catalogue. Hardy, a nationally recognized authority on tattoos, went on to say, "Sacred emblems, powerful animals and popular symbols are frequently used--tattoo designs have always tended to be exotic and amuletic."

Bolton Colburn, the Laguna museum's curator of collections, was enthusiastic about the exhibit: "The work has an incredible wallop. Visually, it's overload; it's very fast-paced and relates to 'Kustom Kulture' in that sense too. Work by a lot of contemporary artists influenced by the custom car scene is about overload and about taking imagery and spitting it out, regurgitating it in new ways."

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Reaching back thousands of years, tattoo art has been practiced by cultures around the globe. Not merely decorative, its ritualized markings delineated cultural affiliation or community status, for instance, among indigenous Pacific basin groups. (Former Laguna Museum chief curator Susan M. Anderson expanded "Eye Tattooed America's" Pacific basin orientation with historical information and artifacts from Polynesia and Mojave Desert Native Americans. Anderson also added work by several Southern California artists.)

"Polynesia played a major role in the beginnings of tattooing in the West, especially during World War II," Colburn said in a recent interview at the museum. "Sailors going off to fight the Japanese would see traditional work on the islands and brought the [stylistic] ideas back with them."

The Long Beach Pike amusement park was the site of a tattoo resurgence close to home. During the '50s and '60s, the Pike had the largest cluster of tattoo parlors in Southern California, according to Hardy, who nurtured his dreams there.

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