Friday, April 16, 2010

Skin Deep Mexican Girly pinup Japanese Heroes

Just 10 years ago, Superior Court Judge Barbara Rouse overturned a ban on tattooing that had been in effect in Massachusetts since the 1960s. “Tattooing is an ancient art form which has been practiced in virtually every culture,’’ she wrote in her judgment. Tattoos “demonstrate commitment to other persons, to institutions, to religious beliefs, and to political and personal beliefs.’’

* Dr. Lakra discusses the development of the art of his tattoos

DR. LAKRA At: Institute of Contemporary Art, through Sept. 6. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org

UNDER THE SKIN: Tattoos in Japanese Prints At: Museum of Fine Arts, through Jan. 2. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org

The first statement’s true. The second is only part of the story.

There’s no doubt that permanently inscribing images and words into one’s skin qualifies as an act of commitment. Just ask Johnny “Winona Forever’’ Depp. But sometimes tattooing evolves and blossoms into something more than just a declaration of identity. It becomes art.

Acknowledging this, two of Boston’s prestigious art institutions — the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art — have just opened exhibitions dedicated to the art of tattooing. One of them, the first US solo show for the Mexico-based tattoo artist known as Dr. Lakra, is the ICA’s attempt to capitalize on the youthful audience that jostled to see its Shepard Fairey show last year. It’s been organized by the same independent curator, Pedro Alonzo, and it’s a lot of fun.

The other, at the MFA, is called “Under the Skin: Tattoos in Japanese Prints.’’ On the surface, it’s more restrained, but in reality, it’s no less fun. Drawn from the MFA’s almost peerless collection of Japanese prints, it illuminates the intriguing tattoo craze that swept through late-19th-century Japan and caught on with international visitors, many of whom — including Bostonian Charles Longfellow, son of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — submitted their own bodies to the tattooist’s needle while guests in that country.

The prints of the great artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi did not just reflect this craze: They propelled it. And you can see why. The tattoos sported by the muscular protagonists of Kuniyoshi’s series “One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Popular Shuihuzhuan’’ are frankly incredible. Like impossibly splendid skin rashes, they spread across their hosts’ bodies, imposing Japanese asymmetry on the obstinate symmetry of the human form.

Kuniyoshi’s series was a prototype for today’s manga and superhero comics and a continuing inspiration for tattoo artists like Dr. Lakra. The bodies of his dashing, wild-eyed, and wonderfully idiosyncratic heroes teem with pretty peonies, snarling lions, snakes, ivy, leopards, mountains, waterfalls, and dragons. And like the tattoo of a marbled rump steak on the fleshy upper arm of the woman who makes the coffee at my local cafe, they do an effective job of, um, confusing the pictorial field.

The flatness of Japanese prints makes it hard to tell which part of the image is the hero’s tattoo, which his elaborately decorated kimono, and which the ornamentation on the scabbard of his sword. That’s part of the excitement of viewing them. And yet it’s marvelous how efficiently Japanese printmakers turn complexity into clarity. It’s never more than a second or two before the image resolves and your eyes lock on to the action depicted

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"Skin deep"
- The art of the tattoo, ancient and modern, showcased in exhibitions at MFA and ICA - The Boston Globe (lihat di Google Wikipinggir)

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