Cheap thrills

By GREG COOK  |  April 21, 2010

Guest curator Pedro Alonzo, with assistance from ICA curatorial associate Bridget Hanson, has assembled more than 60 works made since 2003. Dr. Lakra’s earlier drawings (not here) were more like folksy doodles or traditional tattoo sample sheets. He seems to have begun drawing on magazines (some blown up to poster size) in the late 1990s, but sometime around 2003 is when the art world really took notice of his tattoo-style work in ink, ballpoint pen, and white paint on vintage images of pin-up girls and wrestlers. Here you also see that he’s turned his tattoo gun on a grimy plastic hand, a Kewpie doll, and an anatomy model, to deliciously creepy effect. It’s a catchy formula, sure, but how many hipster pictures of girls tattooed with devils and spider webs and swastikas can you look at before they all start to look the same?

There’s a bit more going on if you get out your decoder ring. The tattoos drawn on a woman in a 2007 piece include a snake strangling an eagle. It reverses the Aztec myth that the people would find the site of their capital when they came upon an eagle devouring a snake. “Possibly,” according to the ICA, “suggesting a state of unrest due to Mexico’s drug-related turmoil.”

La última y nos . . . (2003) depicts a zonked woman in her underwear drinking wine and covered with tattoos that include a swastika between her eyebrows, traditional Tibetan designs, and the word “Buda” — as in Buddha — on her left hand. The ICA would have it that Dr. Lakra is trying to reclaim the swastika symbol — which dates back to ancient times and symbolizes universal harmony for Buddhists — from the Nazis. Maybe. Or maybe it’s a cheeky reference to the swastika tattooed on murderer Charles Manson’s forehead.

X8 controla (2005) fills an image of a man’s face with Los Angeles gang tattoos: “MS” for the Mara Salvatrucha gang and “18” and “X8” for the 18th Street gang. In real life, having the insignia of both gangs on your face could be hazardous to your health.

Elsewhere, Dr. Lakra covers an old magazine portrait of former Brazilian president Getulio Vargas with moko — traditional tattoos of the Maori of New Zealand. In this case, it’s the wide swirling designs that decorated the faces of chiefs and elite warriors. The ICA suggests we should be prompted to compare Western and non-Western representations of power. “It’s not really defiant,” Alonzo explained during a press preview. “It’s affirming. He’s challenging how we look at power.”

Or maybe Dr. Lakra is using warrior tattoos to call Vargas a gangster. Vargas is often described as a dictator. He seized power during a 1930 revolution and later dissolved parliament and banned political parties and trade unions. Forced out by the military in 1945, he was elected president again in 1950, and he served till 1954, when, after being implicated in a failed assassination attempt on an opposition leader, he put a bullet in his heart. But even knowing all this can’t keep the initial electric fizz from going flat.

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