Dr. Lakra is no more a real doctor than is Dr. Dre or Dr. Demento. The 38-year-old Mexican tattoo artist’s real name is Jerónimo López Ramírez. As for “lakra,” it means “delinquent.” Or so I thought.
“No,” Dr. Lakra corrects me through a translator during our e-mail interview, “it is more like Dr. Scumbag. It is a difficult word to translate. In the dictionary, it says something like ‘traces left by illness.’ And I did not choose the name. It was given to me. It all started because of a bag I used that was used by doctors, but I used it to hold my tattooing equipment.”
Dr. Lakra inks on skin, but also on many kinds of inanimate surfaces. His first US solo exhibition — 60-plus pieces, mostly from American collectors — opens this Wednesday at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Currently working on a 40-foot mural at the museum, he will take part in a panel discussion Wednesday at 6:30 pm and then give a gallery talk Thursday at 6 pm.
When did you start tattooing, and when did you feel this was something you could translate into an art form?
I started tattooing in 1990 or 1991. A tattoo can be a lot of things, but I always knew that it could be seen or used as an art form. It does not need any translation.
What was your early or initial inspiration to do this?
The Chopera punk scene in Mexico City. It’s a cultural flea market that has been around since the ’80s. It is where all types of youth get together — punks, goths, skaters, rastas — to buy and exchange music and paraphernalia related to rock and to hang out. It was there that I saw [tattoo artist] Ed Hardy’s Tattootime for the first time, the issue dedicated to music and sea tattoos. This was a huge inspiration.
Was there ever any question in your mind that tattooing is an art?
A tattoo can be many things. From the moment I started researching tattoos, I was fascinated by the idea that they can be many different things, depending on the context, including art.
What are the oddest objects you’ve tattooed?
Once I tattooed a toothless, one-eyed old lady who was about 80 years old. When I learned that any plastic could be tattooed, I started tattooing everything — telephones, lighters, shoes, glasses, cups, dolls, all the plastic things I had. But not as an art form, or to show what I did as a work of art — just to decorate the objects in my daily life.
There’s humor and satire in what you do.
In a way, it is the same gesture that a child makes when he draws a moustache on a picture of the schoolmaster, or that a young person does when he draws vampire teeth on a poster of a political candidate.
Once, tattoos seemed to be the provenance of World War II sailors, bikers, gang-bangers, and convicts. Here in Massachusetts, it was illegal until 10 years ago. What do you think accounts for the long-time taboo?
I believe that ignorance is the main problem. Another is religion, and yet another is the state. Combine all this and you’ll get a ton of laws and prohibitions. But I also imagine that the fact that Native Americans tattooed themselves contributed to the taboo. In colonial times, the Western mentality saw tattoos as a threat, as a cultural resistance, as a religion, as a lifestyle that should be prohibited or isolated in a reservation. That said, prohibitions also came due to a hepatitis epidemic.