Grand Rapids | Travel

Grand Rapids Art Museum showcases Michigan tattoo artist

It’s not every day a museum becomes a temporary tattoo parlor.

But that’s what happened recently when the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) launched “Black Waves: The Tattoo Art of Leo Zulueta,” the latest exhibit in its Michigan Artist Series.

While inking an original tattoo around the wrist of a volunteer on opening night, the Ann Arbor tattoo artist answered audience questions about the bold, all-black designs that earned him an international reputation as “the Godfather of Tribal Tattoo.”

Zulueta, who owns Spiral Tattoo in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown neighborhood, grew up in Hawaii of Filipino heritage and studied in California; he has been tattooing clients since 1981. Inspired by the tattoo designs of Borneo, Samoa, Fiji, the Marquesa Islands and other Pacific Rim cultures, he is fascinated by the stylistic geometric patterning that at times covered the wearer’s entire body. Tribal tattoos, considered much more than body adornment, were often symbolic; they signified a rite of passage or a personal accomplishment, or distinguished someone’s social status.

As he developed his own trademark style derived from the ancient tribal designs, Zulueta came to be regarded as a pioneer of tribal tattooing, a dominant contemporary tattooing trend that took root in the United States in the late 1970’s.

Ann Arbor tattoo artist Leo Zulueta inks a tattoo on a volunteer at his exhibit at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. (photo credit: GRAM)

Ron Platt, chief curator at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, explains Zulueta’s contribution to what’s regarded as the New Tribal look this way: Unlike Western tattooing that traditionally focused on individual tattoos and their placement on the body, Zulueta’s design style complements the shape and contours of the wearer’s body. For him, the relationship between tattooed and non-inked skin is key: he freehand draws the design on his subject’s body before he tattoos.

“Some of Leo Zulueta’s most beautiful tattoos are for the back,” according to Platt, who describes the back as an ideal location for tattoo artists who like to work large. Beyond Pacific Rim tattoo traditions, Zulueta’s influences include Art Nouveau graphics and imagery from surf, punk rock and heavy metal cultures.  New Tribalism, Platt says, introduced important options to modern tattooing — clarity, visibility and an appreciation of abstract form for its own sake.

“Black Waves,” which runs through Aug. 27, showcases Zulueta’s range of projects and imagery and features personal photographs, texts, hand-drawn tattoo flash (design) and tattoo-inspired drawings. Near the entrance to the exhibit, in the GRAM’s lobby, is “Wave,” a large-scale mural Zulueta custom-created for the museum.

For more on the exhibit, check

@grartmuseum  #grandrapidsartmuseum #PureMichigan #experiencegrandrapids


Susan R. Pollack
Globetrotting journalist and former Detroit News staff writer Susan R. Pollack has covered travel since 1985, visiting scores of countries on five continents, 49 states, six Canadian provinces and hundreds of cities, islands and outposts along the way. From Alaska, the Galapagos and New Zealand to South Africa, Thailand and Wales, she has suffered the occasional lost luggage, jetlag and Montezuma’s revenge but still delights in sharing travel adventures with readers. In addition to The Detroit News, her award-winning stories and photos have appeared in major newspapers including the Dallas News, Toronto Star, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Chicago Sun Times; and magazines including Delta Sky, Midwest Living, Long Weekends, Experience Michigan, Jetsetter, Home & Away, Lakeland Boating, Hour Detroit, Prevue Meetings and Group Tour. She has contributed to several books including "Rand McNally 2008 Ultimate NASCAR Road Trip Guide." She also writes for websites including, and