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.
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 http://www.artmuseumgr.org/2016/11/01/leo-zulueta-black-waves/
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