SUITCASE CITY: NEW PAINTINGS BY AARON ROSE
SEPT 10 - OCT 23, 2021 THE LODGE, LOS ANGELES
CHITCHAT (unfinished): A strange meditation on gossip.
Kids Of America a series of ID spots for MTV (1998). The first films I directed. Verite portraits of music fans. Shot across the country on beautiful Super 8 by Tobin Yelland.
By Aaron Rose for Purple Magazine/Mexico Issue
Photographs by Marlene Marino
The first time I heard of Dr. Lakra was in the mid-1990’s through my friend, the Mexican artist, Miguel Calderon. I was living in New York City and Miguel was showing quite a bit there. Andrea Rosen, his gallerist at the time, introduced us and we began to hang out together when he was in town. Miguel would tell me of all the wonderful things that had been going on in the art scene in Mexico and one of the most intriguing people he mentioned was this mysterious figure, Dr. Lakra, who was working as a somewhat underground tattooist, but was also simultaneously establishing a career as a very prolific contemporary artist. I have always been interested in creative people who are able to seamlessly work across multiple genres and Dr. Lakra was most certainly one of these personalities.
Dr. Lakra, whose given name is Jerónimo López Ramirez, comes from a long legacy of artists in his family. He is the son of famed Mexican painter, sculptor and graphic artist Francisco Toledo and the acclaimed poet and sociologist Elisa Ramírez Castañeda. His father, in addition to being one of Mexico’s most famous artists, was also a prolific activist in Oaxaca. One famous protest involved plans to open a McDonald’s in Oaxaca’s famous 500-year-old Zocalo town square. When his father heard about this he staged an intervention where he stood completely nude in front of the proposed site to remind people of the pleasures of their own food. In Dr. Lakra’s case, the apple does not fall far from the tree, both are rebels in the truest sense of the word.
It is suggested that perhaps it was through his family that Dr. Lakra became such an avid collaborator with other artists. He states, “This hippy community I grew up in, for a way of thinking, was maybe big inspiration for me. If you can do creative things with your friends it’s always better.” As I’ve followed his career I’ve seen multiple instances where the artist has nurtured young talent by bringing them in to work with him on projects. An honorable trait that is surprisingly rare in the contemporary art scene.
Dr. Lakra is based in Oaxaca, and I’ve travelled many times to the city attempting to set up a meeting with him, but always to no avail. However as fate would have it, this time the stars aligned and we were able to arrange an appointment to meet. When we arrived in Mexico though, things turned sideways, coupled with twists and turns usually reserved for the pages of spy novels. What began as a fairly simple excursion south of the border to meet the artist, do a simple interview and photograph his studio began to take on a more chaotic tone. After an adventure one could only have in Mexico, including numerous cancelled flights, midnight bus trips on sketchy roads through the mountains, missed connections, deleted recordings, and a massive youth protest that shut down an airport (all under a very powerful Scorpio full moon), we were finally able to connect at his tattoo studio in Mexico City. Upon entering the space, you’re immediately transported into a different world. Murals painted by Dr. Lakra and depicting everything from Far Eastern spiritual imagery to the rings of hell cover every inch of the interior walls. The buzz of tattoo machines fills the air. I explored the space while Dr. Lakra completed a tattoo of a cat on a young woman and we finally were able to meet face to face.
As one could imagine, Dr. Lakra’s career path has been non-traditional. When he was in his late-teens, he became part of a workshop for young artists that included the artist, Gabriel Orozco and the two became creative collaborators and friends. “I never went to art school, so maybe that’s how I learned to work and to share things. We would hang out every Friday, listen to music and look at books and we were painting all the time. It was my first non-academic experience as an artist and it was very nutritious. I learned a lot and had a lot of fun.” In the mid-1990’s the tattoo scene was just beginning to become internationally popular, and Dr. Lakra (English translation “Dr. Scumbag”) was making a unique mark on the culture. He began teaching himself how to tattoo in a very “under-the-radar” fashion in the mid-1990’s in Berlin. He had relocated there from Mexico when he was 19 years old and was living in squats, tattooing his friends and experiencing the city in one of its most magical moments.
The community he met in Berlin and his work in tattooing eventually led him to California, specifically San Francisco which, at the time, was a hotbed of revolutionary experiments in that culture. It was here that he honed his skills and found himself become part of the larger skin art scene. At the same time, he never gave up his artistic practice and continued to mount exhibitions of his final art work worldwide. When asked about how he was able to balance both worlds, he says, “Tattooing is not an art. It’s a craft. It cannot be resold, it cannot be transferred. It’s only yours. You can approach it in an artistic way, but it’s not art.” A very controversial statement that I’m sure many of his colleagues in the tattoo world would disagree with. When questioned about how the community would react, he doubles down, “In tattoos you have to create something that a person is going to be happy to wear for the rest of their life. You have to collaborate with that person. You don’t have total control.” As an artist, you are in control.
It’s true that Dr. Lakra’s fine art practice is completely unique and very much his own. His work is loosely based in traditional drawing and painting, but also includes murals, collage and sculpture. Found images and objects find their way into his compositions quite often to the point that many times it becomes unclear what the artist has created and what has been appropriated. His works have been described as “teetering between attraction and repulsion” a statement he doesn’t necessarily disagree with. As we spoke, I mentioned that, in many ways, he reminds me of a Mexican version of Joseph Cornell, albeit with a rebel’s eye and a gangster twist. When asked why he continues a fine art practice while being such an in-demand tattooist he claims that, “In my solo work I have more freedom, I don’t have to please the customer.” It’s such a simple statement, but something that most artists, unless they’ve practiced creativity for hire, would probably never understand.
While Dr. Lakra’s creative urge to work on his own, away from the demands of clients is important to him, still, the collaborative element of working closely with other artists has never left his work. A few years ago, together with a group of artistic friends in Oaxaca, he opened “Ojo Peludo”, a shared studio and artist collective in the heart of Oaxaca City. Accessed through an unmarked door, on a side street just off the town square, one enters what could only be described as a creative oasis. Here, in a grouping of small studios that all open to shared courtyard, a dozen or so artists and craftspeople share common real estate and creative vision. Calling themselves only by the group’s name “La Mesa Puerca,” their pursuits include painting, ceramics, silkscreen arts and a small kimono shop.
Dr. Lakra describes his desire to start a collective as this, “I think when you are painting and drawing you are alone with your materials. I started missing the being part of a group. Where you are in a community. I think it’s really inspiring and constructive. You can learn a lot by working that way. People push you in different directions.” While all the artists creating work at Ojo Peludo are unique and special in their own way, the small kimono studio was perhaps the most fascinating. If you’ve ever been to Oaxaca, the first thing one realizes is that the traditional Zapotec crafts of the region are everywhere. It is a staple of the city, and a large reason why visitors travel to the region. Happening upon a table in the middle of all this where a small group of people are silently and meticulously sewing kimonos is a sight I was certainly not expecting. Dr. Lakra mentioned that there is a whole movement of young artists and designers in Oaxaca who understand the rich traditions of the region, but feel like it’s time to push things further. To move away from the past and towards a new young Oaxacan creative movement. One could say that the group of artists working at Ojo Peludo are most certainly on the cutting edge of this.
While on the subject of the Zapotec roots in his city, and the fact that members of his family have been and are currently virulent activists for indigenous people’s rights, I asked Dr. Lakra how this activism has found it’s way into his own work. He claims that rather than making his artwork about the subject as many of his family have done, he prefers more direct actions. In the 1990’s through a local anarchist bookshop in San Francisco, he became involved with a advocacy group that wrote letters and supplied books to incarcerated people. As many of prisoners only spoke Spanish, it was Lakra’s job to translate the letters. It was really gratifying work,” he says, “We received so many letters of gratitude from the jails for sending the books and I really felt like I was helping people.”
This started him on a path that he has continued since he’s been back in Mexico. He now goes into the juvenile jails in and around Oaxaca on a monthly basis to teach young prisoners (many of whom are Zapotec) to draw in the tattoo style. He tells me one story of a friend of his who was in jail and together they arranged to have a printing press set up in the prison. “We started going there every week and giving workshops and showing movies and bringing materials to the kids.” he says, “They were creating the most incredible things…posters, books, reproductions of their drawings, even a custom deck of Mexican ‘Loteria’ cards using jail slang for the imagery.” Recently, a local organization that teaches music to indigenous children came to him and asked if they could bring local kids to the prison to partner on a production of the play West Side Story. Lakra says, “It was the perfect play for them to collaborate on and they all really enjoyed it. The kids in jail chose images from the story and did incredible wood block prints for the performance.”
As I exited the tattoo studio and the door closed behind me, the sounds of the tattoo guns faded away and I re-entered the mean streets of Mexico City. I realized then that I had just met a very special person. Dr. Lakra embodies a spirit that is hard to find in the current art scene. His life and his work tell the story of a man, at once at odds with his surroundings, yet dedicated to bringing people and creativity together through art. When asked why he thinks he’s focused his life so passionately to his community he gives me a simple answer. He brings it back to the art workshop he did with Gabriel Orozco back when he was a teenager. “That experience had a very big effect on me at the time and it’s stayed with me,” he says, “Maybe I’m just trying to constantly replicate that in my day to day life.”