Chuey Quintanar has been creating art on living canvas for more than 20 years. A friend gave him a tattoo machine when he was 14 years old, and he has been tattooing ever since.
“When I started tattooing, they were still looking at it (tattoos) as a bad thing, but I always saw tattoo as an art form,” Los Angeles tattoo artist Quintanar said.
When a museum asked him to contribute a piece to the traveling exhibit called Tattoo, he realized something more positive was evolving from the older stereotypes.
WATCH: Tattoo history
“It’s like a dream to be in a prestigious museum,” Quintanar said.
“This exhibition is one of the very first exhibitions on tattoo that come from people from the tattoo culture. All the other ones, and there have been a number of them, were put together by doctors or criminologists,” said Stéphane Martin, president of the Musée du Quai Branly in France, where the exhibit was produced and developed.
More recently, having a tattoo has been associated with the criminal element, and as a way for gang members to self-identify.
Now, though, it has become common for A-list celebrities to show off their inked bodies, and tattoos have become mainstream in many cultures.
The Tattoo exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County shows the long and varied history of tattoos. It transports visitors through thousands of years of tattoos, spanning myriad continents and cultures.
“It’s basically a universal impulse and practice,” said Gretchen Baker, vice president of exhibitions at the museum.
“There’s lots of reasons that people may have tattooed in the past, and certainly tattoo today — whether it’s to mark a rite of passage, mark a moment in time that’s important to them, or simply to put something beautiful on your body that matters to you,” Baker noted.
Through photos and videos, the exhibit shows examples of the many reasons why people go through the painful process. One video, taken during the annual Thai festival of Wai Kru, shows how tattoos seemingly embody magic.
“Tattoo has a strong spiritual and religious purpose in a lot of cultures where the tattoos themselves have a power,” Baker said.
Defiance, shame, honor
A tattoo also can be a sign of defiance, shame or honor.
“Tattoos [existed] everywhere, in every continent for two main reasons,” Musée du Quai Branly head Martin said.
“One was for adornment and making you different and proving, for example, your lineage or your connection with your tribe or with a kingdom — but also for punishment. One of the main uses of tattooing was to mark people down and to exclude them, to punish them, like the Greek, the Roman, Japanese for example,” he added.
Martin said a traditional tattoo often was not one of choice, but rather was decided upon by a family for the person. Now, of course, a person can choose what, where and when to tattoo onto one’s body.
The exhibit also features close to 280 square meters of space dedicated to the history of the tattoo scene in Los Angeles.
Baker said it started with the Pike, a waterfront amusement park, in Long Beach, a city that had a naval presence located south of Los Angeles.
“The Pike became a place where all the sailors are coming home from Asia, and they were kind of exchanging tattoos that they had received when they were in Asia,” she said.
The Pike was a popular place for L.A.’s early tattoo scene. The “black and gray” tattoo style of that era emerged from East Los Angeles, which remains largely Latino.
“The black and gray style — the Chicano style — that’s the style that I do,” Quintanar said.
He said he had always seen tattoos as art, and now his view has become widely accepted. “I wanted to show my art to the world and what better place to do it than at a museum.”