The history of tattoo culture in Long Beach is a rich tapestry, much like the skin of our inked comrades in tattoo parlors and the walls of Museum of Latin American Art’s (MOLAA) “Ink: Stories on Skin” exhibition.
The gallery, open until Feb. 3, dives into personal testimonies about tattoos, the history of tattoo culture within the Chicano community, and Long Beach’s long-standing relationship with tattoos, starting in the days of the historic Pike amusement park.
In the 1930s, tattoo artists from around the nation flocked to Long Beach to learn from the renowned artists at the Pike, which was quickly becoming a hub for tattoos due to the large navy presence. There were more than 50,000 sailors and Marines stationed in Long Beach at the time and a concentration of tattoo parlors to match.
Eventually, the naval station closed in 1994 and the shipyard in ‘97, ending over 80 years of Navy involvement. However, part of that history remains at the Pike to this day in Outer Limits Tattoo, the oldest tattoo parlor in America and second oldest in the world.
Outer Limits Tattoo first opened in 1927 under the name The Professionals, owner unknown. Bert Grimm purchased the shop in ‘54 and it has ever since remained in the hands of tattoo artists happy to keep the tradition alive, including current owner Kari Barba.
“When I grew up, there was nobody tattooed. I didn’t see my first tattoo until I was 17 years old, and my first thought was, ‘Why would somebody do that, and why can’t it be done better than that?’” Barba said. “By the time I was 19 I did my first tattoo. The change in me in those two years was huge, just to learn about it and see what could be done, to recognize it as an art instead of just something silly that somebody would just put on their skin.”
Barba says she’s given over a thousand tattoos in her 35 years of putting ink to skin, and in that time, she has seen tattoos become more widely accepted as an art form. She no longer gets clients who get tattoos just because they like the endorphin rush or because they were drunkenly dared to. Over time, tattoo culture has grown to be more personal and serious from the client's position and a more artistically knowledgeable position.
“Back in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, a lot of the people were not artists, a lot of them were trained but didn’t really know how to draw, just taught to be a technician,” Barba said. “Now you get people going and getting their master’s so that they can tattoo. Artists are becoming tattoo artists.”
In her opinion, that’s why it’s unfortunate there are still some lingering stigmas surrounding tattoos.
“These are just people who love art. It’s just an art that they happen to put on their body,” Barba said. “But so many stigmas from way back that it was sailors or bikers stick with people, especially if they were brought up in that era.”
Curators at MOLAA certainly agree that ink is art, dedicating entire walls to art and memorabilia from places like Outer Limits Tattoo and to various tattoo artists’ styles.
The exhibition also explores Chicano history with tattoos, starting in the late 1800s and going into the 1900s, when Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were labeled foreigners, segregated, and targeted by law enforcement and Anglo vigilante groups.
Targeted communities began forming coalitions to protect themselves against social and economic violence. For members of these organizations, which were thus labeled “gangs,” tattoos were part of the lifestyle and branding of each specific gang.
This style evolved into the Pachuco fashion and eventually transitioned into the Cholo/Chola movement which populated “point” style tattoo, a style that originated in the California prison system. It was an identity that spawned from gang warfare, violence, poverty as well as conservative gender roles. But there are many identities and stories that people capture in ink on their skin.
MOLAA has created six video testimonials of six people who come from different backgrounds and whose tattoos are founded on different ideas. Each will receive a live tattoo at the ink exhibition by a local artist. The tattoos will tell a story of struggle that has led to growth after dealing with loss, abuse, street life, mental illness or self-image issues.
Tattoo artists throughout the rest of the exhibit are scheduled as follows:
Freddy Negrete-September 23
Nikko Hurtado-October 20
Kari Barba-November 10