NHM Tattoo-Pano 1

Sydney Santana
Jason S. Sexton

Californians need to find ways to mark their identity. This stands true for newcomers and longtime residents, in spite of the amnesia that often befalls ordinary California life. When lines traced from the past prove insufficient for cultivating this, Californians sketch the way forward with the tools available. Very few of these tools are from here, and yet they readily find their way in the regular use of Californians who aim to be themselves, charting new courses, transmogrifying into new narratives they start to see.

This is the story of tattoos in California, and the roles they’ve played in the lives of many. They didn’t start here, but originated with Oceanic and Asianic cultures, especially the Japanese, gamely reaching the California shores from the Pacific world. Various world cultures have long marked bodies with scarring, piercings, and other features meant to enhance the skin’s rich historical and cultural context.[1] From the ancient world to today, tattoos canvassed the body with information: denoting rank, status, meaning, replacing the natural with new data, displaying and communicating an ongoing openness to fresh, transformative possibilities. Artists ink this information onto bodies, like painting on a canvas, or a mural.

The mid-twentieth century saw a cultural development in California during and after World War II and the Korean War, where the relaxed “California lifestyle” provided a fitting environment for what would soon emerge. It was carried by figures like Sailor Jerry, Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven, and Freddy Negrete.[2] Perhaps the only place capable of integrating, nurturing, and disseminating the phenomena so quickly, California was “the global center of the Tattoo Renaissance.”[3]

It makes sense, then, for our reflections to finally be grounded in Los Angeles, where cultural objects and modalities are “rife with contradiction, conflating artificiality and authenticity.”[4] We leave to our readers and those who interact with and experience the Natural History Museum’s exhibition, “Tattoo,” to determine which bits of this new tattoo culture—especially in California but also beyond—reflect the artificial projection or the genuine reality, the stories of the past and future to live into, both of the artists and those inked. Marking identity in California has never been a simple task, but with the power to make bodies into new texts in a moment, tattoo culture remains one of the truest California things happening.




“Early in the 20th century Chinese tattoos imitated American, European, and Japanese designs. More recently, Chinese and Taiwanese tattoos are integrating traditional Chinese imagery—the Buddha, lion, and dragon, which are all important cultural symbols.”


Left: Charlie Wagner, from the series “Homage to Tattooing Icons,” Switzerland, 1990, Acrylic paint on canvas, Artist: Titine K-Leu (b. 1968). Right: Anna “Artoria Gibbons, from the series, “Homage to Tattooing Icons,” Switzerland, 1990, Acrylic paint on canvas, Artist: Titine K-Leu (b. 1968).




“Before there were shops offering black-and-gray tattoos, many tattooers in East L.A. worked out of their kitchens and garages. A homemade tattoo machine, some batteries wrapped in white paper, stencils, black Higgins ink, cigarettes, artistic ability, and a willing friend was often all it took to get started.”




Left: Clay Jar, Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico, 1200-1450 CE, Ceramic. Right: Clay Figurine (possibly Mayan), Mexico, Date unknown, Terracotta.



Left: Flash sheet (eagle and serpent), Long Beach, California, USA, Circa 1950, Reproduction of color drawing, Artist: Lee Roy Minugh (b. unknown). Right: Flash sheet (roses), Long Beach, California, USA, Circa 1950, Reproduction of color drawing, Artist: Lee Roy Minugh (b. unknown).


Smile now, Cry later, Los Angeles, California, USA, Late 20th c., Drawing on paper, Artist: Freddy Negrete (b. 1956).


Shamrock Social Club, Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood.


Freddy Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.


Isaiah Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.


Freddy Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.


Isaiah Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.



[1] See Nina G. Jablonski, Skin: A Natural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

[2] See Jason S. Sexton, “Black-and-Gray Realism,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 20 July, 2017, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/black-and-gray-realism/.

[3] Arnold Rubin, “The Tattoo Renaissance, in Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body, ed.  Arnold Rubin (Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, UCLA), 236-41. See also,

[4] David L. Ulin, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 83.

Tattoo is an exhibition on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County until 15 April 2018. With ongoing special events related to the exhibit, the exhibit may be seen daily from 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.


Sydney Santana is Photographer in Residence (2018-2019) at Boom California. Follow her on Instagram @sydney_santana or on her website, http://www.sydney-santana.com/.

Jason S. Sexton is the Editor of Boom.


Copyright: © 2018 Sydney Santana and Jason S. Sexton. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Posted by Boom California