Tattoo Exhibit Celebrates the Artist Zulu and L.A.’s Body Art History

At last week’s opening night of the Craft and Folk Art Museum’s exhibit “L.A. Skin & Ink,” which celebrates the last 60 years of tattooing in Los Angeles, the crowd could be heard laughing and chattering from nearly a block away as Alex Clare’s “Too Close” played in the background.

After entering through the gift shop, where there’s an assortment of books on the history of tattooing and packets of temporary tattoos, I ascended the stairway, past groups of beautifully unique individuals with colorful hair, fearless fashion, and — of course — often ink-covered skin.

At the top of the stairs an old station where a tattoo artist would have worked sixty years ago was set up, while further inside a more modern display illuminates just how much times have changed. Exhibitions Coordinator Sasha Ali explained that it was important to the curators that they cover the early growth of tattooing, the unique influence Asian and Pacific styles had on the West Coast, as well as modern day where fine art and tattoo have been bridged.

Ron Platt, who previously curated “Under the Skin: Tattoos and Contemporary Culture,” and Camila Rocha of High Voltage Tattoo, helped assure that the exhibit fully covered the past half century, from when clients chose an image displayed on a shop wall, to the present, as tattooing has evolved to become a more sophisticated form of art.

One of the very first things you see when entering the exhibit is an enormous print of a back piece by Zulu, whom CAFAM has chosen to be their artist honoree at its second annual Craft Affair brunch.

“How my entry to the tattoo world happened — I never thought the tattoo world would honor me,” he says. When Zulu went looking to apprentice some twenty years ago, he wasn’t met with open arms. He had been classically trained and wasn’t interested in what was necessarily popular or easy — he sought to do something that was both artistic and spiritual.

These days he is considered to be one of the heavy hitters in the tattoo world. He’s gifted in a variety of styles but his tribal pieces are what he is most known for. “Zulu incorporates sacred images,” says Ali, and “he brings out the sacred imagery within a person.”

Tattoos have become deeply personal and enormously powerful. It isn’t just a tattoo, and it isn’t just some guy in a shop — it’s black and gray, portrait, biomechanical, tribal, Chicano, or maybe your kid’s footprint, and you choose your artist with great care. In this new age of tattooing the old flash style is far from abandoned and often chosen and executed with far more care than ever before.

Today’s most popular tattoo artists often get their start in other mediums. Zulu reminded us that “many of these artists do more than just tattoo. They paint, sculpt. These are true renaissance men and women.”

Once upon a time tattooing was all traditional, flash-style tattoos and almost exclusively for criminals and sailors. Many shops today no longer cover their walls in flash and will often turn away anybody who’s been drinking or looking for something with a hateful message. The tide has changed, and Zulu is one of frontrunners in the new age. A frontrunner with celebrity clientele and a hell of a waiting list.

“It’s a big, big deal for me,” Zulu says of CAFAM honoring him, “but it’s a bigger deal for the tattoo world. A museum recognizes what we do as a viable art form, when they say we’re artists the rest of the world takes notice.” And the world is taking notice, as tattoos are rarely considered taboo and continue to grow in popularity. As more people get one of a kind pieces with deep personal meaning, the stigma of the past is dying off and a new generation of artists is flourishing.

“L.A. Skin & Ink” runs through January 6 and there is an assortment of special events scheduled, including an artist’s talk with Zulu, which will be followed by a special Zulu Lounge with proceeds benefitting CAFAM. Camila Rocha will be participating in a few events, including a CraftLab Workshop, where she will demonstrate a number of ways to draw temporary tattoos — for those not quite ready to commit to forever art.