Posted April 1, 2013 by Jeff in Flicks

Tattoo Nation: How outsider art went mainstream

Photographer Eric Schwartz originally set out to create portraits of people with tattoos for an exhibit. He soon realized there was more to the story, so he began making a short documentary. That short documentary eventually turned into Tattoo Nation, a feature-length film that details the history and influence of the Chicano “black and grey” style of tattoos and explores how body art went from prison pastime to a mainstream form of personal expression. We recently spoke to Schwartz about the movie, which screens on Thursday, April 4 in more than 100 U.S. cities

What inspired the film?
I’m a photographer and I noticed about seven years ago that I started seeing more and more tattoos. So I spoke to people about their tattoos and I was surprised at how thoughtful people were about them. It was the opposite of what I thought. I had all the usual preconceptions. I started photographing people and interviewing them as a project. I came out to California and I was told that L.A. was the capital of tattooing. I ran into this guy who was a competitor and I saw these portraits on this legs. I stopped him and told him, “You have to tell me about these.” They were exquisite. He introduced me to the Chicano “black and grey” culture and the more I learned about it, the more fascinated I became. I liked that it was coming from the clients. I’m used to the art world where culture comes from the top down. I loved how there was an innocence to it. You could have never guessed what an image that someone had on them meant to them. It had nothing to do with anything I thought. Being an art school escapee, I thought that was really cool.

Why the focus on one particular style?
We focused on the Chicano “Black and Grey” and the reason we went this way was because it was so influential to the rest of tattooing. It’s such a strange story. This style and technique is so unique. What I found interesting was how it opened the doors to why people would get tattooed and the technique and the types of tattoos they would get. It’s instrumental in the field and that’s what we focused on.

I think you’ve done one other short. Was it difficult making your first feature-length film.
It sure was. I was just going to do this for my exhibit and then a friend of mine introduced me to a producer who said it would be a good TV show. Then he came back and said it should be a movie. The first piece was 27 minutes and it was easy. To go from there to a full-length movie was like moving a mountain. It’s been a fascinating experience.

How’d you get Corey Miller to narrate?
People in tattoo understand the significance and he called me and wanted to be involved. I had heard of him. He was on L.A. Ink. He was great. Originally, [actor] Danny Trejo was going to narrate but the way the script got written, it would have been clumsy to have him narrate and tell his story. We decided we needed another narrator. A student who was interning with us suggested Corey Miller. He’s been a champ.

Actor Danny Trejo has a great story about the tattoo on his chest. How’d you know that he would have such a great story?
We were just going to ask him about his tattoos and he just came out with it. It cracks me up that his most famous tattoo was done by Harry “Super Jew” Ross. The funny part is that Harry didn’t like the tattoo because it was one of his first and yet it’s the most recognized tattoo on the planet.

And that was done in prison, so he wouldn’t have had the proper equipment.
Yeah, that was done by hand poke, which was really painful—when the needle gets dull, it gets barbed. That was done in three different prisons. Danny got shifted around. The California penal system would shift serious inmates around so they didn’t form cliques and to keep the gang action from happening. He would wait for Harry and somehow Harry would follow him. I don’t understand how. I think these guys learned now to do paperwork really well.

When you see what’s behind the curtain, you can see that [the artists] make a very good living, but they have to be on top of their game. It’s not like they’re sitting around with coloring books.

 At one time, there were only about 300 shops in the country. Talk about researching the history of tattooing in America.
There are more than that in L.A. county now. It once was very underground and I don’t mean to get off on a tangent, but it shows how much it’s changed. People got into it because it was so underground. There was something really appealing to that. In an interview that’s not in the film, Mark Mahoney says if you were a tattooer, it wasn’t what you did, but it was who you were. That is changing and now people want to be tattoo artists because they want the money and because they think it’s easier than it is. Good artists work their asses off. When you see what’s behind the curtain, you can see that they make a very good living, but they have to be on top of their game. It’s not like they’re sitting around with coloring books. In terms of the ‘50s and ’60s, my personal feeling is that it was underground except in the Chicano community and basically MTV started introducing the idea because they saw the rock bands and later the reality shows had a big influence because the people who were tattooed could have been their neighbor and the work was so different. Tattoo artists were nasty in the early days. You can’t make these people up. You had to prove you wanted a tattoo. They would just as well throw you out as look at you.

What do you hope viewers get out of the film?
I hope that they’ll be more accepting. This is a form of self-expression. Most of the people are very thoughtful and sincere. I want people to understand what an incredible art form tattooing is. It’s getting better and better and these artists are amazing. With the Internet and Instagram, the communication is extraordinary. It’s important to understand where it came from. There are people who are locked up and we’ll never know their names. A lot of the guys who did the best work are lifers and we’ll never learn their names. It may sound corny, but I hope this movie gives them a little bit of redemption. That’s just my personal thing. I hope it evokes a bit of sympathy toward the less fortunate.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].