Cheyenne Randall on Tattoo Art, Celebrity Obsession, and Cultural Appropriation

Cheyenne Randall during the installation for his murals at the Heard Museum.
Cheyenne Randall during the installation for his murals at the Heard Museum. Lynn Trimble
A trio of tattooed Elvis Presley images line a wall near the entrance to the Heard Museum, where Cheyenne River Sioux artist Cheyenne Randall launched a mural project in February.

"The Mural Project: Cheyenne Randall" includes six wheat-paste murals installed around the Heard's grounds, as well as murals being created for installation on the Navajo Nation in Grey Mountain, Arizona.

“They’re like street art on steroids,” Randall says.

Tattoos are a big part of Randall’s Seattle-based art practice, which explores identity and obsession with celebrity culture. Typically, he takes existing images of well-known figures and alters them using digital photography and Photoshop.

“I’m an appropriation artist,” Randall says. “I use other people’s art as a substrate.”

His Heard Museum murals depict several iconic performers, including Audrey Hepburn and Barbra Streisand. But he’s manipulated the images of many more, including Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Cash, and Amy Winehouse.

“I got really obsessed with tattoos in 2013,” Randall says. They’ve been an integral part of his art practice ever since. “I’m a little bit OCD, so when I have an idea I have to hammer it into the ground until it’s dead.”

Now 40, Randall's fascination with tattoos began during his teens. “I got my first tattoo when I was 14 years old,” Randall says. “Now I have about 50 of them.”

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This mural is located on the south side of the Heard Museum.
Lynn Trimble
Instead of explaining the tattoos depicted in his art, he leaves them open to viewer interpretation. “My goal is that people will do a little bit of digging and critical thinking about what they’re seeing.”

Some reflect Randall’s own life experiences and ideas. “I’m a very private person, but you can see bits of me in my artwork,” he says.

Sometimes people get offended by the marks he puts on images of famous people like Audrey Hepburn, but Randall is just fine with that. “In my views on life and death, Audrey Hepburn is just space dust. She doesn’t give a shit about me drawing on her face.”

The tattoo artworks went viral after Randall started posting them on social media. Today, his Instagram account (@indiangiver) has 130,000 followers. Still, he knows not everyone is a fan.

“I’m a little bit of a troll,” he says. “I like to try and pull on people and see how they react.”

Even so, Randall’s work has a serious side.

He’s eager to change the way people think about Native American artwork. “A lot of people still think we all wear feathers and ride horses,” he says. “They romanticize Indian artists and think they’re all dead.”

Putting tattoos on pop icons is a way of flipping the script on people who’ve appropriated Indian culture. “Appropriation is a double-edged sword,” he says.

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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble