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“Lowriders and Tattoos” at Mesa Arts Center Is an Audiovisual Attack That Hurts So Good

Urban Deer by Elizabeth McGrath and Morgan Slade
courtesy of Mesa Arts Center

It's difficult to enter "Lowriders and Tattoos" at Mesa Contemporary Arts without preconceptions.

Let's be honest: Both cultural phenomena carry a negative stigma, even in a country where Hispanic culture is blossoming and, according to exhibit curator Patty Haberman, nearly half the population is inked. My fondness for body modification is evident in my own half-sleeve tats, but my disdain for lowriders, which I had only experienced before this show via neighborhood hoodlums with bad tempers, blaring stereos, and catcalls of "Hola, chica!" was always well-hidden.

What happened? The show kicked my presupposing booty into sensory overdrive and knocked me off my stereotyping course. "Lowriders and Tattoos" comprises three separate exhibits: "Beneath the Skin" features tattoo-inspired works and an educational video on the history of tattooing; "Low and Slow" pushes the limits of automobile (or auto parts) as canvas; and "Arizona Wheels and Ink" merges both cultures through the work of local artists.

Only a handful of Phoenix-area galleries have seriously tackled lowriders or tattoos as fine art, most notably ASU Art Museum's 2006 exhibition "Skin Deep" and the popular "Car Culture" this past March at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. The pairing alone makes "Lowriders and Tattoos" unique, but where Mesa Contemporary Arts really surpasses its predecessors is in its willingness to go beyond what's expected. I've seen First Friday galleries hawking lowrider photos and trite paintings of flaming hearts and sparrows. But I've never heard of a gallery overlaying its parking lot with a veneer of shimmery pavement, creating little mirages of flames and chains in the blacktop, or hoisting vehicles in with a giant crane and driving them through the front doors (with barely an inch to spare — whew!). That's dedication.

As abstract and semi-representational art has become more popular in recent years, I've often wondered where the realist painters have gone. Apparently, they're hiding out in the ink scene, as evidenced by "Beneath the Skin." Consider Shawn Barber's Juan and Otto Geronimo Puente, a hyper-realistic oil painting of a heavily tattooed father cradling his infant. Not only does the piece have an ethereal, almost pre-Raphaelite beauty, it contradicts the stereotype that men like this are rough brutes, not doting daddies.

It's not just paintings and drawing, either. Non-traditional favorites included working tattoo needle "sculptures" (for sale only to licensed pros), a tattooed ceramic deer head, and a series of adorable-but-freaky baby dolls with yarn tattoos conceived by Sherri Lynn Wood. The vibrancy and creativity of this exhibit made me want to go home and paint something — or be painted on. And as if I wasn't already stimulated enough, a Discovery Channel-style video on the history of tattooing crammed my brain so full that I swear facts started to leak out my hairline.

"Low and Slow" is an innovative take on lowrider exhibits, featuring two working vehicles, photos, and car hoods used as canvases. The works range from tagged and pinstriped hoods to iconic depictions of the Virgin Mary cradling Christ to a tongue-in-cheek painted coffin lid. Hey, who wouldn't want to be buried in a pimped-out casket? In contrast is the somber El Chavez Ravine, a 1953 Chevy ice cream truck emblazoned with the story of a Latino-populated L.A. suburb whose transplanted residents were promised first crack at low-income housing and, instead, got a baseball stadium. The images of happy families, greedy corporate developers, and residents being literally dragged from their homes by the policía, are hauntingly realistic and quite disturbing, especially given Arizona's own immigration battles.

Then there's the pink elephant in the room — urban artist Mister Cartoon's massive Monte Carlo turned adult slumber party on wheels, appropriately nicknamed Motel Hell. It's the visual equivalent of Pop Rocks candy; but rather than crackle in your mouth, this one figuratively explodes in your retina. I could practically feel the blood vessels behind my eye swell and burst as I took in every altered inch of the vehicle — and I mean every inch. Chromed undercarriage and accessories, eye-searing pink paint job, airbrushed portraits of El Diablo and naked women in the engine compartment and wheel wells and, of course, an interior coated from head-to-toe in plush burgundy velvet.

Motel Hell is like the baby born of the unholy union between a seedy Vegas inn — you know, the kind with mirrored ceilings and round velvet beds — and my first boyfriend's beat-up car. I may not be as spry or adventurous as I was when I broke in the backseat of his inherited Buick, but I admit I'd love to take this glorious pink puppy for a spin, or at least sit in the plush swivel seats and down a glass of bubbly. Prior to this show, I would have said automotive body modification would be considered "craft" but after seeing the level of talent that goes into prepping a car like this, you can't help but see the artistic merit.

The last stop in my sensory journey was "Arizona Wheels and Ink," an exhibit of mainly lowered bicycles and hubcaps painted by local artists. I was struck by several cleverly designed wheel covers, including a trompe l'oeil piece made from ceramic (which I initially rejected as just a bland minimalist hubcap) and a roulette wheel of the seven deadly sins. But the scene-stealer here was Joe Willie Smith's Desed. While I appreciate Smith's inventive use of a hubcap — strung with wire and strummed loosely as an instrument — the cacophonous soundtrack frazzled my nerves, making it impossible to concentrate on the other art. I found myself with voice recorder in hand, audibly cursing at Smith and yelling at the noisy piece to shut up. Not particularly acceptable art gallery behavior, but from the number of patrons I saw beeline for the exit after the looping auditory track began, I'm guessing I wasn't alone.

In the 1999 remake of the film House on Haunted Hill, doctors create a "saturation chamber" to cure the insane by bombarding them with eerie sounds, lights and flickering zoetrope images. By the end of my visit to the lowrider and tattoo show, I felt as though I'd been isolated in that device for a few hours. My brain was numb from the sheer volume of information in the El Chavez Ravine truck and the tattoo video, my ears ringing from Joe Willie Smith's auditory assault and my eyes bleary from visual hyper-stimulation. But trust me, it was a good hurt.


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