As part of Moviemaker.com’s hosting of Tattoo Nation (released this week on our site!) we were lucky enough to be granted an exclusive interview with the documentary’s first-time director, Eric Schwartz.
In the following discussion, Schwartz covers much of the journey of his film – a behind-the-curtain look at the gritty origins of the Black and Gray style of tattoo, from prison culture to Los Angeles’ historic Whittier Boulevard, with input from all of the medium’s living greats: Ed Hardy, Freddy Negrete, Charlie Cartwright, Jack Rudy, and narrated by “L.A. Ink’s” Corey Miller.
That cast isn’t short of personality by any means, as Schwartz discovered both to his delight and to his chagrin. He recounts the difficulty he faced as an outsider (he himself has no tattoos) looking into a community with a very particular set of social codes and practices – and how he eventually managed to navigate them. The conversation ruminates, too, on the formal similarities between tattoo and cinema that drew Schwartz into making the documentary in the first place. As in his film, Schwartz takes his audience back to a society both foreign and familiar, where “art” was a dirty word, and beauty was wrought from an unlikely mix of attitude and commercial instinct.
Part One of the interview is below. In Part Two we talk about animated tattoo needles, the new age of film distribution, and the kindness of Danny Trejo – so keep reading here.
MovieMaker Magazine (MM): First things first: why tattoos?
Eric Schwartz (ES): I find tattoos fascinating – the whole interactive process, the people involved, the work that’s being done, is all so amazing. But to be honest, before starting this whole project, I had never thought about getting a tattoo.
MM: Really? And you remain inkless to this day?
ES: Yes. I would only get one if it really meant something to me – if there was something I had to express that way.
MM: You were, originally, a fine art photographer. Do you still consider that your primary occupation?
ES: Yeah! I will be getting back to that. In a matter of fact, I have a show this fall. It will be some previous work that I’ve done and some photos that I did while I was making this documentary. I’m really looking forward to it, because making the film was extremely interesting.
MM: I’m sure it was. As Tattoo Nation was your first film, I was wondering how you felt about the switch from still photography to moving images.
ES: Tattoo Nation started out as a still project with recorded interviews about the history of the tattoo artist. With my fine arts background, I realized this was a really unique opportunity to record how this American art form was born.
MM: The phrase “American art form” reminds me that you’ve compared tattoos to blues in the past, in terms of an art that had its roots in a very particular subset of American society, and is now entirely mainstream.
ES: Exactly – and it has influenced music all over the world. The same thing happened with the Black and Gray Chicano tattoo, which influenced illustration of tattoos all over the world.
MM: Before I had seen the film, I had no idea Black and Gray was so tied to Chicano culture, in particular, because of its ubiquity now. One of the great things the film does is tie those knots of history backwards through time, to a specific location and to its people. I loved seeing parts of L.A.’s past that I hadn’t seen before.
ES: Chicano prison tattoos actually started in Texas and migrated up towards L.A. Those guys just took it and ran with it. What fascinated me about the story of Black and Gray is that it’s something that really shouldn’t have happened. It was against all odds. The characters, too, just happen: Jack Rudy was just a guy whose homemade machine wasn’t working, and he decided to go to the pike, and walked into this place where he saw this biker and thought that he may be a guy to speak to, because he wanted something unusual.
MM: That accidental quality to the process is probably why the culture of Black and Gray tattoos came into being so unusually. Do you think there’s a lot of cross-over between the two art forms of tattoo and filmmaking? To me, they’re not only narrative in a visual way, but also, as you said in your director’s statement on the Tattoo Nation website, tattoo is an art that is about subjectivity and intimacy. I think that film is as well.
ES: I saw a correlation between tattoo and film very early on in the project, even when it was just still photography. I saw the client as a director and the tattoo artist in the same type of capacity as a cinematographer, transcribing an idea into something visible. “This is what I want to create, this is the mood, this is the style I’m looking for, and this is what I want to say.” In the early days of tattoo, especially, it was all about that.
MM: Right – it’s a process of translating what a client is asking for.
ES: The one thing that is different about tattoo, though, is that the whole exchange between artist and client is even more of a human experience. I don’t see it ever going away, but I’m kind of a romantic, so what can I say?
MM: It’s a highly intimate process – because it’s tactile. Watching Danny Trejo’s daughter get her tattoo in the film, I felt like I was there with her, imagining the amount of time it would take her and the artist to do it. The process is part of the artwork, too; it’s not just the finished product. One of the movie’s strengths is the sheer beauty of the tattoos that you captured. Some of them are so stunning. I almost wanted to reach out and touch them. Sometimes the skin didn’t even look like skin, but like carved wood.
ES: And I see techniques developing even more. Believe it or not, they’re even getting better. That astounds me. What’s different now than in the old days is instead of keeping secrets of the trade, this newer generation is sharing. Another thing that was taboo is the old days: God forbid you mention anything about art. You wouldn’t get hired because they didn’t want people in the early days to be “artists.”
MM: It was more punk than that?
ES: Frankly, it was more greedy than that. [Tattoo artists] didn’t want people to develop their own reputation and be able to go out on their own. They just wanted a person who could apply ink well in a timely and professional manner. The only really artistic thing was shading. That was it. They didn’t want to train other employees and they didn’t want any competition.
MM: So the expansion of technical knowledge and prowess has opened up a whole new level of artistic innovation and quality. The same thing is happening in film.
ES: Yes. Someone like myself could have never dreamed of making a film 15 years ago.
MM: Let’s talk, then, about the actual production of the film. One thing that struck me was your access to your subjects. You seemed to have access to everyone who was big in the movement. I was wondering how you managed to pull that off.
ES: It took three years. I started working on the photographic project eight years ago. Basically, what I had to overcome was two different intermingling cultures: the Chicano culture, and the tattoo culture, which has been going through transition. Between the two of them, they really were suspicious of me. Here was a middle-aged guy without ink, and from Colorado of all places.
MM: They didn’t trust you because of your lack of ink?
ES: Yeah. It took a long time, it really did. There was this prejudice against me.
MM: Did you ever consider getting ink to let yourself into that culture?
ES: I can promise you I thought about that tattoo a hundred times over. I knew that it would help, but I wasn’t willing to do it. Eventually, though, they started to accept me as an artist. The other essential thing was meeting David Oropeza [tattoo hobbyist, featured in the film] throughChuco [Caballero, also featured].
MM: So Chuco was really the catalyst for the entire project.
ES: Chuco introduced me to Black and Gray. When I was doing stills, I saw Chuco at a tattoo show. He was walking down an aisle and I saw these tattoos that stopped me in my tracks, and I said, “You have to tell me about this. I’ve never seen anything like it.” They were exquisite portraits: On one leg he had actors who played gangsters, like Joe Pesce, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and then he had on the other leg portraits of actual gangsters. All these real criminals. I thought, conceptually, that was just amazing. And on one side of his body was Aztec iconography, and the other side was Catholic. And he had a cross in the middle, which was a mixture of Mexican and American. It was just amazing. He took me around originally and I met a number of these artists. But Chuco got sick and passed away. Then I met David Oropeza and we became friends because of my friendship with Chuco, and we discussed the project for quite a while. From him, I understood that no one really knew the story of Black and Gray – it was all mixed up and a lot of myths were starting. It needed to be done – we had to do this because these guys aren’t going to live forever.
MM: That’s what is perfect about the documentary as a movie of right now. It’s a living history of an art whose origins are still alive. It’s like being able to talk to D. W. Griffith about the beginnings of film.
ES: Exactly – from the man himself, not someone’s interpretation of Griffith.
MM: Now that I know a little bit more about your relationship with the subjects, I think it really shows through in the movie – they’re very at ease and very candid. Both the tattoo artists and even the people with tattoos are so ready to share their stories.
ES: I knew that they had come to trust me when there was a big art show, and a lot of the tattoo artists brought their paintings and sculptures. It was an extraordinary show, and one of the artists called me up and said, “Would you mind if we hung one of your photographs?” And I said, “Mine? I’d be honored.” That’s when I knew that things were going to get a little bit easier.
MM: You earned their trust.
ES: Yeah, but as I said, it took years. I would show the subjects different segments as we were making the film. “Here’s how we’re treating this; here’s how we’re doing that.” So they became even more at ease, and even wanted to participate more – not that I’d advise that all the time.
MM: Too many cooks?
ES: Well, I’m sure that many of your readers know this – and it’s one of the lessons that I learned – is that there were things that I absolutely was sure were going to be in the film, but as we edited the film, found they didn’t fit. I had to make some face to face appointments and break it to some of my subjects that they weren’t going to have a talking point in the film.
ES: Yeah. There were difficult nights when I knew that it was going to happen. I grew very fond of these guys, and it broke my heart. I told them that I was really sorry and that I wished I could have them. I was amazed at how well the guys took it. I would even show them how their scenes didn’t fit in.
MM: And they’d agree?
ES: Yeah, they’d say, “You’re right. Bummer.”
MM: That’s a great way to take it. I think that, as you said, any filmmaker, especially first or second time ones, can empathize with having to do that.
ES: You never know what’s going to wind up working, so don’t make any promises. Because [the promises] were absolutely sincere – but sometimes it just doesn’t work.
MM: It’s great, though, that you managed to get them involved, so that it became collaborative and they could see the process themselves. That always helps.
(End of Part One)
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