Feature story: Ink on exhibit

Palo Alto gallery spotlights the art of tattoos

The artists are adorned all over: a star under the eye, a butterfly on a knee, a wide-eyed devil on an upper arm. Now they also have tattoos in a more unusual place: an art gallery.

The vibrant, energetic prints now on display at Smith Andersen Editions in Palo Alto have all been inspired or shaped by tattoos. Stanford art professor Enrique Chagoya, for one, is exhibiting a print edition called "My Tattoos," with skulls and flames. Jen Lee, who creates her art on skin at Tattoo City in San Francisco, is showing "True Love," in which two hands clasp, one with a delicate lace cuff at the wrist.

"I love ornamentation of any kind," Smith Andersen owner Paula Kirkeby said at the show's opening reception last week. "Body ornamentation just freaks me out. I love it."

For this exhibition, titled "Taste of Tattoo," Kirkeby and gallery director Melissa Behravesh brought together 10 artists. There are five known for their tattoo art -- Lee, Ross K. Jones, Mary Joy, Jeff Rassier and Kahlil Rintye -- and five who are known for printmaking or other art forms: Chagoya, George Herms, Kathryn Kain, Kara Maria and Richard Shaw.

The artists created their prints at Smith Andersen, which is also a small fine-arts press. For some, the project meant a chance to use new materials and work with a master printer for the first time. For others, it was an interesting hybrid reminder of their backgrounds.

Some of the tattoo artists studied printmaking in art school, while many of the printmakers have long been intrigued by tattoos. Shaw, who is known for his trompe l'oeil ceramic sculpture, got his first tattoo with tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy. His untitled prints in the Palo Alto exhibition utilize gentle humor: A blonde woman is getting a flock of birds tattooed on her back when they suddenly all fly away.

For Rassier, who works at Blackheart Tattoo in San Francisco and has also worked on paper for decades, using the Smith Andersen studio was a new revelation.

"Paula is such a glowing personality. She was an inspiration," he said in an email. "I just sold a painting and I told myself with that money I was going to buy a press. If no major earthquakes crush my house before I get a chance, that's my plan."

In Rassier's print edition, "You Krampus My Style," a long tail unfurls from a devilish face like a knife, piercing a heart and dripping blood.

Like most of the prints in the show, Rassier's works are labeled "E.V." (editions variees). This means that there's a central design that stays the same (here, the devil face) each time the print goes through the press. But the artist may alter other facets of the piece, including color and placement. Here, the face is a different hue in each print, and there are different touches of color: red handprints in one, a tire-track pattern across the horned face in another.

"Working on paper in all forms is really relaxing," Rassier said. "For me it's probably the only real food that feeds my soul. I love tattooing but there is always another mind giving input, which can be good or pure hell. And if you make a mistake on paper you can chuck it in the bin. Hard to do with people."

Kirkeby said she's thrilled that Rassier enjoyed working on her press so much. "It's so gratifying. It's the best feeling ever."

The tattoo exhibition, while unusual at a gallery, has been an idea in the back of Kirkeby's mind for a long time. She had been interested in tattoos and other graphic arts since childhood, and then a few years ago the late Stanford printmaker and painter Nathan Oliveira introduced her to the work of artist Kenjilo Nanao, a student of his. Nanao's 1969 print "The Great Tattoo" hangs in an office at Smith Andersen, depicting a large snake tattoo stretching across several people, from back to back.

Kirkey started talking to "everybody who had tattoos," and one artist led to another by word of mouth until she had chosen 10, she said.

The "Taste of Tattoo" exhibition opened at Smith Andersen on Nov. 3, with a catalog featuring essays by Don Ed Hardy and Hilarie Faberman, curator of modern and contemporary art at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center.

"As is characteristic of the atmosphere at the press, positive interactions among the artists and printers facilitated a lively dialogue that was conducive to experimentation," Faberman wrote in her essay. "During its yearlong production, the Tattoo Project had the aura of a family reunion."

Chagoya, Herms, Shaw and others had created prints at Smith Andersen before, she added, while Kain is the master printer there. Several of the tattoo artists are coworkers, and many of the artists are friends.

A later exhibit, "Indelibly Yours: Smith Andersen Editions and the Tattoo Project," is scheduled to travel, with destinations including the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University.

For the moment, the tattoo art will remain at Smith Andersen through Jan. 25. It's already attracting artists and art buffs; people at the opening reception included Stanford painter Sukey Bryan and Palo Alto resident Charles Clark, who volunteers at the Cantor Arts Center, collects art and attends many local exhibitions.

"This," he said with a grin, "is a wild one."

What: "Taste of Tattoo," an exhibition of prints by printmakers and tattoo artists

Where: Smith Andersen Editions, 440 Pepper Ave., Palo Alto

When: Through Jan. 25. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to or call 650-327-7762.

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Like this comment
Posted by Watcher
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:38 am

Ugh and double ugh.

Like this comment
Posted by Ick
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 18, 2011 at 10:57 am

And Ick.
When I see tattoos on people I recoil. I wonder what subconscious horrors or desires are being displayed, that I don't want to see.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 18, 2011 at 11:32 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Oh, come on. A little tramp stamp is nice.

Like this comment
Posted by AMRW
a resident of another community
on Nov 18, 2011 at 11:49 am

Ick and Watcher, so much for Palo Alto being the most educated city...I guess education doesn't necssarily foster acceptance.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm

I hope that no young people are influenced to get dangerous tatoos or body piercings from this article.

I personally don't like permanent body alterations which for the most part in my opinion look ugly and unattractive on an otherwise attractive person. But my bigger concern is that young people will do something that they will later regret.

I think an article like this should be balanced with the health risks and removal risks rather than full of admiration for the "art".

Like this comment
Posted by To AMRW
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 19, 2011 at 12:34 pm

To the contrary, having taste has everything to do with education - an aesthetic education. While I certainly respect and support the right to get body art, I am not an admirer of it, nor do I consider it an art worthy of an exhibition. When I go to an art exhibition, it's to be enriched, and this doesn't qualify, for me. It's fine if you disagree, but your silly beliefs about education show your ignorance.


Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 21, 2011 at 10:39 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

How about the health risk of too much exposure? How much skin cancer could have been prevented by clothing that covers?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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