Ever wondered if Werner Herzog has a tattoo? Thanks to Les Blank, he does. And watching him display it during the production of Fitzcarraldo is one of the biggest draws for cinephiles in Alan Govenar’s Tattoo Uprising — a documentary that, like his earlier Extraordinary Ordinary People, is lucky to have such interesting material scattered through it, because Govenar is not what you’d call a natural filmmaker. Hodgepodgey in its storytelling, the film introduces enough appealing characters to hold the interest of a casual viewer; presumably, tattoo-diehards know much of this stuff already.
Spending more time than is necessary onscreen talking about how this project was assembled, Govenar explains that, while in college several decades ago, he stumbled across an Ohio tattooist named Stoney St. Clair. A disfigured older man with a Confederate flag in his shop and several swastikas within the designs on offer (the director makes no comment), he was keeping old artistic traditions alive in the years before they were widely rediscovered. While making that film, Govenar met not only a young Ed Hardy, whose techniques impressed the older man, but Blank, who assisted him and loaned money to finish production.
Through Blank we spend time with Herzog, whose tattoo (of a tuxedoed Death, crooning into a vintage ZDF microphone) is pretty fantastic. We also hang out with a flame-eating, sword-swallowing decorated man, a sideshow performer who sings of cultural prejudice against those with inked arms. One hopes he lived long enough to see his habit go mainstream, but most of the movie offers little sense of when footage was shot and when artists worked. (Hardy, for instance, speaks intelligently and at length about his art, but the interviews are clearly shot long ago, before his licensed name became so closely associated with attention-hungry doofuses.)
The film covers much ground, and those who are truly curious about a single topic should go elsewhere: Eric Schwartz’s Tattoo Nation is a much better introduction to the fine-line style associated with East L.A.; photographer Martha Cooper and other Westerners started documenting Japanese tattoos many decades ago.
But viewers wanting a sampling on the topic could do worse, and here may see sides of the art’s evolution they’ve never heard of. Like the often abstract, “sculptural” full-body compositions of Jamie Summers, aka La Palma, who died young but left stunning work behind. Or the troves of vintage tattoo material Govenor has come across, like the designs associated with Gus Wagner, “a character out of Melville” who reportedly learned his trade while a merchant seaman in Java and Borneo.
The subject of society’s disapproval or acceptance of body modification comes up throughout, and Govenar even looks to the Bible to find mixed messages. But it’s not until its last few minutes that the doc starts trying to make a case for that “uprising” promised in its title. By that point, viewers may wish Govenar would just give up on selling that narrative and show some more tattoos.
Production company: Documentary Arts
Distributor: First Run Features
Director-screenwriter: Alan Govenar
Directors of photography: Les Blank, Bruce “Pacho” Lane, Didier Dorant, Robert Tullier
Editor: Jason Johnson-Spinos