Tattoo Nation: Film Review

Tattoo Nation Film Still - H 2013
Visions Verite

Tattoo Nation Film Still - H 2013

Informative doc should please body-art enthusiasts.

Eric Schwartz follows the "black-and-gray" tattoo aesthetic from the jailhouse to the mainstream.

Tracing the family tree of one type of tattoo artistry back to its roots in prisons and other places of ill repute, Eric Schwartz's Tattoo Nation proves more serious about history than expected, spending ample time on light sociology before putting its most mindblowingly intricate body art onscreen. Enjoyable face time with the grandfathers of "black-and-gray" tattooing makes the doc a colorful ride even for non-fanatics, but those serious enough to attend conventions and subscribe to tattoo mags will be its most reliable audience.

The oldest practitioners interviewed here got their start when putting permanent ink on a person was still illegal. They (and narrator Corey Miller, of L.A. Ink, who's much less engaging in this role than as an interviewee) describe how hard it was to find a professional then, and tell of hotspots like Pike in Long Beach, Calif., where an influx of sailors could keep a tattoo shop open round-the-clock for days.

If equipment used there was rudimentary, it was space-aged compared to jailhouse rigs. Schwartz offers enough background on Pachuco culture to explain why Latino prisoners were especially willing to endure the painful, hand-poke procedure used in jails, and introduces us to Freddy Negrete, whose first illicit machine was made using a cassette-deck motor and guitar strings.

While Anglo entrepreneurs like Ed Hardy and "Goodtime" Charlie Cartwright were outside building loyal followings at soon-to-be-legendary shops, Negrete and others were developing a fine-line aesthetic (using a single needle by necessity, while commercial machines used between three and seven needles at once) that the pros wound up imitating.

Schwartz shows how the two camps merged, always trying to one-up the level of detail in new designs, and offers plenty of good examples of the monochrome style's evolution. Though East L.A.'s Tattooland occupies the most prominent place in this narrative, the film makes time for other subjects -- raspy-voiced Mark Mahoney, tattoo artist to the stars; David Oropeza, a collector whose ink-covered torso shows how small images can be pieced together for dramatic impact; and Danny Trejo (surprisingly, the only actor here), who's seen bringing his daughter in for her latest tattoo.


Production Company: Visions Verite

Director: Eric Schwartz

Screenwriters: John Corry, Marco Jakubowicz

Producers: John Corry

Executive producer: Eric Schwartz

Music: Ramon Balcazar, Sick Jacken

Editor: Marco Jakubowicz

No rating, 86 minutes