A new challenge to old traditions

Mexican artist Dr. Lakra inks in his own interpretations of ukiyo-e

by Manami Okazaki

Many visitors to Japan would love to buy an ukiyo-e (Japanese genre painting) woodblock print while here, and then put it on their wall. Dr. Lakra, an Oaxaca, Mexico-based tattoo artist, bought his own, and then added his own improvements to them.

A blasphemous reworking on the ¥50,000 originals — including a print by Edo Period (1603-1868) artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi — Lakra drew in ink Los Angeles-style gangster tattoos of praying hands, marijuana leaves, skulls and pinup girls onto the print’s subjects.

Has any Japanese contemporary artist ever dared such an appropriation? If they’d taken their clues from Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg (who erased a drawing by fellow artist William de Koonig) or the Chapman brothers (who made additions to a portfolio of the painter Goya’s works), you’d think surely. But you would also think that you would have heard of such sacriledge by now in a country as firmly concentrated on its heritage.

Lakra’s taboo-busting works are part of “Goth: Reality of The Departed World, ” an exhibition featuring 250 works from six artists at the Yokohama Museum of Art. At its best, “Goth” leaves the viewer uncertain about whether the show is either puerile or cutting edge. Out of a cacophony of video installations detailing intravenous blood-drawing and cliche, angst-ridden snapshots of gloomy club kids, the audience are introduced to the humorous collages of Lakra and the stellar works of Australian sculptor Ricky Swallow.

The museum should be applauded for trying to do something different in a mainstream venue (they show multimedia pieces such as the critically acclaimed Tabaimo’s 360 degree projection of twisting hands, an update of “Guignorama” from the Hara Museum in 2006), but unfortunately the show reveals a confusing lack of unity among its selected artists. Rather than answer the question, “What is Goth?” it more likely will lead the viewer to ask, “What the hell is Goth about this artist?”

Swallow’s technical prowess is breathtaking. His sculptures are meticulously detailed, lifelike replications of commonplace objects or human bones, with silky smooth veneers worthy of the work of Japanese carvers. Everyday things such as a stereo and sleeping bag are immortalized in bronze and wood respectively, resembling archeological discoveries.

Dr. Lakra (literally “Doctor Scumbag”) appropriates vintage magazines, postcards and objects in his art works and lovingly adorns them as a tattooer would see fit. Crude and macabre motifs from classic tattooing, — skulls, snakes and eagles — are painted in fine, delicate brush strokes. His additions not only completely removes the original intent of the images, they also reinvigorate them, casting a satirical eye on their times.

“I copy from older magazines and books, which is similar to tattoo work — the repetition of the same works with just slight changes,” Lakra said recently in Tokyo, where he was getting many a second glance by passersby due to the extensive tattoos on his hands. “Tattoo artists are influenced by this, repeating patterns and changing the context, so that they become something totally different.”

“Untitled (Muscidae and Tea) 2007,” for example, takes an vintage postcard of a couple on an innocent date and transforms it into a weeping woman’s encounter with death, who shrouds the scene in black smoke from his cigarette.

“When I travel, I always visit flea markets and antique shops. Sometimes I use posters from India, magazines from Japan, often woman’s magazines — such as knitting magazines — or erotic magazines,” he explains. “But most of the things I use are from Mexico.”

Though Lakra’s world is dominated by ghosts, the ominous unknown and death, rather being morbid, his works are infused with humor and a childlike mischief. The exhibition displays 3-D assemblages that he has made from odd bric-a-brac such as discarded medical aids or plastic insect parts. One that he created while staying in Japan, “Kappabashi,” is a tongue-in-cheek “homage to Giuseppe Arcimboldo,” the 16th-century Italian painter whose canvases depict faces made out of food, plants or animals. Lakra’s is constructed out of plastic food purchased at the restaurateurs district, the kind seen in Japanese window displays.

Eight of the drawings he did for the show poked the ribs of the museum directors a bit too far. Erotic shunga prints that he added his doodles to — according to Lakra, there was “nothing really strong about them” — were refused in an act of censorship that Lakra says is one of the most “surprising” reactions he’s experienced.

“I guess some people find it closer to pornography than fine art, especially because I’m working a lot with eroticism,” he muses. “So you can immediately see the mentality of these people with these issues. If you show somebody pornography and tattoos, by their reaction you quickly know how they feel about these subjects.”

Lakra has exhibited in elite places such as London’s Tate Modern and Saatchi Gallery, and has an upcoming show planned at the Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art at the Barbican Art Gallery in March. In response to the ever vexing questions concerning low-brow or kitsch art verses the high-brow or pure — when it comes to works that deal with tattoos, Lakra says, “In England, they have a longer tradition of tattooing, and in the United States, there are many art shows of only tattoo artists. But I think here it is a little different, here tattooing is not so close to the museums.”

Regardless, his two-month stay in Japan has been a bit of a revelation.

“I was interested in the iconography before; the images and all the comics and all the ukiyo-e, and when I came here I found even more — I found I only knew a very small amount,” he says. “The most important thing for me was having access to all these bookstores and prints. I’m sure it changed my work a little bit — after Japan and before Japan.”

“Goth: Reality of The Departed World” is at the Yokohama Museum of Art till March 26; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; admission ¥500. For more information call (045) 221-0300