La Tusa, The Tattoo Mural

One multi-layered representation of a community’s politics, tradition and symbols is the Tattoo Mural of South Tucson, located at 29th and 4th avenue. This artistic collaboration, led by Las Artes, an arts-based education program for young people, weaves traditional tattoo symbols together with messages of the barrio.

Dr. Maribel Alvarez’s 2008 interview with Las Artes’ lead muralists Alex Garza and Lupe Ruiz discussed the meaning of public art, rascuachismo (improvisational construction), and social memory. Excerpted comments follow:

Descriptor of the Tattoo Mural, by Maribel Alvarez:

  • The mural’s main representational element are tattoos. The design appears over two wings in flight, or perhaps, from another angle, the pages of a book opening. At opposite ends, the tattooed bodies of a man and a woman, their arms stretched and palms turned upward, as if with the intention to “hold up” the meaning of being here, in this community, now.
  • In the center, stylized as a tatuaje, an offering of red roses over a heart crown the words “Mi Barrio.” The “Mi Barrio” banner rests above the Tohono O’odham symbol of I’itoi (Man in the Maze). In another part of the mural, the symbol of the Yoeme (Yaqui) cross is also represented.
  • Remarkably monochromatic, except for the banner of rose buds that runs horizontally across the wall, the mural has been designed with three particular elements in mind: old-style cursive and block lettering, traditional or original designs, and blue ink. The idea of “old-style” is important to Garza and Ruiz in another, perhaps deeper, sense.
The Tattoo Mural
The Tattoo Mural

Additional observation, by Maribel Alvarez:
Alex and Lupe call my attention to two particular design elements they would not want me to miss:

  • the presence of what we agree are fundamental and repeated iconic elements in pretty much the large bulk of Chicano or Mexicano popular art.
  • the way that female names are inscribed throughout — always in a double-helix of meaning (referring to an actual woman or memory of a woman as well as to the concept/idea that such a name invokes communally).

The tattoo as art form, by Alex Garza:

  • Tattoos are humble kinds of art forms and in this community, they go back generations…this wall is close to the Senior Center and when many of the elderly walk by, they point out signs that they recognize. For us, the mural is in part a way of honoring them, the older folks, but more importantly, it also tries to say something about how a culture adorns itself, how it memorializes itself through symbols, how even a little thing can mean something.
  • These codes are read differently depending on your relationship to the mural. If you are driving by, then it’s the overall composition and color that speaks to you; you’ll just say: ah, a series of tattoos, that’s all. But for the people in this community who walk by it, there’s the next level of reading; and some of them, go even deeper. They stop by and get the meanings at a whole different level. That’s what the names throughout are intended to do, to draw in the viewer to the deeper level.

Use of Names in Mural, by Alex Garza:

  • The hand of the woman is extended and on the underside the name Alma (soul). Do you know that many women tattoo their daughter’s names in their bodies? It’s not just men who do it.
  • Altogether you can begin to see that the story behind the names is that the community inscribes a lot of pain and grief and hope in its story… and that pain and hope is represented as female… that is something that can be easily glossed over and it has a lot of meaning for life in the Barrio, which is not an easy life by the way. There are many names, too: see Soledad… Madre, even Lady Luck… And the sword and the military signs and the name is Dolores (Pain).

Murals in a community, Alex Garza:
Part of the idea of doing murals is to change perceptions by representing the aesthetics that are at the heart of a culture; not everyone is going to like it, but they won’t be able to say it ain’t real.


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