Monsters, Myths, Mutations:
A Visit with Dr. Lakra
Nothing is safe from Dr. Lakra. Instead of skin, the tattoo artist prefers to embellish images from past decades: glamourous photos of Mexican beauties, dolls, and magazine covers. Since 2005 his bizarre studies on Eros and mortality are also part of the Deutsche Bank Collection. Daniel Hernandez explores Lakra's psychedelic universe.
||A young brown-skinned woman answers the door when I ring the bell. "Is he expecting you?" she asks. I nod. "That way," she points and returns to her business.
The artist's home studio is on the second level of a beautifully maintained hacienda-style home-where rooms are organized around an open central courtyard-on a narrow alleyway in the city of Oaxaca, here in lush southern Mexico. Upstairs, in a wide whitewashed space, I step inside what feels like a macabre Geppetto's workshop, a repository of the bizarre. Rows and rows of dismembered dolls, vintage toys, old glass bottles, books, records, and magazines crowd the space. There are piles of prints covered in graffiti-like tattoo etchings, boxes and bottles holding dead bugs, various types of skulls, and crude tags on just about every available surface. Everywhere the eye alights it sees naked women's forms, monstrous faces, and tribal symbols.
Up on a platform, hunched over, the Doctor is at work. "Welcome," Dr. Lakra tells me with nothing but the expression on his face. "Let's get started."
Small-framed and soft-spoken, the Doctor isn't much of a talker. But in the course of my visit to his studio, Dr. Lakra reveals himself to be an artist whose path to commercial success has been as unorthodox as the contents of his work. He never went to art school. Or any school at all, it turns out. Instead, Dr. Lakra spent his formative training years hanging around punks and tattoo artists in Mexico City, squatting in East Berlin just after the Wall came down, and bumming around Los Angeles and San Francisco. That's where he honed his craft and absorbed Chicano culture by tattooing cholo Mexican gangsters and working with the greats of Californian tattoo artistry at the time, such as Ed Hardy.
The adventures served him well. As Dr. Lakra began blending his work on human skin to the "skin" of old printed materials, his collages, murals, and works on paper have gradually made him a strong presence on the international museum circuit – his work was on view at the Tate Modern or the Yokohama Museum of Art – and among major collectors, including the Deutsche Bank Collection. In the process, Dr. Lakra has successfully dismantled the lines between "high art" and "low art," between the gallery and the tattoo studio.
"It is particularly fascinating that Dr. Lakra began his career as a tattooist and treats paper like skin," says Friedhelm Hütte, the bank's Global Head of Art. "He makes use of images from popular culture in a very unique way, combining Appropration Art with folk elements. By 'tattooing' and overpainting 1950s glamour photos and nostalgic postcards, Dr. Lakra transforms them into bizarre studies of beauty, Eros, and transience."
Indeed, at the core of his output lies the concept that any surface-literally, any at all-can be tattooed. Which is precisely what he does: on dolls, on coffee cups, on vintage magazines and posters that he digs up at flea markets, on any "skin" of his choosing. The result is what Mexican art theorist and longtime friend of Dr. Lakra, Mariana Botey, calls "displacing meaning in the chain of industrial cultural production."
"Lakra has a very sophisticated understanding of popular culture," Botey says. "In particular with certain kinds of low culture, where issues of taste are marking an interesting class subaltern structure. So there is a kind of logic in his work that makes him one of the best in the genre."
In other words, as Lakra himself puts it, "low" vintage pin-ups and advertisements become altered time warps under his tattoo gun and border on the "high."
"It's the transformation of the object," the artist says. "It is something that someone for whatever reasons considered valuable, or wanted to save. So the person saves it, archives it, and it acquires this other value."
Dr. Lakra is looking at reproductions of works of his in the Deutsche Bank Collection, including one that gives us both pause, an advertisement for a long-gone Mexican beer called Imperial featuring a frowning blonde woman in a fashionable 1930s dress and hairdo, looking forlornly at the floor with her beer at her side. Lakra covered her "skin" in tattoos-a clown, a snake, a spiderweb, and a skull. There is a tattooed noose around her neck, and given her expression, it feels like it belongs there.
"It's something you can never fully understand," Dr. Lakra goes on, referring to the images he alters. "You're looking at something that at some point was modern, no? Worthy to be a magazine cover. So it makes me incredibly curious about how people lived, what they thought, how things were before. Like a time machine."
Born Jeronimo Lopez Ramirez in 1972, the son of lionized Oaxacan artist Francisco Toldeo, Dr. Lakra acquired his curious signature when he began tattooing while growing up in Mexico City in the late 1980s. He'd carry around an old-style doctor's bag-"like that one," he says, pointing to a crumpled leather doctor's bag on a ledge in his studio-containing his tattoo equipment. "Lakra," meanwhile, is Spanish for "scum" or "hoodlum." Somewhere along the way, the name stuck.
"Is that the original bag?" I ask.
"No," Dr. Lakra says. "That one I lost in a peda."-A long night of drinking.
Dr. Lakra returned to Mexico City in the early 1990s to finally open a tattoo studio. By then, the local art scene was in a state of open transformation. The loosely named "90s Generation" emerged at a time of transition for modern Mexico. Endemic political corruption, a cultural elite that resisted change, and the arrival of the Internet and the North American Free Trade Agreement gave way to an explosion of independent arts spaces and projects in experimentation. Among other things, Dr. Lakra participated in art happenings at the legendary Panaderia space in the Condesa district.
But even before he had fled abroad, Dr. Lakra was a presence on the fledging Mexico City scene. In the late 1980s, he joined a Friday salon in the home of Gabriel Orozco, now considered the supreme envoy of contemporary Mexican art in the New York establishment. There, he, Orozco, and fellow artists Abraham Cruzvillegas, Damian Ortega, and Gabriel Kuri gathered every week to draw, paint, and share books. The connection is crucial. Years later, when Gabriel Kuri and Monica Manzutto opened their gallery, Kurimanzutto, Dr. Lakra was among the initial artists invited the join the roster.
But Dr. Lakra is unique in the Kurimanzutto circle. He clearly does not work in a conceptual idiom. What he creates with each piece is another window in the circus-like alternative universe of his imagination, where sexual decadence and the grotesque and psychedelic are the unifying norms-a world populated by gooey monsters, extravagantly busty women, anthropomorphic soothsayers, evil witches, and deceptively cute small children.
Last year, for his first solo show in Kurimanzutto's new permanent gallery in Mexico City, Dr. Lakra spent two weeks painting a massive mural that covered the walls of the entire space and even some parts of the ceilings and floors. The whole thing felt like an out-of-control acid trip, a nightmare. Images of sex, witchcraft, and disfigurement filled the clean walls and corners, as well as figures of deities and anatomical drawings.
"Everyone sees something different. For Mariana [Botey] they are hallucinations, for you they are nightmares, so I think there are many different interpretations, it's a very open discourse," Dr. Lakra says.
The technical qualities of the installation were outstanding, but the effort was ephemeral. Once the show was over, the gallery painted over the work, leaving Dr. Lakra with only his drafting transparencies. "Now it does not exist. They erased it. But that was part of the idea," he says.
Dr. Lakra's gaze is intense and focused. Even after a few minutes of speaking with him, you get the sense that he sees the world through the lens of someone who is constantly altering the surfaces and environments around him, even in his head. In that sense, with tattoos crawling down his neck, arms, wrists, and even palms, he's what I'd call a permanent punk. His art reflects his lifestyle, and his lifestyle reflects his art.
So it was with genuine curiosity that I asked Dr. Lakra why he chose to live in tranquil Oaxaca rather than in the hustle and bustle of Mexico City. He has a simple enough answer: "I grew up here until I was five, my girlfriend is from here, my father lives here, and my second son was born here."
Does he find inspiration along these cobbled streets? "In some form, yes. It's two very different worlds," Dr. Lakra says. "The world I have up here and the world that exists outside are very different. So in a way, they compensate each other."
Around us, several of Dr. Lakra's doll's hair is standing on end, caked in dust, as though they'd been caged up and electrocuted. Some of his recent work includes fotoesculturas, painted wooden relieves based on photographs. With his "portrait boxes" of faces fixed with seashells and insect parts, Lakra is once again transforming a Mexican artisanal tradition. These three-dimensional portraits were popular in previous generations in Mexico, Dr. Lakra explains.
"One more thing," I ask, unable to resist. On the sidewalk in front of the Kurimanzutto space in Mexico City, I noticed a skull etched into the concrete when it was still fresh, together with the letters "LKR."
"Was that you?"
"Yes. Something broke there and they redid the sidewalk. When I was leaving once, I saw that it was fresh, and I went ahead and …" Dr. Lakra smiles and starts to whistle.