CW "Chuck" Eldridge of the Tattoo Archive minces no words. "A lot of these designs really are scary," he says, referring to tattoos on display during the Politically Incorrect Tattoos exhibit. And he's not just talking about an implied fear factor. Sure, the ideas symbolized by a swastika and a rebel flag send shivers up the spine. But some of the stuff in the exhibit would frighten, say, an interplanetary visitor without Internet access. The severed heads, for example. "It goes back to the Rape of Nanking," explains Eldridge, a formidable skin-ink scholar, "when there was a whole series of articles published about Chinese criminals being caught, and their heads were cut off and displayed in public as a crime deterrent. Consequently, people would pick these designs up out of these news articles and take them into their tattoo shops." What kind of people, you ask? "There would be white people with a prejudice against Communists, there would be the Chinese -- it would cross all these different boundaries."
The exhibit includes images of African Americans, drunken Irishmen, Viet Cong, and Native Americans (of the Atlanta Braves style), as well as quite a bit of narration. "There's a lot of words, trying to explain the images," Eldridge says. "Because the designs are a little upsetting, to be truthful. So I had to be politically correct, in a politically incorrect exhibit." There are some surprising ones, too, like the peace sign. Eldridge points out that, as recently as, well, now, an antiwar statement could be a touchy thing. "During the last Gulf War campaign, if anybody stood up and made any statement about the war being wrong, the administration labeled them as un-American."
Eldridge says the exhibit shows how life in a tattoo shop reflects the larger culture. "The designs on a shop wall just mirror what's going on outside that shop," he says. "You think it's just a place for art, but the politics get carried in there as well."
The Tattoo Archive is located at 2804 San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, and is open Monday through Saturday, noon till 8 p.m. The exhibit will be up through the month of October, and possibly beyond.
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