Purple Magazine
— The Mexico Issue #36 F/W 2021



text by AARON ROSE
photography by MARLENE MARINO
shot at the artists’s studio in oaxaca
all artwork courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, mexico city / new york

lakra, son of famed oaxacan artist francisco toledo, celebrates the rich mexican tattoo tradition, elevating it onto the international art scene with fun, macabre collages, sculptures, and murals, and appropriating vintage images

The first time I heard of Dr. Lakra was in the mid-’90s through a friend, the Mexican artist Miguel Calderón. I was living in New York City, and Miguel was showing quite a bit there. Andrea Rosen, his gallerist at the time, introduced us, and we began to hang out together when he was in town. Miguel would tell me about all the wonderful things that had been going on in the art scene in Mexico, and one of the most intriguing people he mentioned was this mysterious figure, Dr. Lakra, who was working as a somewhat underground tattooist while simultaneously establishing a career as a very prolific contemporary artist. I have always been interested in creative people who are able to seamlessly work across multiple genres, and Dr. Lakra was most certainly one of these personalities.

Dr. Lakra, whose given name is Jerónimo López Ramírez, comes from a long legacy of artists. He is the son of the famed Mexican painter, sculptor, and graphic artist Francisco Toledo and the acclaimed poet and sociologist Elisa Ramírez Castañeda. His father, in addition to being one of Mexico’s most famous artists, was also a prolific activist in Oaxaca. One famous protest involved plans to open a McDonald’s in Oaxaca’s 500-year-old Zócalo town square. When his father heard about this, he staged an intervention, where he stood completely naked in front of the proposed site to remind people of the pleasures of their own food. In Dr. Lakra’s case, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: father and son are rebels in the truest sense of the word.

It’s suggested that perhaps it was through his family that Dr. Lakra became such an avid collaborator with other artists. He states: “This hippie community I grew up in, for a way of thinking, was maybe a big inspiration for me. If you can do creative things with your friends, it’s always better.” As I’ve followed his career, I’ve seen multiple instances where the artist has nurtured young talent by bringing them in to work with him on projects — an honorable trait that is surprisingly rare in the contemporary art scene.

Dr. Lakra is based in Oaxaca, and I’ve traveled many times to the city, attempting to set up a meeting with him, but always to no avail. However, as fate would have it, this time the stars aligned, and we were able to arrange an appointment. When we arrived in Mexico, however, things turned sideways, coupled with twists and turns usually reserved for the pages of spy novels. What began as a fairly simple excursion south of the border to meet the artist, do a simple interview, and photograph his studio began to take on a more chaotic tone. After an adventure one could only have in Mexico — including numerous canceled flights, midnight bus trips on sketchy roads through the mountains, missed connections, deleted recordings, and a massive youth protest that shut down an airport (all under a very powerful Scorpio full moon) — we were finally able to connect at his tattoo studio in Mexico City. Upon entering the space, we were immediately transported into a different world. Murals painted by Dr. Lakra depicted everything from Far Eastern spiritual imagery to the rings of hell and covered every inch of the interior walls. As the buzz of tattoo machines filled the air, I explored the space while Dr. Lakra completed a tattoo of a cat on a young woman. We were finally able to meet face-to-face.

As one could imagine, Dr. Lakra’s career path has been nontraditional. When he was in his late teens, he joined a workshop for young artists that included the artist Gabriel Orozco, and the two became creative collaborators and friends. “I never went to art school, so maybe that’s how I learned to work and to share things,” he says. “We would hang out every Friday, listen to music, and look at books, and we were painting all the time. It was my first nonacademic experience as an artist, and it was very nourishing. I learned a lot and had a lot of fun.”

In the mid-’90s, the tattoo scene was just beginning to become internationally popular, and Dr. Lakra (English translation: “Dr. Scumbag”) was making a unique mark. He began teaching himself how to tattoo in a very “under-the-radar” fashion in Berlin. He had relocated there from Mexico when he was 19 years old, and he was living in squats, tattooing his friends, and experiencing the city in one of its most magical moments. The community he met in Berlin and his work in tattooing eventually led him to San Francisco, California, which at the time was a hotbed of revolutionary experiments in the field. He honed his skills and found himself becoming part of the larger skin-art scene. At the same time, he never gave up his artistic practice and continued to mount exhibitions of his artwork worldwide. When asked how he was able to balance both worlds, he replies: “Tattooing is not an art — it’s a craft. It cannot be resold; it cannot be transferred. It’s only yours. You can approach it in an artistic way, but it’s not art.” A controversial statement, which I’m sure many of his colleagues in the tattoo world would disagree with. When questioned about how the community would react to this view, he doubles down: “In tattoos, you have to create something that a person is going to be happy to wear for the rest of their life. You have to collaborate with that person. You don’t have total control. As an artist, you are in control.”

Dr. Lakra’s fine-art practice is completely unique and very much his own. His work is loosely based in traditional drawing and painting, but also includes murals, collage, and sculpture. Found images and objects often  find their way into his compositions — to the point that it sometimes becomes unclear what the artist has created and what has been appropriated. His works have been described as “teetering between attraction and repulsion,” a statement he doesn’t necessarily disagree with. As we speak, I mention that he reminds me of a Mexican version of Joseph Cornell, albeit with a rebel’s eye and a gangster twist. When asked why he continues a fine-art practice while being such an in-demand tattooist, he says: “In my solo work, I have more freedom. I don’t have to please the customer.” It’s such a simple statement, but something that most artists — unless they’ve practiced creativity for hire — would probably never understand.

While Dr. Lakra’s creative urge to work on his own, away from the demands of clients, is important to him, the collaborative element of working closely with other artists has never left his work. A few years ago, together with a group of artist friends in Oaxaca, he opened El Ojo Peludo, a shared studio and artist collective in the heart of Oaxaca City. Accessed through an unmarked door, on a side street just off the town square, it can only be described as a creative oasis. Here, in a grouping of small studios that open onto a courtyard, a dozen or so artists and craftspeople share real estate and a creative vision. Calling themselves only by the group’s name, La Mesa Puerca, they work on painting, ceramics, and silkscreening, and have a small kimono shop. Describing his desire to start a collective, Dr. Lakra says: “I think when you are painting and drawing, you are alone with your materials. I started missing being part of a group, where you are in a community. I think it’s really inspiring and constructive. You can learn a lot by working that way. People push you in different directions.” All the artists creating work at El Ojo Peludo are unique in their own way, but the kimono studio is perhaps the most fascinating part. If you’ve ever been to Oaxaca, the first thing you realize is that traditional Zapotec crafts are everywhere. It’s a staple of the city and a large reason why visitors travel to the region. Happening upon a table in the middle of all this where a small group of people are silently and meticulously sewing kimonos is a sight I was certainly not expecting. Dr. Lakra mentions that there’s a whole movement of young artists and designers in Oaxaca who understand the rich traditions of the region but feel like it’s time to push things further — to move away from the past and toward a new, young, Oaxacan creative movement. The artists working at El Ojo Peludo are most certainly on the cutting edge of this scene.

On the subject of the Zapotec roots of his city and the fact that members of his family have been and are currently virulent activists for indigenous people’s rights, I ask Dr. Lakra how this activism has found its way into his own work. He says that rather than making his artwork about the subject, as many of his family members have done, he prefers more direct actions. In the 1990s, through a local anarchist bookshop in San Francisco, he became involved with an advocacy group that wrote letters and supplied books to incarcerated people. As many of the prisoners spoke only Spanish, it was Dr. Lakra’s job to translate the letters. “It was really gratifying work,”
he says. “We received so many letters of gratitude from the jails for sending the books, and I really felt like I was helping people.”

This started him on a path that he has continued since he’s been back in Mexico. He now goes into the juvenile jails in and around Oaxaca on a monthly basis to teach young prisoners (many of whom are Zapotec) to draw in the tattoo style. He tells me one story of a friend who was in jail; together, they arranged to have a printing press set up in the prison. “We started going there every week and giving workshops and showing movies and bringing materials to the kids,” he says. “They were creating the most incredible things … posters, books, reproductions of their drawings, even a custom deck of Mexican lotería cards, using jail slang for the imagery.” Recently, a local organization that teaches music to indigenous children came to him and asked if they could bring local kids to the prison — to partner on a production of the play West Side Story. Says Dr. Lakra: “It was the perfect play for them to collaborate on — they all really enjoyed it. The kids in jail chose images from the story and did incredible woodblock prints for the performance.”

As I exited the tattoo studio, the door closed behind me, and the sounds of the tattoo guns faded away. I re-entered the mean streets of Mexico City. I realized then that I had just met a very special person. Dr. Lakra embodies a spirit that is hard to find in the current art scene. His life and his work tell the story of a man at once at odds with his surroundings yet dedicated to bringing people and creativity together through art. When asked why he thinks he’s focused his life so passionately on his community, he gives a simple answer, bringing it back to the art workshop he did with Gabriel Orozco when he was a teenager. “That experience had a very big effect on me at the time, and it’s stayed with me,” he says. “Maybe I’m just trying to constantly replicate that in my day-to-day life.”



[Table of contents]

The Mexico Issue #36 F/W 2021

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