Leo Zulueta, the famed contemporary tribal tattoo artist, visited the Grand Rapids Art Museum this week for a lunch and learn in which he spoke about his decades-long career and the history of tribal tattoo art in Western society.
“Black Waves: The Tattoo Art of Leo Zulueta” has been on display at the GRAM since February. The career-spanning exhibit runs through Sunday, Aug. 27.
Zulueta, the son of Filipino-American parents, grew up in Hawaii and California, spending the first 13 years of his life in the former and most of the next several decades in the latter. Zulueta has spent the past 17 years living in the Ann Arbor area.
“I was actually born in Washington, D.C., because my dad was in the Navy,” Zulueta said. “I was raised in Hawaii (on the island of Oahu) until I was 13 and then we moved to California.”
Zulueta said it was during his time in California that he first became interested in the history of tribal tattooing. “I started looking at Native American dress and jewelry and that led into looking at different cultures, primarily South Pacific cultures, that were tattooed,” he said.
He was most influenced by the tribal tattooing of Borneo and the Marquesas Islands. “Definitely the work from Borneo and from the Marquesas Islands, because it was the heaviest and blackest of the tattooing.”
He said tribal tattooing in Borneo went hand-in-hand with the practice of headhunting, or the practice of taking an enemy’s head after killing him. “Basically, it was to advertise headhunting exploits,” Zulueta said. “If you were to get so many heads in a headhunting raid, then you obtain a certain tattoo.”
He said tattooing in the Marquesas Island culture was related to an individual’s warrior status or group status. “Generally, high standing meant more tattoos in both groups,” he said.
Zulueta said before he became a tattoo artist, tribal tattooing had started to become present in the United States. “Several Peace Corps workers were coming back from Samoa with what was called the Peace Corps arm band, and that in turn inspired people outside of the area to look into the work.”
He added, “Places like California and Hawaii have large Polynesian, and particularly Samoan, populations, so the culture will flourish in those areas where there are more people living together outside of their countries.”
Zulueta has been credited with bringing tribal tattooing into the mainstream through his contemporary style, which he developed with encouragement from fellow tattoo artist and contemporary Don Ed Hardy.
Zulueta said contemporary Polynesian tribal tattooing really began to catch on within mainstream society in the 1990s, particularly within Hawaii and California’s beach culture.
Zulueta’s style pays homage to tribal tattoo history while creating unique designs that do not plagiarize on ancient cultures. “I definitely try not to directly copy a tattoo from an ancient culture, again as to not disrespect those designs and cultures. Our way of being influenced by the designs is not copying them directly and trying to have some sort of connection to the different cultures.
“For instance, I was asked to take up the Samoan hand tools by a Samoan artist, and I basically told him, at that time, it would be a difficult proposition for me to pick up a whole new art form, with the hand tools, and not only that, I didn’t feel it was my culture to do that,” he said. “The modern tattoo machine is my culture and not the ancient hand tools.”
Zulueta said he will turn down requests if he feels he is not qualified culturally to produce the kind of work being requested or if there is someone from within the culture who he believes should be doing the work.
“When I tattooed in California, I oftentimes would be approached by American Samoans to get the traditional work, and I would tell them to go to a Samoan tattoo artist to get that,” he said. “They know the symbols and everything about it and I do not. I’ve finished some work — the artist is gone now — but I finished it in a contemporary way.”
He said trying to encourage individuals to have a personal connection to the culture of the tribal tattoos they are seeking — and tattoos in general — is important to him, but sometimes that can be challenging.
“One of the most trying things in the contemporary tattoo shop is a lot of people want to get a movie star’s tattoo, and we try to sway them against that because tattooing should be more personal than that,” he said.
Zulueta said as a former art student, he is extremely honored to have his work appear in the gallery setting. “It means a lot. I’m extremely honored that Ron (Platt, GRAM’s chief curator) asked me to have my show at GRAM,” he said.
If you are wondering, Zulueta has at least 20 tattoos covering his body, most of which he said are quite large. Many of his tattoos were done by his protégé, tattoo artist Rory Keating, who works at Guru Tattoo in San Diego.
*Photos courtesy of Grand Rapids Art Museum