Ink Me

New film documents Southern California’s tattoo scene, 
from Danny Trejo to Ed Hardy

When Whittier Boulevard exploded into gang violence in the ’80s, Tattoo­land relocated to Anaheim, where Rudy still works today. On the walls are old tattoo samples from the Pike — more for decoration than inspiration, as today’s customers want personalized tattoos — and several portraits of Tattooland’s patron saint: Edward “Chuco” Caballero, who inked every inch of his body below the chin in fine-line black and gray.

Chuco, who died in 2008 at 54, inspired Schwartz to film Tattoo Nation.

“He had these portraits on his legs and they were like photographs,” Schwartz says. “On one leg, he had all the actors who played gangsters: Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Joe Pesci — the usual cast of characters. Then on the other leg were portraits of actual gangsters. One side of his torso was Aztec imagery, the other side was American Catholic imagery, and then there was Mexican imagery merging across.”

Danny Trejo gets inked.
Mark Mahoney
Danny Trejo gets inked.

Even with Chuco introducing him around as his “brother,” Schwartz spent three years convincing the community that the lanky gringo with a passion for Chicano culture was trustworthy.

Although the documentary is titled Tattoo Nation, it’s clear its heart pulses with the beats that used to bump from the lowriders on Whittier Boulevard, and that Chuco is the film’s soul.

“Originally, I was going to call it L.A. in Black and Gray,” Schwartz says. “People thought it was a pollution movie.”

The skill and the narrative of Chuco’s ink capture the story of California’s tattoo culture, which, thanks to Ed Hardy’s tattoo magazines and the last decade’s reality TV shows, like LA Ink and Ink Master, has spilled past the state’s borders to the rest of the world.

“Duchamp said everyone is an artist,” Schwartz says. “The tattooed are like directors of their own movie.”

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