current exhibition

Review Archive

For Connection: Arts and Entertainment

By John Carlos Cantú



“Flash” at Ann Arbor’s cutting-edge Gallery Project wants nothing more than to tattoo you. The exhibit illustrates what Gallery Project co-director Rocco DePietro calls the gallery’s “tribute to tattoo creators and enthusiasts, [in] recognition of their artistic and cultural contributions.”


As DePietro tells us, “What used to be reserved for warriors, carnival performers, and other people on the fringe of society, now adorn us all. Their decoration guides their wearers into life’s chaos and helps to define their individuality in the face of its conformity. The images are chosen talismans that protect, evoke memories, capture emotions, and express opinions.”


No doubt about it. Among the sources for these artworks on display are prison barbs; biker affiliations; kanji symbols and script; occult imagery; floral design; fantasy and science fiction; animals; Chinese and Japanese iconography; Celtic art; pin-ups—indeed, even dear old mom.


Organized by Jeff Zuck, owner of Name Brand Tattoo in Ann Arbor, and Alexa Lee, former director of the Alexa Lee Gallery, “Flash” represents several global tattoo traditions. Local artists include curator Zuck, Mike Aul, Kerri Baker, Bill Falsetta, Dianne Mansfield, Jen Mumford, Leo Zuluetta, and Ethan Zuck. Artists from around the country (and the world) include Mario Desa, Chicago; Chriss Dettmer, Hamburg; Mike Dorsey, Cincinnati; Adam Forman, Los Angeles; Tomas Garcia, Barcelona, Adam Shrewsbury, Cleveland, and Jason June and Michelle Myles from Fun City Tattoo in New York City.


The artistic informality belies the exhibit’s relaxed appearance. The Gallery Project is festooned salon style with formal artworks set next to catalogues of tattoo design. Indeed, it’s often difficult to determine where one kind of art ends and the other begins because of its multiple entries and examples of tattoo art.


“The artists responsible for these creations are unique,” says DePietro. “Their canvas is alive, ever changing and imperfect. Their canvas can feel pain, and these engravings are permanent marks on a dynamic surface. There is a unique synergy between the artist and their living canvas that leads to the creation of an artwork that is personal and unrepeatable.


“This subculture of artists,” he concludes, “has founded, maintained, and evolved its traditions without any mainstream support or recognition, [being] a social network of artists, creators, and collectors that have evolved outside the contemporary art context.”


As such, some artworks—for example, the photography of Dianne Mansfield ranges from the anthropological (as in her black and white “Three Hawaiians”) to the artful (as in her remarkably vivid “Rory” where a series of purple curvilinear lines run along the contour of the human body). While among the other artworks, Bill Falsetta’s “Circus Box”—a wooden carnival box set on a black platform featuring worn-for-care “flash” beauties, beasts, and hearts engraved on the box’s wood—cleverly represents both the insider and outsider element of the artform.


In the main, however, “Flash” single-mindedly devotes itself to “flash.” That is, tattoo designs drawn on various backings (typically cardboard or paper) which give potential customers ideas for adornment. These artworks are as wide-ranging as they are imaginative and each bears the distinct sensibility—culturally and socially—of the artist. Whether considered art or art brut, these talents are no less adventurers in their chosen capacity.