In 2005, Eric Schwartz, 64, a Colorado/Los Angeles-based photographer and first-time director of the documentary Tattoo Nation, was sitting in a diner waiting for his meal when a tattoo caught his attention. “I was having breakfast at one of my usual haunts when the manager noted that I was not getting the service a customer should. She asked, ‘Is there something I can help you with?’ I noticed she had a small amount of tattoo peeking out of her sleeveless blouse and I asked her to tell me about it,” recalled Schwartz. “She said, ‘I decided to dedicate my body to the two most influential people in my life: my daughter and my grandmother.’ She then explained the imagery she had chosen and why. I was floored.”
Schwartz added, “As a photographer I’m interested in what makes people tick. I noticed more and more people were getting tattooed, so I decided to find out why.”
While at the Pomona Tattoo Expo looking for subjects to interview and photograph,
Schwartz saw this man who was a walking canvas. It was Edward “Chuco” Caballero, one of the most recognizable faces in the California-tattoo and lowrider scene, who once graced the cover of Skin & Ink Magazine. Schwartz was mesmerized. “Chuco had the most unbelievable work one could imagine. I saw the portraits on his legs and was awestruck. They were beautifully rendered and they took on the quality of black and white photographs. This was my first exposure to a unique American art form: the Chicano black and grey tattoo. I stopped him and said,
‘You have to tell me about this,’ ” said Schwartz.
Chuco—a Southern California native—participated in his photographic project and the endeavor opened another door.
Three years later in 2008, Chuco was battling an aggressive form of cancer and while visiting the hospital, Schwartz met David Oropeza, a passionate tattoo collector. Oropeza not only had witnessed how the Chicano and Los Angeles tattoo movement evolved, but he is a living testament to the movement. Within that year and many conversation later, Schwartz and Oropeza both agreed that the story about the Los Angeles and Chicano tattoo culture needed to be told by the people who lived it—and while they were still alive.
“We thought, ‘This needs to get done,’ ” Schwartz said. “We didn’t know how, but it needed to happen and we wanted to do it right.”
Oropeza, 55, a Mexican American from Compton, added, “We figured, if we didn’t do it at the time we did, the story would’ve been lost.” Oropeza later became a co-producer of Tattoo Nation and was a key element in interviewing the people featured in the documentary. “David knew the story and people could relate to him,” Schwartz explained.
“We didn’t want to script anyone,” Oropeza added. “We wanted them to portray themselves.”
In 2011, producer John Corry, whose credits include the documentary Forks Over Knives and the movie The Rundown, came onboard and the ball was rolling.
“People have been marking their bodies for thousands of years and we wanted to understand why,” said Oropeza. The common themes were self-expression and telling stories through tattoos and this became the foundation of the film.
The documentary Tattoo Nation explores how the single-needle, Black and Grey tattooing was popularized and it follows three tattoo pioneers who revolutionized this style of work: Charlie Cartwright, Jack Rudy, and Freddy Negrete.
In 1975, tattoo legends Charlie Cartwright—a handpoke tat-tooer and the son of a Kansas Pentecostal preacher—and Jack Rudy, a former Marine, bravely opened Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland, the first tattoo parlor on Whittier Boulevard in the heart of East L.A. ’s Chicano community. They hired a recently paroled teenager who, while in jail, unknowingly established an iconic tattooing style that spoke to an entire generation of Chicanos. That teenager was Freddy Negrete.
“I was in juvenile hall and they brought this older guy in, he was maybe 15 or 16. He had tattoos all over. I was so impressed,” Negrete, now 46, recalled. “He was really cool with me and he started telling me that this is how they do it in prison. That afternoon when I got out, I rigged up a little tattoo needle and it wasn’t long before I became like the neighborhood tattoo artist.”
Negrete added, “After I got out of California Youth Authority, I set up shop in my apartment and all I’d hear from everybody was this new tattoo shop on Whittier Boulevard that was doing prison style tattoos. So I would tattoo people and send them to Good Time Charlie’s to show them my work.”
Cartwright, Rudy, and Negrete’s paths soon collided and the rest is history.
“Tattoo Nation is a uniquely American story,” director Schwartz said. ‘This is as much a story about the human spirit and the Chicano people as it is about tattoo.”
The feature-length film also features Don Ed Hardy (who was instrumental in the continuation of Tattooland in the late ‘70s), along with Tattooland alumni Mark Mahoney, Corey Miller, and the late Mike Brown—in addition to Danny Trejo, Chente Rios, Chuck Eldrige, Chuey Quintanar, Filip Leu, Franco Vescovi, Jose Lopez, Henk Schiffmacher,
Kate Hellenbrand, Kore Flatmo, Louie Gomez, Mister Cartoon, Rick Walters, Tennessee Dave, Tim Hendricks, Travis Barker, and many others.
Unearthed were rare footages of Tattooland (which has since relocated in Anaheim, California, with Rudy at the helm) and its tattooing legends, and of Chuco who passed away in November 2008 at the age of 54.
Tattoo Nation is the first tattoo documentary to be released in mainstream theaters nationwide. On April 4, 2013, the film was released simultaneously in over 137 theaters across the United States from Juneau, Alaska, to Miami, Florida. A premier was scheduled at the Arc light Theatre Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, on March 28, 2013. The documentary was previously screened in London, Amsterdam, and South Africa.