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Dr. Lakra

The Drawing Center February 25 – April 24, 2011 O F F S I T E 3 wooster street

Dr. Lakra

Curated by Rachel Liebowitz


Essay by Rachel Liebowitz

Dr. Lakra Rachel Liebowitz

Tattoos, popular culture, ethnography, and erotica provide the content of Dr. Lakra’s abundant drawings, which he makes on just about every surface he can ink. Although frequently identified as a tattoo artist, and often recognized for his provocative manipulations of found imagery, Lakra keeps drawing at the core of his practice. He merges exotic subject matter, the precision of the tattooed line, and the freedom of ink on paper and walls. Over the course of the past five years, as wall drawings have gained prominence in his oeuvre over embellished vintage magazine images, Lakra has exchanged the corporeal canvas of the skin for the architecture of a physical space, setting up a dichotomy between a tattoo’s enduring mark on the body and a wall drawing’s temporary existence. Born Jerónimo López Ramírez in 1972, Dr. Lakra did not exactly set out to become an artist; rather, art was something that surrounded him from an early age. Though his father, Francisco Toledo, is a famed Mexican painter, Lakra confesses, “I didn’t have much of an idea what being an artist was. I wanted to draw, rather, to be a cartoonist; I wanted to publish little drawings, jokes, in the newspaper. Mad magazine was a big influence.”1 He was (and still is) the quintessential prankster, using his playful and subversive sense of humor to pique attention through his lewd drawings. Around the age of sixteen or seventeen, Lakra arrived at Gabriel Orozco’s studio and began to participate in a workshop there with a close-knit community of artists, including Abraham Cruzvillegas, Gabriel Kuri, and Damien Ortega. For Lakra, the workshop was an 1


Conversation between Dr. Lakra and Gabriel Orozco published in Dr. Lakra, (Mexico: Editorial RM, S.A. de C.V., 2010), 30.

opportunity to learn new drawing techniques and to develop his own graphic approach to making art. Around the same time, Lakra developed a strong interest in tattooing. He acquired the moniker Dr. Lakra when he began his practice as a tattoo artist in Mexico City. Lacra loosely translates as “blemish” or “scar,” but colloquially it names a “scumbag” or “delinquent,” and noticing the black bag in which he carried his tattoo equipment, Lakra’s friends appointed him “doctor.” Lakra left Orozco’s workshop in 1991 to live in Berlin, where he studied painting and drawing more seriously and continued his tattoo practice. Much like the kinship of the workshop, Lakra enjoyed the cooperative aspects of tattooing—learning from other artists and building connections with clients. Many of Lakra’s drawings from this period display straightforward compositions resembling classic flash layout sheets, the pages of designs that display the range of styles and images a tattoo artist can create. For example, Pierced Hearts and True Love: A Century of Drawings for Tattoos (1995) shows a figure covered in gang-style tattoos at the center of the drawing; he is framed by a chain of roses and surrounded by a sword piercing a heart and a rose, a flaming skull and crossbones, and—equally stereotypical of much tattoo imagery—a sexy girl. Note that Lakra displays his signature prominently to ensure proper attribution of the designs. Lakra’s reflexive approach uses both tattooing and drawing as sources for the constant translation and mediation of his ideas. While his early drawings maintain a direct representation of tattoo imagery, by the late 1990s his work shifted to defiling found magazine pages of pin up girls and Mexican wrestlers with his hand-drawn tattoos and graffiti. In an article in Artforum from 1981, Marcia Tucker wrote, “Tattooing is finally, once again, coming into its own as another aspect of the fine arts. A new form of populism is emerging in the arts, a sense that artists no longer wish to address themselves and their work exclusively to each other and to a small, informed audience. Rather, there is an increasing desire to work outside of the traditional media, to address a non-art public, and to situate the work itself in


a context larger than previously thought possible.”2 Tucker was a little ahead of her time, as tattooing has only risen from alternative, underground culture into the mainstream in the past two decades. Once common mostly among soldiers, sailors, bikers, and musicians, since the 1990s tattoos have become more and more prevalent and have lost much of their stigma. There is some room for creativity in tattooing through the dialogue between the artist and the client, but ultimately the artist’s responsibility is to the client. Drawing allows Lakra greater freedom to experiment and take risks. For Lakra, the repetitive nature of creating designs for another person is a specialized skill rather than a true act of creativity, blurring, in his mind, the boundaries between fine art and craft. In conversation with Orozco he recalls that he learned to draw by making tracings of images and filling in the outlines, much like the tattooing process. Although copying images plays an important role in Lakra’s drawing practice, he enjoys the ability to freely manipulate and change the compositions at whim. Tattooing is still an important aspect of his professional life, and much of the iconography—pin-up girls, gang symbols, Maori culture—remains a strong thread through his art work, but drawing is now at the forefront of his practice. Lakra has a profound knowledge of art history and a particular interest in the turn-of-the-last-century political cartoonist Jose Guadeloupe Posada. In his own illustrations, Lakra adapts Posada’s iconic Calaveras—imagery associated with the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead—to figures from popular culture. The depiction of skulls side by side with highly sexualized women, popular musicians, anthropological studies, and cultural artifacts offers a multifaceted exploration of the primal urges at work in both high and low cultures. Beyond Mexican art history, Lakra cites German Expressionism, Dada, and Surrealism as being particularly influential.3 Georg Grosz and Otto Dix stand out as parallel to Lakra’s interest in the darker side of everyday life. Grosz’s Weimar-ear caricatures of violence and sexual 2 3


Marcia Tucker, “Tattoo,” Artforum, May 1981, 46-47. Ibid., 33.

intrigue, and his fragmented Dada collages and photomontages, served as acerbic critiques of German social conservatism and militarism. Similarly, Dix merged Cubist, Futurist, and Expressionist styles to illustrate the horrors he witnessed. Lakra in turn investigates the anti-aesthetics of Dada and the automatism of Surrealism by seeming to create a cadaver exquis with himself. The results become psychedelic hallucinations that merge historical references with contemporary imagery and the beautiful with the grotesque. Along with his constant need to produce imagery, Lakra is an obsessive collector, which serves as a kind of indirect method of drawing. His collections overtake every spare surface of his studio, and include everything from piles of books and magazines and records to plastic doll parts and jars of insects. Lakra cuts, marks, and photocopies pictures from all kinds of printed materials, such as anatomical illustrations, anthropological photographs—of Maori, African, and Mexican cultures in particular—vintage erotica, and ethnographic catalogues of tattoo imagery. Comic strips and jokes about tattoos form another important archive for Lakra. Although many of the drawings depict violent and sexually explicit content, they are counterbalanced with lighthearted and humorous moments of humanized artifacts. The cartoon also possesses an immediacy that is analogous to the work. Just as the punchline elicits an immediate response that cannot be recreated, Lakra’s imagery often administers an initial shock, which then dissipates as we spend time with it and uncover its nuances. Expanding on his early graphic sensibilities, Lakra uses gestural lines and ink washes to depict a wide range of figures that come from both the media and his imagination. His sketchbooks offer a window into his compulsive need to draw. Full-page compositions of comic-book-esque couples captured in dramatic moments as well as more spontaneous depictions of nude girls, silhouetted cartoonish demons, hanging flesh, and coiled intestines fill the pages. Many of the figures in the sketchbooks recur and expand in ink drawings on tracing paper, which Lakra projects and traces directly onto the wall. His designs mark the wall like a tattoo, even though the ink merely stains the wall rather than scars it like a needle does skin. Unlike


a carefully planned tattoo, the wall drawings are composed more improvisationally. Many sketches and ideas exist, but he does not make scale preparatory drawings of the space as part of his process. It is not until he arrives at the site that he decides which images to include and how they should be arranged. The mural at The Drawing Center marks the first time that Lakra has created a montage of drawings on vellum integrated with ink drawn directly on the wall. The viewer is embraced by large areas of sweeping sepia-toned organic forms, suggestive of cave interiors with stalagmite protrusions capped with colonial Indian towers that morph into fluid drips and spindled totems. Once inside, we are pulled closer to the more intimate drawings that present a nonlinear, fantastical narrative of intertwined figures in various states of arousal, ecstasy, and anger. Polar bears wrestle with each other while nude women from rock album covers gaze at us. Faces, of both real and imaginary people, frequently appear within circles emanating light; Polynesian heads and African sculptures globalize the dreamscape. Lakra pushes his personal sketches into the public sphere when he enlarges and transfers them into temporary, site-specific murals that engulf the viewer in the expanse of his hallucinatory world. The imagery is often disconcerting on a personal and private level, as it reminds us of our desires and deviant urges. And when Lakra forces us to confront such impulses in the public domain, he suggests a universality to human nature, whether we choose to admit it or not.


Plates Installation photography by Cathy Carver Additional photography by Michel ZabĂŠ and Omar Luis Olguin All works and images courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City




Dr. Lakra is made possible in part by members

Frances Beatty Adler

of the Drawing Room, a patron circle founded to

Jane Dresner Sadaka

support innovative exhibitions presented by The

Eric Rudin

Drawing Center: Devon Dikeou and Fernando Troya, Rhiannon Kubicka, Judith Levinson

Dita Amory

Oppenheimer, Elizabeth R. Miller and James G.

Melva Bucksbaum*

Dinan, Maartje Elisabeth Oldenburg, The Speyer

Anita F. Contini

Family Foundation, Inc., Louisa Stude Sarofim,

Frances Dittmer*

and Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee.

Bruce W. Ferguson Stacey Goergen Steven Holl David Lang Michael Lynne* Iris Z. Marden George Negroponte Gabriel PĂŠrez-Barreiro Elizabeth Rohatyn* Allen Lee Sessoms Kenneth E. Silver Pat Steir Jeanne C. Thayer* Barbara Toll Isabel Stainow Wilcox Candace Worth Executive Director Brett Littman *Emeriti

Special thanks to Spencer Brownstone Gallery.


This is number 97 of the Drawing Papers, a series of publications documenting The Drawing Center’s exhibitions and public programs and providing a forum for the study of drawing. Jonathan T.D. Neil Executive Editor Joanna Ahlberg Managing Editor Designed by Peter J. Ahlberg / AHL&CO This book is set in Adobe Garamond Pro and Berthold Akzidenz Grotesk. It was printed by Bookmobile in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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Drawing Papers 96 Drawn from Photography Drawing Papers 95 Day Job Drawing Papers 94 Paul Rudolph: Lower Manhattan Expressway Drawing Papers 93 Claudia Wieser: Poems of the Right Angle Drawing Papers 92 Gerhard Richter: “Lines which do not exist� Drawing Papers 91 Dorothea Tanning: Early Designs for the Stage Drawing Papers 90 Leon Golub: Live & Die Like a Lion? Drawing Papers 89 Selections Spring 2010: Sea Marks Drawing Papers 88 Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary Drawing Papers 87 Ree Morton: At the Still Point of the Turning World Drawing Papers 86 Unica Zurn: Dark Spring Drawing Papers 85 Sun Xun: Shock of Time Drawing Papers 84 Selections Spring 2009: Apparently Invisible Drawing Papers 83 M/M: Just Like an Ant Walking on the Edge of the Visible Drawing Papers 82 Matt Mullican: A Drawing Translates the Way of Thinking Drawing Papers 81 Greta Magnusson Grossman: Furniture and Lighting Drawing Papers 80 Kathleen Henderson: What if I Could Draw a Bird that Could Change the World? Drawing Papers 79 Rirkrit Tiravanija: Demonstration Drawings

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Profile for The Drawing Center

Dr. Lakra  

The Drawing Center's Drawing Papers Volume 97 featuring an essay by curator Rachel Liebowitz.

Dr. Lakra  

The Drawing Center's Drawing Papers Volume 97 featuring an essay by curator Rachel Liebowitz.