"Tattoos used to be a sign of rebellion; now they're just a sign that you went to the mall," says a smarmy reporter in a news clip that is woven into the documentary Tattoo Nation. That flippant dismissal is turned on its head as director Eric Schwartz tracks the origins and evolution of black-and-gray, the style of tattoo art born in Southern California when prison culture and Latino street culture pollinated one another. Illustrated over the course of 90 minutes is a multi-layered art form that, for those who get tattooed and those who wield the ink apparatus, is part spiritual statement, part artful expression, and far more than a mall-rat trend. Filled with interview footage of the OGs (Ed Hardy, Charlie Cartwright, Jack Rudy, Freddy Negrete) who forged the style that has become a global phenomenon, the film follows the standard doc template in terms of craftsmanship. In content, it skirts being lachrymose when tackling the anti-Latino bigotry that helped spawn the Pachuco culture that spawned the cholo culture, which is one of the roots of black-and-gray. And you can't help but wish Schwartz had devoted more space to discussing the global history of tattooing to better situate the SoCal style. However, the images of the style as it evolves, and especially those that fill the last 15 minutes of Tattoo, are so beautiful and often majestic that they overshadow the film's small shortcomings.
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