Modern twist on tattoos changing perceptions for iconic images, cultural identity
For a long time, tattoos were looked down upon, but now, some Mexican American artists are seeing greater acceptance of iconic imagery for expression of cultural and personal identity.
Religious iconography is especially important in Mexican American culture, where Ralf Jauregui, owner of Sunset Tattoo in Downtown El Paso, often gets requests to do images like crosses, rosaries and the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“Like say a big old Virgin Mary on the back. I've gotten to do that several times, and it's just like such an iconic image.” Jauregui said. “Even if you're not religious you know, like the importance of that image.”
The Virgin of Guadalupe, who is said to have appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico in 1531, is considered a national symbol of the country. Jauregui says the image also contains symbols of significance to pre-Hispanic culture. The stars on her shroud, the moon she is standing on, and even the sun in the background were important to Aztec religion before Catholicism.
The art surrounding the Catholic religion in Mexico is unique because of its mixture of both European Catholic and indigenous traditions, according to Claudia Preza, assistant curator for the El Paso Museum of Art.
“I think art has always been important, specifically in Mexico, just because it has been kind of like an outlet for political and cultural means,” Preza said.
She said tattoos going back to Mesoamerican cultures were used as a way to show rank, tribe, heritage or religious beliefs.
Now, Mexican Americans are using tattoos to highlight significant images that connect to their identity.
“It's a way to announce that you're proud in your heritage or your culture,” Preza said.
Jauregui said one style of tattooing, called black and gray, grew out of prison cultures, because prisoners only have access to materials that make black ink. Artists use different ratios of black pigment and shading techniques to create different values in the tattoo.

Ralf Jauregui preparing the transfer for a client who requested a Sacred Heart tattoo on his neck. Photo by Ethan Thomas,

A client at Sunset Tattoo in Downtown El Paso prepares to be tattooed, requesting a Sacred Heart on his neck. Photo by Ethan Thomas,

The reasons why people choose tattoos as a form of expression are mixed, Jauregui said. They may range from wanting a meaningful piece of art to simply liking a design and wanting it tattooed on them.
"So, tattoos can be anything," he said. "They can be fun. They could be like a memory of someone, or you're looking forward to something."
Tattoos have long been a topic for debate, Jauregui said.
People who had tattoos were stereotyped as criminals or gang members. But the perception is starting to shift, Preza said.
“Everyone’s kind of embracing that form of self-expression. think that that stigma is kind of waning away because it's not just for gangs,” she said.
Jauregui has clients from all walks of life. He himself, is covered in a patchwork of tattoos. He said lately he also feels more comfortable going places where he would have felt uncomfortable before.

Print of the Virgin Mary, depicted as several nopales, or cacti. Photo by Ethan Thomas,

“I feel nice like going somewhere and people notice. You're still kind of a novelty in a way. ... People aren't, like, demonizing you, they're more curious now,” Jauregui said.
Jauregui was inspired in his art by the lowrider culture where car owners use paint, chrome and embellishments to make a showpiece.
“It's taking something that wasn't necessarily beautiful and making it your own,” Jauregui said.
One of Jauregui's designs at Sunset Tattoo is a variation on the theme of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Instead of the Virgin Mary, nopales are arranged in her place.
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