Inside: Chicano Tattoo Art Definition & Inspiration.

What is Chicano Tattoo Art?

The classic themes of the Chicano style are women, skulls, flowers, and religious figures. With no doubt, the classic subject tattooed in Chicano style was a little Pachuco cross in the middle of the thumb and fingers. It was at the origin of a symbol to identify the members of the gang to show respect and loyalty to it.

Chicano Art Tattoos

Key Points

  • Chicano artists have a powerful philosophical and political heritage, and this style of tattooing reflects that.
  • The prison culture that, since the ’40s, has deeply influenced Chicano tattoo arts. Mainly due to arrests that were often a byproduct of xenophobic societal forces on migrant peoples.
  • Inmates of prisons would piece together a homemade tattoo machine. Using only the black or blue ink they had available to them, depict that which they knew best.
  • Scenes from gang life, beautiful women, slick lowriders, lettering, Catholic iconography all became the mainstays of Chicano tattoos.

Found in beautiful tones of black and grey Chicano tattoo style has mostly been influenced by the past Los Angeles history. Mainly of those that spent time behind bars. Although it isn’t the most uplifting background, Chicano artists in prison used their time to express themselves through whatever means and materials they had available. Putting together tattoo machines with guitar strings, and inking their skin with the ballpoint pen ink, they illustrated scenes from their lives. From Lowriders to babes with hoop earrings and lips lined in black and even beautifully detailed portraits of the Virgin Mary, the iconography is steeped in cultural history and meaning.

The Historical Roots of Chicano Tattoo Art

Smooth tones of grey highlight the illustrative approach to much of the Chicano tattoo movement. Considering its roots in pencil and ballpoint pen drawings, it’s no wonder that stylistically the artworks blend those techniques with an incredibly rich cultural background. While many people are familiar with the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, other artists such as Jesus Helguera, María Izquierdo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros were also at the forefront of the Mexican artistic output. Their work, along with other South American artists, mainly focused on depictions of political strife, familial representations, and illustrations of daily life. Although these works may seem like a far cry from that of modern Chicano tattoo artwork, the figurative studies and illustrative approaches that blend realism with surrealism partly explain why much of contemporary Chicano art has the particular look it’s known for.

Chicano Symbols

Religious Chicano Tattoos

Features Jesus, virgin Mary, crosses, praying hands and the Pachuco cross. The Pachuco cross is a tattoo with three dots above a cross. The three dots mean mi Vida Loca (my crazy life) and the cross is a symbol of God. This tattoo is both religious and represents gang affiliation, often done by the stick and poke technique.

Portraits and Realism Chicano Tattoos

Include family, lost loved ones, girls, cars, low riders, clowns, guns, masks, celebrities, and iconic figures from the Mexican revolution.

Smile Now, Cry Later Tattoos

Often adopted for the meaning of hiding your weakness or tears in prison until you’re out. This tattoo which consists of two faces, one laughing and one crying is popular among gang-affiliated Chicanos. These represent strength and toughness. Clowns, masks, or comedy masks can be used with or without the lettering. “Laugh now, cry later”, “Play now, pay later”, “Smile now, cry later” and “My happy life, my sad life” are all variations of the same concept.

Chicano Tattoo Art Inspiration

Chicano Tattoo Art Lettering

Often bold to create impact or a fine elegant script to add softness. Lettering Chicano tattoos represent neighborhoods, areas, family names, and quotes. These lettering or words are used stand-alone, behind portraits, or incorporated into a grand design.

The eagle

Another commonly used symbol in Chicano tattoos. The eagle is an Aztec symbol for warrior and also features on the Mexican flag. But can also represent freedom and other personal meanings.

Dia De Los Muertos

Also known as the day of the dead. It is a time to celebrate the dead and remember those who were lost.