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Artist Spotlight > View Spotlights

Leo Zulueta

The Tribal Influence

by AdamSkyArtist

July 29, 2005

Artist Profile

Leo ZuluetaThere is no greater compliment to an artist's legacy than if he's known for innovating and establishing a style of art. Monet transformed the brush stroke that blends and smoothes colors and turned it on it's ear by blotching the paint on the canvass and hence the Impressionist style of painting was born; Warhol reproduced cultural icons in brightly colored silk screens and gave birth to Pop Art; Leo Zulueta took ancient cultural tattooing of Polynesia, redrew it in a modern graphic style and invented Tribal tattoos.

Leo grew up in the 60's in Pearl City, Hawaii and witnessed the cultural revolution of Polynesians trying to regain their identity. "Growing up in Hawaii, a lot of my male Philippino relatives had traditional, Americana tattoos. Stuff like girl's heads, crucifixes, crawling panthers. Back then there were no Hawaiian tribal-style tattoos. You didn't see any of that stuff there" laments Zulueta. "In the late 70's early 80's Mike Malone and Candy Everett started really busting that Polynesian style out again. That was right after the sailing of the Hokulea and that corresponded with a huge cultural revitalization throughout the entire Pacific region. The local boys were coming into town and wanting some Hawaiian style tattoos and Mike and Candy were providing that."

Leo's father was a Navy man which eventually brought the family to San Diego and mainland America. Zulueta tried to introduce this new cultural style of tattooing to his Californian clientele; "I think at first it was really 'out there' for a lot of people. The first shop I worked at was in San Francisco and people would come in and look at my work and think, 'wow, that's really weird.' The general public was pretty shocked by it basically. You'd get tattooers looking at it who thought it was cool. I like to consider my work as my style. Sure it has influences from Borneo. The stuff that I was creating before I started tattooing, that Ed Hardy was tattooing on me, it's a big mix of black graphic style, you can call it tribal or whatever. It's been going on 30 years of me developing this contemporary, graphic style that is rooted in tribal. I think it can relate to everyone, not just Hawaiians or Samoans."

Although he never worked for legendary San Francisco tattooist Ed Hardy, Ed did teach him the fundaments of his trade and then pushed Leo to explore his own style. "On my days off I'd go to the library and research all I could on tribal tattooing from old books. I think that's why Ed started teaching me, he saw I had an interest in something really different" explains Zulueta.

Leo ZuluetaNew Tribalism took off like a rocket ship after Leo's work was being explored in Ed Hardy's Tattoo Time books and RE: Search's infamous publication Modern Primitives; books that launched the cultural phenomenon of body piercing, scarification, branding and tattooing. "Coming from Hardy's world it was big boost in my career. Without him helping me out and the networking from him I would not have reached the level that I am at now. I came in on a real top-shelf level. The people who wrote Modern Primitives are old punk rock friends of mine that certainly gave me a huge amount of exposure too. That book has a cult status I think. They shaped the whole 'Mod Prim' subculture movement with the tribal tattooing; other bod mods like piercing and stretching, even the suspension stuff. My first 7 years of getting into tattooing was huge because of these books and the blow up in popularity of this style, and my subsequent exposure."

Leo ZuluetaTribal tattooing hit a mark with so many tattoo enthusiasts, collectors and artists because its construction is perfect as a tattoo. By design, it' tendency is to follow the form and shape of the body, it also ages well and it strikes a psychological cord with so many people because people can use it to defer a lot of personal symbolism. The high contrast, high impact nature of tribal tattooing holds up well over time; a tribal tattoo will look solid and crisp after 50 years of ownership, not just 10. In the fine-line hangover that was 70's biker tattoos, Tribal was the revolution that tattooing needed at the time.

Although Zulueta can thank the punk rock scene for his propulsion to tattooing stardom, Leo draws his artistic influences from his natural surrounding from growing up as a surfer in Hawaii and San Diego. "I think the relation with my surfing and my style of tattooing is that they both go back to nature. When you're surfing you're one with the water, or if you're looking at the mountains while you're out there you connect with the environment, and then most images in tribal tattooing represent an insect or a palm frond or waves, or whatever. A friend of mine once made a reference of my tattooing with the way I long board skate boarding. She was like, "Wow, you're making really long graceful curves when you skate board." And it finally dawned on me; that's exactly what I do when I tattoo. I don't like to put a bunch of short choppy lines together, it doesn't work for me."

Leo ZuluetaZulueta eventually migrated to Hollywood where he opened Black Wave Tattoo where he became notorious for putting his mark on such super stars as Pamela Anderson, Dennis Rodman and I personally witnessed him tattoo Simpson's theme writer and prolific movie score composer Danny Elfman. Again, the 'Don' of the California tattoo scene, Ed Hardy put his hand in forming Leo's identity. "Ed Hardy helped me create that name. 'Black' refers to my tattoo career. And the 'Wave' part refers to both our involvement in surfing over the years. It's a little known fact that Ed is an avid surfer who's not afraid to take on some pretty big waves. I have a photo of Ed carving off a thirty foot swell!"

Now living in Michigan, Leo seems content to be so far removed from the West Coast and the lifestyle of the Pacific Ocean. "I actually like Michigan. People thought I wouldn't, but it's a whole different style of living here. We live in a rural area. We were looking in 2002 at buying property and moving back to Hawaii. But, having spoken to friends and peers in the industry working in Hawaii, I'm glad we didn't move back there. It is so saturated over there for tattooing. Some people have said to me, "Yeah but Leo it's you, you can tattoo anywhere." I don't really believe that big name people can Leo Zuluetamove into a saturated area and still do well. That's another reason on top of Diane being from here is that I wanted to move to a far less populated area than LA. Sure, we have long shitty winters. It's not perfect."

We can thank Leo for introducing the Tribal tattoo to Western culture and undoubtedly, Leo has influenced generations of tattooers. But the Tribal tattooing has become so homogenized that it's bled into all forms of modern art culture, including commercial design, advertising, corporate branding and many other unlikely places.

I asked Leo if he feels a sense of pride when he sees his influence in our everyday world. "Somewhat, but I have had some major incidents where my flash has been so deliberately stolen and ripped off for clothing lines and such. I try to let it go. I'm not the only artist that's been ripped off. Just last week I saw a custom chopper from Northern California that had my flash directly transposed onto it. I'm ready to call the shop and see if they'll send me a bike or something. It's beyond the point of money; it's about the respect."

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