Madame Chinchilla – Artist, Historian, Author…Legend
Tattoo culture is everywhere now. No longer relegated to the sideshows and shadows tattoos are as much a part of western culture in general and American culture in particular as, well, apple pie. Still think tattoos are a fringe lifestyle choice? Try this fact on for size; a staggering 1 in 5 Americans have a tattoo.
But with all this tattoo culture exploding all around us on TV, instagram, pinterest, twitter, facebook and many many tattoo shops how many tattoo fans and collectors know about tattoo history? Tattooing is one of the richest and most varied examples of human decoration and ritual. It spans almost every culture and dates back literally thousands of years. What we as modern westerners think of as “tattoo culture” is literally the tip of the iceberg and believe me – you want to take a peek under that water line.
In Northern California in the tiny coastal town of Fort Bragg is a tattoo shop that has held a prominent place on Main Street for 28 years. That shop is Triangle Tattoo and it is owned by Mr.G and Madame Chinchilla
– two tattoo artists with literally decades of experience between them. But Triangle is more than a shop – it is also a museum “dedicated to preserving the rich heritage and ancient art of tattoo”.
I am lucky enough to live nearby and was even luckier to get my first real tattoo at Triangle by Madame Chinchilla. Now that I am properly inking up I wanted to go back to Triangle and chat with Chinchilla and talk about tattoos, history and her fascinating life as a tattoo artist and tattoo historian.
On the street in front of the shop are two iconic “tattoo suits”
that allow passerby to get a full body suit and a great picture in a matter of seconds. These suits were inspired by similiar suits decorating the front of Lyle Tuttle’s shop In San Francisco. Through every season and all kinds of weather these colorful cutouts welcome ink seekers and the merely curious to enter Triangle and head up the long, narrow staircase
to find a visual feast waiting for them. The shop is roomy and colorful – every piece of wall covered with eye-popping flash, art, posters and general ephemera.
Even more packed? The rooms that contain the museum exhibits.
From their brochure Mr. G and Madame Chinchilla explain it best, “We have travelled worldwide in order to document and collect tattoos from all cultures. Our museum is a rare opportunity to experience the planet’s range of tattoo art and artists in one collection. Educational, inspirational, historic, cultural – our mission is to match the image to the pulse.”
I arrive at the top of the stairs to be greeted by Madame Chinchilla herself smiling and waving me into the exhibit rooms. Every square inch is covered, every shelf is packed. There is so much to see and take in it is a little overwhelming.
Luckily Chinchilla knows every square inch of the exhibits – she should, she helped collect and curate them – and she deftly points out a few different sections and asks me questions about what I know about various aspects of tattoo history and culture. My answer? Not much.
Looking around these rooms I am humbled about how little I know or even understand about this rich world that I am becoming a part of. Mr. G and Madame Chinchilla have done something remarkable and important with these small packed rooms. They have preserved a valuable piece of this history to be shared with all who are interested and their passion and knowledge is infectious.
If you ever find yourself way up the coast of California where the swaying palm trees are replaced with towering redwoods and the ocean is rough and rugged make sure you stop on Highway 1 in Fort Bragg to visit this unique and special place. You will find yourself welcomed whether you are there for ink or not and invited to browse this incredible museum. If you are really lucky maybe Mr. G or Madame Chinchilla can fit you into their busy schedule and you can get inked by a living legend!
And speaking of legends look no further than Madame Chinchilla. With 28 years of experience tattooing she has seen the industry grow and change in many ways and yet the essential relationship between “skin” and artist is eternal. Chinchilla has written and published 6 books! A children’s book, plus 4 books on tattoo history; a veritable “who’s who” in the tattoo world and an amazing reference to learn about artists both renowned and new.
Her knowledge runs deep and the books are a treat to browse and absorb. She has also written and published a gorgeous full-color book about the circus legend (and personal friend and mentor of hers) Captain Don
known as Mr. Sideshow. One room of the museum is devoted to Captain Don’s fascinating life.
The day I visited with Chinchilla the shop was busy with other artists getting their day started, tourists marching up the stairs to check out the museum, Mr. G helping Chinchilla locate information for me and the general bustle and energy of a busy shop.
I had a million questions I wanted to ask Chinchilla but she is more of a story-teller and listener than a question answerer and I found myself talking to her more about MY tattoos then anything else. Like many great tattoo artists Chinchilla has that ability to put you immediately at ease and feel welcome in her vibrant space.
She does what she does not for fame and glory (although a little fame and glory aren’t bad) but because it is her life’s work and her cultural legacy.
In her own words, “tattooing is a synergistic dance, it requires two people with the same intention and precise footing. It is a short-term relationship with lasting results. The tattoo artist becomes the very point of the needle that is being pushed under the third layer of the skin at 2200 times per minute. There is no canvas more sensual, more beautiful, or more intriguing than the human skin. This is why I thrive on the positive vibration of tattooing…Art With A Pulse!”
The clock ticked by much too fast and I realized I hadn’t asked any of my questions, I was simply having too good a time chatting with this eminent woman. How celebrated is Madame Chinchilla you ask? Her and Mr. G are #17 on the list of “101 Most Influential Tattoo Artists”, She is 1 of “20 Great Female Tattoo Artists in the History of Tattooing Over 20 Years”, she appears in the seminal book about women and tattoos, “Bodies of Subversion”, she is widely known for her skilled application of beautiful ink to mastectomy scars and is mentioned in numerous other articles and publications not only for her skill and experience as an artist but also for her books and the museum.
I could see that the shop was getting busier by the minute and although I would have been happy to spend the day there I felt like I should get out of her hair. But I did manage to squeak in a couple of “interview” type questions and here are Chinchilla’s succinct and spot on answers;
TT: How old where you when you got your 1st tattoo?
TT: How many tattoos do you have now?
TT: Will you get more ink?
MC: Of course!
TT: Who has been the most influential in your career -( except Mr. G who was Chinchillas 1st skin and teacher)
MC: Nobody in particular and everyone. I am inspired by all the working artists out there.
TT: What do you think of the newer tattoo styles like bio-mechanical, watercolor and photo-realism ?
MC: Amazing! Incredible! When we started it was all black outlines and primary colors. I remember when shading was the new thing. I think its wonderful the way it is evolving.
TT: What do you think about tattoo reality shows?
MC: Exhausting! I think its great to get the recognition but I don’t like the critique and comparing of somebody’s art. Their art is so much a part of somebody’s juice, their soul and I don’t like to see that critiqued
TT: Anything you don’t like about tattooing?
MC: Perfection! I hate that “I want it to be exactly perfect” mentality. Some piece of script or whatever and it has to look exactly like the picture. There is no room for me as an artist in that.
TT: When you tattooed me a few years back one of the things we chatted about was tattooing hands and faces. At the time you said you wouldn’t do it on principle (unless they already had ink there). Has that changed now that it has become more common?
MC: I will tattoo hands and faces if the situation is right. However, the Jewish Mother in me is looking out for them. If down the road that tattoo makes it hard for them in life I don’t want to be a part of that (potentially) bad decision.
This short article doesn’t do Mr. G, Madame Chinchilla and Triangle Tattoo justice. I highly recommend you visit www.triangletattoo.com to learn a bit more and to buy Madame Chinchilla’s books directly from her. She’ll even autograph them for you! Tattoo culture is a world of richness and variety and inspired by Mr. G and Madame Chinchilla I plan on learning as much as I can about the history behind this visual banquet. How can you know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been?
“Tattoos are something to take with us everywhere we go. They will crawl into bed with us at night, accompany us in our dreams and wake up in the morning with us, staring out from our skins in the fogged morning mirror. Our tattoos will follow us into our graves or scattered to the wind. They will perhaps later be discovered as a clue of our heritage”.
“The Human Body is a Historical Site for the Inscription of Culture & It’s History/Herstory”
Madame Chinchilla – Art With A Pulse!