As you’ll see when you come to Woolly Mammoth for Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey (and as you may have read in previous blog entries), tattoos are very important to the world of the play. My interest piqued by research and rehearsal attendance, I met with Misha Kachman, Oedipus el Rey‘s Set and Costume Designer, to discuss the choices he’s made about the look and feel of the production’s tattoos.
How did you go about researching tattoo designs for the show?
We’ve looked at lots of images related to gangs and barrios, online and in books. I talked to Luis, of course, but there is a lot of visual research out there, too. I didn’t sit down and draw these tattoos; I tried to use real sources, and some of those come from actual tattoo designs that people offer you and display on the Internet. You can go online and look at police files that include records of gang tattoos. There is this amazing website, it’s like a Facebook for California Latino gangs. It’s out there! It’s all in the open. That’s the whole thing about belonging to the gang: it’s not a secret society. They wear gang colors, they have gang tattoos, they openly display that they belong to a certain gang. It’s a statement. It’s out there. They’re not hiding.
How authentic are the tattoo designs used in the show? Would realistic gang tattoos place the actors in danger outside the rehearsal room?
Well, there is not much danger to the actors because we’re assuming that they’re not going to go to at-risk areas. It’s also winter and they’re wearing mostly long-sleeved clothes. But, yes—we’re staying somewhat generic. None of these things say “18th Street Gang.” And you really don’t want to say “MS-13,” because the problem is that while the play deals with Los Angeles gangs, some of these gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) are also prevalent in Washington, DC.
Are designs specific to individual characters?
Yes. Tiresias, for instance, definitely has to have a cross. We have several of those. Then there is the image on Jocasta’s back. Otherwise, we don’t really do much on the actors’ backs. Most of what we see is on their arms.
There are also the owls—they will go on three of the actors’ chests. Although, right now that’s up in the air, because we just discovered that we can’t print very large temporary tattoos, so the owls may have to be broken into smaller chunks.
In general, there are lots of Our Lady of Guadalupes. They are usually found on the shoulder. There is a lot of typography that is almost indecipherable—it’s the graffiti typeface. There are some Mexican images with Aztec influence, too. There are also lots of knives, praying hands and crosses, and some pinups, which are very common in prisons. I intentionally chose the ones that look the most amateurish.
Did you design the tattoos assuming that most of the characters got them in prison?
Yes, and that’s why the best images I found are those that look the least professional. You certainly can see the difference between a real prison tattoo and something you’d get in a tattoo parlor, which looks kind of “design-y”. We tried to stay away from images that are “design-y”.
Can you talk a little about the kind of mechanism they use in prison to give tattoos?
Ah, I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert on that, and the honest answer is that I really don’t know how they do it in American prisons. I know how they make tattoos in Russian prisons. They make the device out of an electric razor. Then they insert a little reservoir of ink—that’s regular ink from a fountain pen—and basically there is a needle that goes up and down. It’s handmade. And it’s pretty rough. It’s a painful, painful procedure. Also, the prison tattoos are all black and bluish. There are no other colors in them because the ink they use is from pens.
Has Jocasta been in prison? If not, do her tattoos look different than those of the male characters?
You should probably ask Romi [Diaz, the actress playing Jocasta] if she thinks her character has ever been in the can. I don’t think she has. But while wives or companions of gang members may not go to jail themselves, they have gang tattoos that identify their allegiance. There is also a whole tradition of recording the departure of the man; either he goes to jail or he gets killed, and there are tattoos commemorating both of those. Michael [John Garcés, the director] at one point considered adding a tattoo to Jocasta once she’s been widowed—like tattooing a teardrop on her face. That may likely prove to be impractical because the show is so tight and there is no time to add a new tattoo backstage. But, we’re trying to strike a balance between this kind of verisimilitude and a more generic quality.
Do the tattoos tell stories of ethnicity or family background?
In prisons all over the world, it’s possible to “read” prison tattoos like a book. You know who an inmate is based on his or her tattoos. In this country it’s less rigid, but in Russian prisons it’s literally like reading a census. You know how many times a person’s been in jail and for what.
And the prison community—if you can call it a community—on average tends to be more religious, more prone to mysticism than the population as a whole, and perhaps less educated. Additionally, there are obviously cultural preferences that they may display. In the case of Latino gangs, there are ethnic tattoos, things like “Brown Pride.” There are many levels of Chicano symbolism in those tattoos because they kind of establish themselves, they mark themselves as members of that community, and it’s permanent. They don’t tattoo themselves for amusement or out of boredom. They mark themselves as members of a group. That’s the difference between someone tattooing “Brown Pride” across his chest in prison—or even across his face, we’re not doing that in the show, but people do that—and someone tattooing something cute on their lower back. The purpose is not amusement and aesthetics—it’s not adornment.
Do similar tattoos serve to emphasize the identity of non-gang members in the barrio?
No, the tattoos in the production are gang tattoos. The civilian in such a community doesn’t tattoo himself or herself with the words “Brown Pride.” Although the numbers I’ve heard are that the 18th Street Gang—one of the largest gangs in California—has 60,000 members. When you talk about such numbers, it’s no longer a criminal organization, it’s a social movement. We’re talking huge numbers here. Look, the purpose and the origin of a gang is for social organization. It’s not intentionally created to run prostitution rings or deal drugs. That’s what they do, but I have this amazing book of photographs of Latino street gangs, and you immediately discover that—and Luis will tell you the same thing—99% of what gang members do is hang out. You know, literally, hang out in someone’s driveway. It’s boredom. That’s what they do. They get together, and they just hang out.
~Maura Krause, Literary Assistant