In the desert landscape of Indio, California, eight young men cast off their involvements within the Mexican gang system in hopes of forging non-violent lives as a brotherhood of tattoo artists. For Desert Ink, Australian photographer Jonathan May tells the story of the men of Art and Ink tattoo shop, weaving together a murky and enigmatical tale of loss and redemption.
The photographer first encountered Chip, Dreamer, Sinner, Lazz, Assault, Case 1, Angel and G-Money through his close friend William Taylor, who entrusted the crew with creating a tattoo in memory of his mother, whom he had recently lost. As Taylor’s flesh was inscribed with a pair of praying hands and rosary beads, May shared his own work with the men, and over the course of that weekend, he came to call them his friends. He was permitted to photograph them, and after a few visits, he was invited to stay overnight in their own homes.
May never knew the artists in their prior lives, but over the course of their relationship, he has gathered that they spent some of their years in painful and dangerous circumstances. Some were from their infancy raised in contact with the drugs and violence that come with being a part of these gangs. A few had been incarcerated, and many had buried friends and family members.
Some of the images in Desert Ink harken back to the artists’ complex histories; with their collaboration and consent, May directed a portion of the frames to reference his own subjective conceptions of gang activity. In most scenarios, “the guys,” as the photographer affectionately calls them, were enthusiastic, if sometimes they lightheartedly mimicked his Australian accent in response to requests, which included such adventures as a shirtless journey in the back of a car and a staged burial of a mannequin body.
A life in the gangs might be the path most easily taken, and yet these eight men chose the road less traveled. Each came into his talents through some extraordinary twist of fate; those who were imprisoned learned to tattoo in jail, beginning with the three dots drawn into the skin between the thumb and forefinger or beneath the eye, signifying “Mi Vida Loca,” meaning “My Crazy Life.” Some trained themselves in as youngsters with makeshift tattoo guns; Dreamer ventured into the tattoo business in order to support his passion for repairing 1950s lowrider automobiles and soon found himself with a waiting list of three months.
The shop they built together has become their creative outlet and given them, in many cases, a sense of purpose. Sinner has expressed to the photographer the idea that tattooing has redirected the course of his life, motivating him to channel his efforts into something meaningful and good. Lazz suggests that the work is his way of making an everlasting mark on the world; unlike graffiti, he says, “Now I can get up on people’s skin, and it ain’t getting washed out, or painted over. It’s permanent.” Like their creations, the ties that bind to one another would appear to be abiding and unwavering; Chip is like the patriarch of the family, taking special care to protect the crew.
All images © Jonathan May