If asked whether or not 14th-century Chinese outlaws and 1980’s West Coast Chicanos were cut out of the same cloth, most people would probably say that they’re different as sunrise and sunset, but Christopher Brand begs to differ. Even though these groups are separated by an ocean and a couple hundred years, Brand used their similarities as inspiration for his 108 Heroes of Los Angeles project.
Recognizing that both groups were subject to extreme prejudice in their respective periods, prolific tattooist and visual artist Brand has been illustrating this shared experience through this project. By fusing Irezumi and Chicano style tattooing to create large-scale pieces of body art that are representative of a resilient spirit that spans ages, he is creating work that is intriguing on both an artistic and sociopolitical level.
“Tattoos and the stories they convey have persevered through adversity, misconception, and discrimination throughout history,” writes Brand in the introduction to 108 Heroes of Los Angeles. “I feel that, in part, tattoos have flourished as a result of generations of storytelling, traditions, and re-appropriation by new groups in society.”
The project takes its title from the 108 characters recruited to a revolutionary cause in a centuries-old Chinese novel, Shuihu Zhuan, about marginalized people who elected to be branded as “outlaws” and band together rather than buckle to a tyrannical dynasty. This text was translated into Japanese in the Edo period (and called the Suikoden) and became sensation due to the similar oppressive treatment of the empire’s working-class citizens. The impact of the Suikoden can be seen through how it influenced both literature and, to our delight, Irezumi.
Brand illustrates how these outlaws-turned-heroes from the Japanese style are in many ways a reflection of ‘80s and contemporary Chicano men and women experiencing unsettlingly reminiscent instances of classism and racism. The 17 heroes that he’s recreated so far are all in large-scale tattoos like sleeves, back-pieces, and entire bodysuits. Each figure is rendered in the Japanese style, with exaggerated expressions and posturing as well as traditional dramatic black backgrounds, but what sets them apart from Irezumi is that the heroes are all hispanic individuals with soft black and grey Chicano style tattoos of their own.
“I also feel there is a strong connection between Japan and the West Coast of the United States. As an American living in Los Angeles, this concept of finding common ground in differing cultures is part of daily life,” Brand elaborates. “This connection has become part of a larger global phenomenon: that of people being brought together through the art of the tattoo.”
“Having spent most of my career at Good Time Charlie's Tattooland (the home of single needle, black and grey tattooing) gaining an understanding of Chicano culture and history in Los Angeles, I found more than a few similarities and connections between the written story and each of these cultures with oppressed histories,” Brand continues. “That said, I feel it was important to connect and highlight the legacy, history, and connection of single needle black and grey tattooing to this ongoing retelling of rebellion.”
Brand's exploration of diverse traditional tattoo styles has granted him with enough insight to envision a transcultural intersection along the lines of what it is to be an oppressed person from 500 years ago or the recent past and translate it into a truly profound form of forward-thinking body art. His tattoos illustrate how hate puts on many different masks but its face never really ages, even after half of a millennium.
If you want to learn more about Brand’s 108 Heroes of Los Angeles be sure to watch the lecture that he did at the Japanese American National Museum, check in on his website and Instagram to see more of the groundbreaking series, and even consider ordering the Perseverance catalogue, which contains his thesis about the project as well as writing and work by other acclaimed artists and tattooists who make work that is meant to persist.