Excerpt from a forthcoming chapter in Putting the Pop in Latino Culture: An introduction; edited by Frederick Luis Aldama.
Sarck Har, 31, is a soft-spoken, unassuming man. Despite a body covered with tattoos and an affinity for black clothing even in the summer time, he comes off as shy. When you enter his tattoo shop, you'll either find him with a customer or intently hunched over a sketchbook. Yet he is also the leader and co-founder of an arts collective that boasts more than a two dozen affiliated Mexican artists who attend weekly meetings, its own business and performance space, and monthly public hip hop and art shows.
Mexican Art and more generally Latin@ Art in the US have largely been understudied (Ybarra-Frausto "Imagining" 9), especially considering its fundamental contributions to North American culture. There is especially true in terms of popular art in which Latin@ contributions in muralism, graffiti, tattooing, street art and performance art have been influential both within and beyond US borders. Here, I define Latino popular art in the tradition of Juan Flores’ work on Latin@ popular cultures. For Flores, popular culture is separated from the mass consumption of contemporary society, through its roots in folklore and the everyday people, whose cultures and traditions resist the social domination of those in power (Flores 17). In this way, the concept is both "rescued from its relegation to archaic and residual roles in today's global modernity and mass culture" and becomes a useful term of analysis for examining Latin@ artistic expressions. "Popular art," then becomes a way to interrogate the multiple levels upon which Latino artists construct individual and collective identities, and create new hybrid forms to reflect their social and historical contexts (Habell-Pallan 6). For Mexican artists in New York City, this especially useful as the tremendous growth of the Mexican population over the last 20 years represents a tremendous influx of creativity into the city's popular arts as well as a reflection of the everyday lives of Mexican migrants survived with conflict and contestation.
In terms of Mexican and Mexican American artists in the US, the majority of scholarly research has been on art of the Chicano movement and the influence of the Chicano movement on contemporary artists of Mexican descent. While some Art historians are researching the contributions of artists who were not part of the "Chicano movement" but were or are Mexican American, this research tends to focus on the Southwest and California almost exclusively as well as artists who are not necessary involved in the popular arts (Ybarra-Fausto "Imagining" 9). Doubly marginalized by the looming specter of the Chicano movement as well as the indifference of New York City's contemporary art community, this article aims to present a more expansive vision of Mexican popular art in the US by examining the work of the Har'd Life Ink Arts Collective. This work includes graffiti, mural painting, tattooing, airbrush on canvas, printmaking (t-shirts & posters) and photography. Based simultaneously in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Har'd Life represents a community of Mexican migrants dedicated to creating alternative spaces for what they call "cultura underground" in order to counter the sense invisibility imposed on them by NYC society as well as foster a sense of pride and ownership through a “Mexica” identity.
Melissa Castillo-Garsow is a Mexican American poet, fiction writer, scholar, hip hop head, former journalist, current essayist & editor working on a lot of cool stuff. She proudly lives in East Harlem. Learn more about her here.