Body of artwork

MONCA celebrates the contemporary art of tattooing

“Siren,” a life-size sculpture resembling a ship’s figurehead, is artist Sharon Swingle’s statement on the fight for women’s equality. (Photos by Ken Smith)

Sailors famously love ’em; nowadays, so do soccer moms. Walk into a coffee-house, and you’re likely to find a barista with more art on one arm than the average biker gang. You might even find as much ink at a PTA meeting as you formerly would only in a prison yard.

In the past few decades, tattoos have moved from society’s fringes to the mainstream. Along the way, the artwork has gained its due respect. For evidence, one need look no further than the current exhibit at Chico’s Museum of Northern California Art (MONCA), Tales of the Tattoo.

Julianna Rose’s “The Illustrated Man” shows off his ink. (Photo by Ken Smith)

“They’re pretty popular right now, and it’s a different art form than anything we’ve had here at MONCA before,” said Pat Macias, the museum’s executive director. During a tour on the exhibit’s opening day (Aug. 25), she added that anyone who questions the showcase’s focus will change their mind when they see it.

“People are always taken aback by something new, and that’s what we love to do … we love to present something new so it challenges people to think differently, and we love to educate people. Those are really the museum’s main goals.”

The multimedia exhibit features the work of more than 20 artists and includes sculptures, photography, paintings, handmade tattoo machines and much more. In line with the education goal, MONCA includes information about the cultural and historical value of tattoos and other body art, in America and in other societies. There are also interactive aspects, like a wall of outlines of popular tattoo motifs (a heart, an anchor, a snake, a rose—typical “flash” designs found on the walls of most parlors) that museum-goers can paint however they like.

MONCA Executive Director Pat Macias stands in the museum’s library/tattoo parlor. The exhibit will feature a book signing of The Tattoos of Chico by Karen McHenry. (Photo by Ken Smith)

Tales of the Tattoo, which runs until Oct. 9, kicked off Aug. 26 with an opening reception titled “Show Up and Show Off.” For that event, the museum’s library was transformed into a tattoo parlor so attendees could watch local artist Tanner Drake practice his craft. This effort, which Macias hoped would be “particularly interesting for people who’ve never seen it done before,” required museum staff to meet strict health department requirements. A photo booth was set up inviting attendees to show off their own body art, tag the museum and post their pictures to social media.

Two more events will be held this month in conjunction with the exhibit.

Sept. 9, the museum will host a panel and book-signing featuring Karen McHenry, author of The Tattoos of Chico (2020), which features 19 locals talking about and showing off their body art. There will be a bar set up, and local band Empty Gate will perform.

A collection of homemade tattoo machines, including a replica of a jailhouse model. (Photo by Ken Smith)

Sept. 17, E. Washington Avenue (on MONCA’s south side) will be closed noon to 7 p.m. for a street party. This event will feature live painting by a local tattoo artist, a “crochet jam” with Bay Area artist Ramekon O’Arwisters along with other demonstrations and activities. Visitors can purchase temporary tattoos (“People might want to try one out before they dive in,” Macias joked), including some featuring MONCA logos: the official red, yellow and blue design, plus two others designed by local students.

Macias said readying the exhibit has been “eye opening” and expressed heartfelt appreciation for the art form, prompting a question: “Are you inked?”

“No, I don’t have any tattoos,” she replied, “but boy, it is tempting.”

Tales of the Tattoo shows through Oct. 9.

Special events:
-Sept. 9, 6-9 p..m.: The Tattoos of Chico book signing, with live music by Empty Gate. Cost: $5
-Sept. 17, noon-7 p.m.: street party outside the museum, with live mural painting, music, “crochet jam” and more.

Museum of Northern California Art
900 Esplanade, (530) 487-7272,

1 Comment

  1. I love the artwork on display. I am the proud Papa of Julianna Rose Moreno. She is the light of my life and now it appears she is shining for others as well. Thanks to all of you at MONCA for recognizing her works and all the other budding artists you work with !

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