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Body as Canvas

Photography exhibition at local tattoo studio illustrates traditional world body art

A grayish tattoo streaks down the forehead of a middle-aged woman’s otherwise smooth almond-colored face. Her nostrils stretch wide over circular nose plugs inserted into her skin, and below her lips four more tattooed lines stretch down her chin. The woman peers out from a photograph within Chimera Tattoo Studio & Gallery in Westside Santa Cruz, but her body art is not the handiwork of a Chimera employee. The woman in the photo is a resident of the Apatani region in India, and her facial art is part of a tribal tradition.

“When I was visiting the Apatani I learned that they began the tradition of tattooing and piercing these women because their girls were stolen so often by rival tribes,” explains photographer Mary Altier, pointing to her work on display at Chimera. “They thought it would make their girls look uglier so they would be stolen less often, but I think it’s just amazing.”

The photograph of the Apatani woman is part of a more than 50-piece photographic exhibition entitled, “Body as Canvas, Tattooed, Scarred, Pierced and Painted, Photos by Mary Altier.” Chimera will host the show from March 16 to May 30, and the official opening reception for the display is part of First Friday Art Tour on April 6, from 5 to 9 p.m.

Altier’s portraits document the body ornamentation of indigenous people from Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia, several regions of tribal India, South America, and more. Garnishing Altier’s images, the First Friday opening reception will feature food and wine, live henna artistry, and West African drumming by Ibrahima Ibou Ngom from Senegal.

The show is free, but a percentage of revenue from sales will be donated to the organization Survival International, which works for tribal peoples’ rights worldwide.

“Because of the body modification we are doing in contemporary society, to have something that represents where it originates from is really exciting, ” says Camille Krilanovich, owner of Chimera. “It’s a visual learning experience for us, as well as the public.”

Krilanovich adds that Altier’s photography appeals to a wide array of people because it illuminates body art, which is popular in certain circles, through a fine arts lens, which generally draws a different type of crowd.

Altier has lived in Santa Cruz since the 1970s and held her first photography show in a Mexican restaurant in Watsonville in the early ’80s. She says she has wanted to put on this particular show for a while, and finally found the appropriate venue in Chimera during a First Friday Art Tour last fall.

“Camille is an artist, and she really is committed to making this a combination tattoo parlor and space to display art,” says Altier. “It just seemed like the right fit.”

Altier points to a photograph of a man in Papua New Guinea. His face is covered in yellow, red, and white body paint, and speckled feathers protrude from his hair. Altier explains that the man is preparing for a cultural festival which the Papua New Guinea government subsidizes in order to mitigate violence between rival tribal groups. The government believes the festival allows a space for war-like dances and cultural expression, in a peaceful setting.

“When I go to celebrations, what I try to do is go in early and spend several hours watching them prepare,” she explains. “They bring in boxes of feathers from birds that are endangered, and pull them out of protective newspaper. These things are so valuable to them, you can see. … Some of these feathers are very ancient and traditional, from their families—things you’re not going to find anywhere very easily.”

Altier has been traveling the world collecting photographs for more than 30 years and says she is driven by a fascination of people and human culture. In order to decide where to travel, she does independent research. Once she discovers something fascinating and worth capture, she reads up on the area, schedules flights, guides, etc., and just goes.

“The one I’m the most enthusiastic about is always the last trip I went on, because it’s the one that I recently researched and I’ve got all kinds of stories in my head,” she says. “Unfortunately, those fade, but then when you see these [photographs] you go right back in your mind to when you were there. You can smell the smells and feel what the temperature was.”

Altier’s attention settles on a photograph of two elderly men from a tribe in India. They each wear necklaces with metal depictions of human heads. Altier explains that the men are headhunters, and each head stands for a life taken, usually from a member of an opposing group.

“These guys are old, but they were warriors,” she says. “You look at them, and it’s just unbelievable what their history might have been.”

Altier says she gathers the stories she can, but often the people she visits are so remote that language is a barrier to many of their stories. She points out the image of a woman with several facial piercings and a decorative shawl over her head. She has angular features, and Altier explains that this is a member of the Kalash tribe in Pakistan.

“Some people think [the Kalash] are derived from Alexander the Great because they have kind of Aryan features,” she says. “People don’t know for sure, but that’s what some think.”

From another wall in the gallery hangs a figure with a circular, heavy-looking lip plate. The figure stares straight into the camera and, just behind to her left, in what looks like planned juxtaposition, is the profile of a woman’s face with white paint that streaks down her cheeks.

“I’m always overwhelmed by how people know how to place themselves,” says Altier. Her method is environmental portraiture, which means whatever people do when she takes out her camera is what she captures. “I did not in any way pose anyone depicted in the show, ever. Ever.”

She studies the image on the wall.

“Just the fact that you have the full-on face and the profile—I couldn’t have come up with anything more dramatic and they did it themselves,” she says.

Altier says she has been met with hostility regarding her camera only on a couple of occasions in South America, but that people are almost always enthusiastic about being photographed.  

“One time, in the days of Polaroids, we were in a village and gave some people pictures,” she says. “We kind of made a circle around the village, and by the time we came back everybody had gone in and put on different clothes and combed their hair, because they wanted the pictures. They were ready for us to come by.”

Altier began her career with regular film, but made the switch to digital several years ago.

“Even to this day, even now showing people their picture in the back of the [digital] camera is just really great,” she says. “They love that. … We think now that everybody has a camera, because everybody we see has one, but they don’t. … And often people will ask to take our pictures if they have a camera. Then it’s sort of like we’re the exhibit.”  Photo: CREDIT Jesse Clark

The opening reception for “Body as Canvas” takes place from 5-9 p.m. Friday, April 6, at Chimera Tattoo Studio & Gallery, 1010 Fair Ave., Santa Cruz. The exhibit will be on display at Chimera from March 16 to May 30. For more information, call Mary Altier at 684-1340, or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Or, contact gallery owner Camille Krilanovich at 426-8876, or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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