22. Art and Life: Ecatepec

The second morning at the Cerro Gordo Plaza Inn I again went to the McDonalds for the hotcake breakfast special. I checked out of the Inn and walked along the bustling traffic towards the Colección Jumex, Latin America’s largest contemporary art collection displayed in a museum/gallery in the midst of the Jumex plant. I reached the steel gate of the plant amid the roar of trucks over the avenue. I gave the guard my passport as ID. He let me in.

I walked over the asphalt and concrete among the warehouses and plants to a sign saying “Love is all” in the stripes of the rainbow. A large sliding glass door under the sign opened before me and I entered. A young man sat at the reception desk and I explained to him that I was walking around the edge of the city as a personal project. He said they were also very interested in the periphery.

Once, he said, one of the truck-drivers from the plant had volunteered to close off Mexico’s critical Periférico by parking a truck across it. Just to see what would happen. The driver had been very enthusiastic. He also said they organized and participated in many “derives”, a Dadaist term for an artistic practice consisting of wandering around aimlessly. I wondered whether I was on a derive or making some great work of conceptual art. Somehow I doubted it.

The curator – a refined, confident Frenchman in his late forties with short greying hair and a trim figure – walked out and after hearing me offered to give me a tour of the exposition. I agreed and followed him into the empty gallery.

First we walked into a black room with a video of two boxers in black and white. He showed me into a large space with a big bathrobe hanging in the air. He said he had set up the space to play with the contrast between large and small. He contrasted the enormous bathrobe floating in the air with some small drawings on the opposite wall. The work, he said, reminded him of how one feels as a child looking up at your parents in a bathrobe. The myriad of tiny drawings on the wall by Francis Alÿs however suggested an opposite perspective looking down at very small things.

We walked out of the vast white exposition space. He seemed disheartened and a bit bored. He said that though it was comfortable he sometimes felt that they were just a status symbol for the bourgeois elite.

I went upstairs to say goodbye to him in his workspace with its large library of art books. He asked after my route. I pointed up the Sierra de Guadalupe out of the window. He said he had been told never to go there for reasons of safety. I said goodbye.

I walked once again along the Avenida Morelos in the bright afternoon towards the village of San Cristóbal Ecatepec.

Reaching the city center I found a tattoo parlor after some enquiry. I ascended a staircase up to a small workshop in a non-descript commercial building in the heavily urbanized urban center. Arriving in the shop I found a young man with a shaved head sitting in the studio. He was a chicano from California who had been deported and he was the tattoo artist. He said Ecatepec was ok – but that the money was not comparable to the United States, to where he hoped to return.

He explained the process to me. First that the needles must be sterilized and the inks vegetable. When a customer comes in they perhaps already have something in mind. If not he could show them examples from a large folder with drawings. Many choose American designs with colors which are not suitable for the skin color of many Mexicans.

The tattoo designer is like the confessor and psychologist. You have to explain to him what design you want and why you want it.

A winged fairy or a flower tattoo shows freedom in a woman as a flower symbolizes spiritual liberty, something he considered new for Mexico. The clown signifies freedom to drug oneself and live how one wants to, beyond good and evil, and the combination of the sad and the happy clown face, reaffirms that both in the happy and sad moments one is always a clown. Not a Nietzschean Übermensch rather just an uber-clown was the street version of a philosophy not bound by morality.

Revolutionaries like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata are chosen for their strength and loyalty as are tigers, lions and wolves which all protect their cubs. Sometimes mafia-types will enter the shop and ask for a tattoo of the grim reaper, a way of saying they do not fear death because they are already dead. Or perhaps the Virgin of Guadalupe’s hands clasped together in prayer as a form of protection.

I resolved that I would have to get a tattoo some time as a souvenir of the trip. Something fierce and gangbangerish, perhaps a girl clown-skull, with some gothic lettering to finish it off with the coordinates of my point of departure.

I left the tattoo parlor into the late afternoon in San Cristóbal and walked once more back to the hotel.

I never did get the tattoo though.