Originally published on Remezcla.
Have you ever fantasized about getting revenge on the gangster bully that tormented you as a kid? Are you still salty about the humiliations you experienced at the hands of the local cholo? Maybe it was worse than humiliation, maybe they terrorized you and your friends by robbing you, beating you senseless, or inspiring an omnipresent fear that left you feeling powerless. Well, these sculptural artworks that depict the tattooed bodies of MS-13 and 18th street gangbangers skinned and splayed like animal rugs might provide some type of psychological catharsis.
But the Mexican artist behind these striking works, Renato Garza Cervera, had a very different intention with his quite terrifying series ‘Of Genuine Contemporary Beast.’ Cervera began the project in 2005, after seeing reports of Mara Salvatrucha gang members caged in cells, as though they were zoo animals. He began contemplating the images of Latino gangsters that appeared in the media, and which functioned as an “othering” and a dehumanization of people grasping at power in the only ways available to them.
Even though they look realistic, the rug sculptures are not literally made from human skin. The bald heads and skin are made from leather, polyester, and polyurethane foam. The squinted eyes are made from glass, and wax colored pencils were used for the tattoos covering the body including the face, head, and the bottoms of feet.
The threatening facial expressions, displaying gritted teeth are what make the pieces scary, but the tattoos are actually the more humanizing aspect of the artworks. Besides the obviously gang-inspired tattoos, there are mundane markings of names like Milton, Stephanie, and Martha. One sculpture even has a buttcheek tattoo of a teddy bear holding a flower. Cervera is literally objectifying the gangster concept and turning it into a deconstructed rug – something meant to be trampled. Could he be suggesting this was always the case? Gang members have always occupied the underbelly of society, and maybe instead of seeing them as one-dimensional criminal killers, we should consider the societal circumstances that created them.
Gangs and gangsters are a complicated societal product. Many times people join gangs out of hopelessness– they see no way out of their poverty and gangs provide a sense of belonging, family, and larger community. According to Latino gang scholar James Diego Vigil, “For many cholos, the gang subculture provides a source of identity and avenues for personal fulfillment.” Racism, white supremacy, and an overwhelming lack of resources in communities of color don’t do much to deter youth from crime or gang life either.
There’s an interesting variance in the way the Latino community views gangsters. I have many friends who detest cholos and gang members, were bullied by them, and have nothing but disdain for the subculture. Others have a more empathetic lens due to family members who got involved in gang life early on, out of a need for their own sense of control. Then there’s those who glamorize the powerful, notorious gangsters, and revere their dangerous lifestyle. [Ed Note: For more on the complicated nature of this reverence, check out our review of the film Narco Cultura.]
But I believe most Latinos have a sprinkle of each of these views. While the nuanced views of people who have corollary experience with gang subculture are often missing from the larger world of media, news, and sensationalism, Cervera’s “rugs” may allow one to understand that gangsters – even Latino gangsters – are people.
Maybe one day we won’t have to see brown bodies symbolically skinned in order to understand that concept.