Tattoo you

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The opening party for Martina Secondo Russo’s debut solo exhibition, “Tattooed Limbs and Other Oddities,” had all the typical trappings of a gallery show — chatter, cheer and free wine — but a second glance at the artwork and the gallery space showed more than a few quirks.

At Tattoo Culture, the Williamsburg tattoo parlor where Russo’s show is on display through Jan. 11, the ink and needles were stashed away for the evening, but party-goers, many colorfully tattooed themselves, milled about and took in Russo’s unconventional offerings: full mannequins and two-dozen dismembered limbs that the artist made with plywood and immaculately “tattooed” with classic images like skulls, pinup girls, bluebirds, roses and mermaids.

“They’re a mishmash of all sorts of different images,” said Russo, 27, who was born in Genoa, Italy, and now lives in Bay Ridge. “Old school tattoo designs are my favorite, but I also just use other interesting images: Halloween decorations, my own drawings, drawings from other artists I like, found images.”

Shows such as “Tattooed Limbs and Other Oddities” are a staple at MF Gallery, the Lower East Side space Russo and her husband Frank, a Red Hook native, co-own. Inspired by their love of heavy metal and horror movies, the couple curates shows with titles like “Zombie Attack,” “Freak Show” and “See You in Hell.” The gallery also carries hand-printed T-shirts and other small, affordable handmade pieces; items that Russo said, “might be more accessible to somebody who’s not going to walk in and buy a $400 painting.”

Similarly, the offbeat appeal, and lower price, of Russo’s “severed limbs” draws young collectors looking for a new type of art to collect. Tim Kaminski, an art director who ventured to Williamsburg from Croton-on-Hudson for the show, appreciated the limbs’ price tags.

“I like the tattooed woman, but I can’t afford it, so I might get a hand or a foot,” he said. “I’d rather go to a show where I can actually purchase something. In New York, where nobody has any space, it’s compelling to buy smaller works of art. It’s still a precious object.”

And the staff at Tattoo Culture agrees.

“You see a lot of fine art in tattooing nowadays, and as in Martina’s work, you see more tattooing in fine art,” said Gene Coffey, a resident artist at Tattoo Culture, who also curates the shop’s art shows. “I don’t think tattoos are accepted as art in the art world; they’re too taboo. Our goal is to show that there is a correlation between tattooing and fine art.”

Russo’s work clearly demonstrates that relationship. In creating her “limbs,” she applies training she received at CalArts in Valencia, CA, cutting each form out of plywood with a jigsaw, paints the skin tone in acrylic and draws each elaborate tattoo design by hand with enamel marker.

Her inspiration comes mostly from her interest in tattoo design. Russo drew up some of her own tat’s — she said she has “eight or nine” — and although she’s dabbled in actual tattooing, she said, “It wasn’t for me. I’m not so much a part of the culture but my artwork is.”

And the artwork seems to draw in outsiders as well. At her show’s Dec. 8 opening, people who weren’t looking to purchase art still streamed in, and seemed to appreciate Russo’s down-to-earth perspective.

“It’s more engaging than a regular gallery. It’s not typical, not something you’d see in a magazine,” said Kristina Musial, 24, of Harlem.

Jennifer Sellers, 26, of Weehawken, N.J., wandered in off the street and liked what she saw. Sellers, who has plenty of her own ink, identified with the idea that whether painted on plywood or permanently etched onto a person’s skin, tattoos are more than just a design.

Said Sellers, “They mean something.”

“Tattooed Limbs And Other Oddities” will be on display through Jan. 11 at Tattoo Culture Gallery (29 Roebling St. at North Fifth Street in Williamsburg). For information, call (718) 218-6532 or visit

Updated 4:01 pm, November 10, 2010
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