Desert Ink is a tale of 8 Mexican tattoo artists from the wrong side of the tracks, who, following their love of art and ink, found the will to change. With identities forged in street furnaces of gang-banging, bullet wounds, drug dealing and jail time, this band of men crafted new identities, forming a new type of gang, united by art and their determination to earn a decent living, rising from the trappings of their nefarious past lives.
It all started in a kitchen in West Hollywood over breakfast with my good friend, William Taylor. His mother had just passed away and he started talking about getting a tattoo done to honour her. The design he wanted was praying hands with a rosary, and the tattoo artists that he had to have were Chip and the crew from Art and Ink.
Billy told me that the guys at Art and Ink were Mexican gang members who had seen the error of their ways and found a more enlightened path. He wanted to do a reality show on them. I cancelled my agency meetings in LA and drove straight down to meet them.
Their story is redemption through art and tattooing, so I decided to turn up without a camera on our first meeting. Instead I had my photography portfolio to show the guys and connect with them through my own art, and ended up spending the weekend with them and building a solid rapport. This is one of the most underrated aspects on documentary photography.
I knew from before the first frame fired that I wanted to shoot this project in black and white, the Mexican tattoo style is black and grey and it was very fitting to not show any colour. Black and grey tattooing started in Mexican prisons in the ‘70s, when inmates had limited access to materials. They resorted to using guitar strings for needles and cigarette ash and pens for ink. Because it was a single needle, they were able to apply the tattoo with amazing detail and that is where the portrait-style graphic imagery was born. The entire project was shot on the Leica M9P, giving me the intimate access I needed with the guys and helping them to relax.
About Jonathan May
Jonathan May’s instinctual ability to take a concept and tell a fascinating visual story is both innovative and compelling. He loves to find interesting characters and unconventional locations, using colour and treatments to heighten the visual experience. His work visually engages us by drawing us in to share the experience of the subject.
In 2009, he won The Sydney Morning Herald “Shoot the Chef” competition with his hilarious portrayal of celebrity chef Manu Fieldel on a unicycle, dressed as a circus performer. “The Embrace” was selected as a finalist in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, and was exhibited in The National Portrait Gallery in London in 2011.
Jonathan May has been a finalist in Australia’s most prestigious photographic portrait prize HEAD ON for six consecutive years. In 2012, his image, “Lina” was voted as the “People’s Choice” winner, and in 2013 he took 1st place with his image of “Stanford.” The money won was donated to help the boy with his ongoing battle with health.
Lurzer’s Archive magazine has named him one of the Top 200 International Advertising photographers for the past three years, and he has won two Bronze Lion’s at Cannes with his work on the Google Maps, “Know before you go” and for “Sydney dog and cats home” campaigns.
May has exhibited in Moscow, Sydney, London, Paris, and in the Ivory Coast he held a private exhibition for the president, Alassane Ouattara.
Jonathan May has representation in Los Angeles, Sydney, and Moscow.
Google, Snickers, Sony, Commonwealth Bank, Vodafone, MTV, Westfield, Telstra Bigpond, Beatdisc records, Optus, Bell Shakespeare Company, Hoyts Cinemas, Lion Nathan, Coastalwatch, Salvation Army, Sydney Cats and Dogs Homes, BPAY, Aldi.