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Art People: Revolution Studios sharpens its needles

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Artists Cherie Basak and Omar Gutierrez opened Revolution Studios this June because they were tired of working for other people. Gutierrez, who's also been a tattooist for about eight years, and Basak, an art store manager, envisioned the west Bucktown storefront as a combination gallery and tattoo shop.

But so far, though they've mounted shows of abstract painting, "intentional kitsch," light sculpture, and prints, the tattoo studio has yet to become a reality: the couple's petition for a special-use permit was denied in September. Special-use permits, required under city zoning ordinances for such diverse commercial uses as payday loan store and fortune-teller as well as tattoo parlor, are issued by a board of five citizens who are supposed to evaluate the business based on its probable effect on neighborhood safety and property values. The process can be grueling; in the last five years, only three permits have been granted for new tattoo studios.

Just before the September hearing, the couple hand-delivered two-page letters of introduction and pictures of the gallery to their neighbors, hoping to dispel any negative impressions they might have of tattooing. Though it was too late to affect the outcome of the hearing, Basak and Gutierrez hope that by the time they reapply for the permit, in early 2003, they'll have established themselves enough to demonstrate--through documentation and testimonials--that their shop will "serve the public convenience." They're frustrated, but "in one respect I think this process is needed," says Basak. "There definitely needs to be legislation. We are really in support of that and would like to help the city in coming to a better understanding of where tattooing is now."

Joint tattoo and art spaces have emerged in other cities--Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Columbus--but if Basak and Gutierrez ever get the go-ahead from the zoning board, Revolution Studios will be the first of its kind in town. "We want to make that connection between art and tattooing--look at the talented artists that are doing this," says Gutierrez. "It's not at all like it used to be in the old days: you go into a shop and you've got some big biker guy named Rusty Needles who's ready to drill on your arm. Now there are a lot of very talented artists who are willing to work with your ideas. We just really wanted to try to bring tattooing out of the dark ages, get away from the old stereotypes."

For their latest gallery show the pair contacted local tattoo shops and invited artists to submit paintings, sculptures, and installations. They got an overwhelming response, resulting in an eclectic collection of art by 18 contributors. While several paintings resemble what Gutierrez and Basak refer to as "traditional Americana-style tattoo" work--lots of color, dark shading, simple images--there are also abstracts, portraits, and drawings. Some come from fine artists who started tattooing after establishing careers in other media: Chucho, a well-known Chicago muralist, has four pieces in the show; illustrator Bill Kieffer, who has been tattooing for about a year, has several paintings and drawings.

According to Basak, tattoo artists are all too often in competition with one another. Providing them with an opportunity to interact and share their work is another aspect of the business that Gutierrez and Basak are excited about.

"It's our dream," says Gutierrez, "to be able to just run this place. They're definitely not going to discourage us. They're going to deny us and we're going to keep coming back. That's just the way it is."

"Beyond the Needle: Works of Art by Chicago Tattoo Artists" opens Saturday, December 14, with a free reception from 8 PM to midnight, and runs through January 25 at Revolution Studios, 2221 N. Western. Call 773-486-8888.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.

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