It’s easy for everyday citizens to feel helpless and pessimistic when the political and social landscape suggests a post-apocalyptic dystopian universe.
But Marcus Nati, tattoo artist and co-owner of Stay Gold Tattoo, in Coraopolis, refused to let the feeling of being overwhelmed stop him from helping out. For at least the month of February, Nati will be doing portraits of civil-rights activists for $200 a piece and donating $50 from each payment to the charity of the client’s choice.
Nati has been tattooing for 15 years, including a decade at Stay Gold. Although he’s aided various causes by playing benefit shows with punk and hardcore bands and donating to animal-rights organizations, this is the first time his visual art has taken a political angle.
“I guess I never felt the need to until now,” says Nati. “I can waste my time worrying if things are going to be OK, or I can do something about it.”
So far he has tattooed a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., with the donation being made to the Afro American Music Institute. The Homewood-based organization teaches music from an African-American perspective with programs like its AAMI Boys Choir, a weekly jazz ensemble workshop and a two-week Summer Music Intensive camp.
Some of Nati’s appointments include portraits of feminist, Latina painter Frida Kahlo, and Woody Guthrie, whose “This Land Is Your Land” made an appearance in Lady Gaga’s shade-filled Super Bowl performance. Several clients have also expressed interest in a portrait of Emma Goldman, an anarchist author who was deported to Russia for her rabble-rousing literature and activism.
“What excites me most about this project is finding out what civil-rights activists other people are into,” says Nati. “Their enthusiasm then inspires me to research images, read biographies and watch documentaries.”
Tattooing these leaders on friends and new clients serves as a positive distraction for Nati and gives him an opportunity to learn from others’ experiences.
“We share stories and relate to each other on different topics. Over the years I’ve learned so much from my clients,” says Nati. “At the end of the day, we all want to be treated fairly and live free.”
Nati encourages other artists who are feeling helpless to consider using their talents for action.
“I think artists have always shaped the political landscape,” says Nati. “If [other artists] want to get involved more directly, I say make art that speaks to people about important issues.”
And if Nati were to pick a portrait for himself, he points to Victoria Woodhull, an early sex-positive feminist theorist who owned a brokerage firm and ran for president 50 years before women could even vote. (The term “sex-positive” is anachronistic, but the closest to Woodhull’s ideology without requiring a whole lecture on feminist theory.) Nati’s donation would be made to Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR).
“Initially, the idea was to run this series only for the month of February,” says Nati. “But I am happy to continue doing these for as long as there is a demand.”