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Art Review: "Rides of Passage"

Burlington's Sanctuary Artsite is crammed with what feels like hundreds of people on a recent Thursday night. Clots of fashionably dressed guests attempt to make small talk over the hip-hop and electronica pumping from speakers and the thunderous clatter of skateboarders using the in-house ramp.

Sound like a great party you missed? Well, sort of. This crowd has ostensibly gathered at Jager DiPaolo Kemp Design to view "Rides of Passage" -- the largest-ever exhibit of snowboards as "canvasses" by illustrators, designers, graffiti artists and, particularly, tattoo artists. Wildly colorful snowboards hang on the rough-hewn walls in this basement-level gallery.

As the focus is on tattoo art, it's not surprising to see many of the "standard" images of the genre -- skulls, roses and hearts, and dark themes of violence and sex. Nor is it surprising to learn that males dominate the exhibit; there are only nine female contributors out of 120. Though the influence of youth-oriented video games and anime is evident in the graphics, the ages of the artists range from 22 to 55.

Some ideas are unique, such as the board that is split in two and looks like a propeller. One artist affixed faux vines and flowers, creating a three-dimensional border around the dark green board. Another used a collage technique with a Las Vegas theme. One board is covered with vinyl stickers; another has a blue-and-white color scheme and the words "Beware of the snow." Yet another features tiny, cartoon-like caricatures in black and white. As with snowflakes, no two boards are exactly alike.

Curse Mackey and Bruce Bart, Woodstock, New York-based producers of "Rides of Passage," conceptualized the show primarily as a means for tattoo artists to show their work on a medium that could be displayed publicly. The two had co-produced the Woodstock Tattoo and Body Arts Festival -- a celebration of alternative culture and art forms held for the second time this September. They wanted to find a new and innovative way to give the tattoo artists a broader audience.

"Every day tattoo artists are forced to be creative on the spot," suggests Mackey. "They have to quickly produce art that someone will wear on their body forever. This event would showcase that talent."

The art-on-snowboard idea was inspired by an earlier, similar exhibit -- "Abrasions," held in North Carolina -- that featured tattooing on skateboards. Mackey and Bart collaborated with Burton to supply snowboards to the artists. The duo extended formal invitations to premier tattoo artists all over the globe, from Tokyo to Switzerland to San Francisco, and sent boards to the first 120 artists who responded. When the boards were returned, they had been carved, sculpted, watercolored and spray-painted. "They went all out," said Mackey. "I was totally blown away by the end result of what we got back. Some of the boards have 250 hours put into them."

"Rides of Passage" debuted at the Woodstock Tattoo and Body Arts Festival, and made appearances in New York City and Los Angeles before coming to Vermont. The Burlington exhibit presents about two-thirds of the boards; the others are on tour in Europe. After its Burlington run, "Rides of Passage" will travel to Japan for a final show. In January, one of the artists will win a contract to design a series of graphics for Burton's 2007 snowboard line.

The four Vermonters in the show are all illustrators and graphic designers. Burlington illustrator-designer Tyler Stout, 27, is accustomed to creating art on his computer. But when planning to design a snowboard, he knew that for this art project there would be no delete button. "It is a one-shot kind of deal to paint directly on the snowboard," says Stout. "You aren't able to do anything with a computer file, you just have to go and paint it."

Now his once-blank board is filled with vibrant, glossy abstract shades of red, black and yellow. "I recently bought a book on Cuban posters and was just getting into it," he says. "I thought it would be fun to try that style out on the board."

All the artistic output for "Rides of Passage" fits into what Mackey describes as "lowbrow art" -- an illustrative and often graphic way of thinking about art that is not on a traditional canvas. "Lowbrow" here refers not to poor quality but to edgy, unconventional mediums. Both Mackey and Sanctuary Artsite curator Joseph Peila suggest that the style is a growing trend in the art world, and is coveted and collected by celebrities.

That said, tattoo artists in particular rarely connect with a mainstream audience. Mackey expects that "Rides of Passage" will change that -- at least wherever the show appears. "It's just as in the world of music, or sports or fine art -- you have your superstars," he says. Some of these tattoo artists, he suggests, "are legends in the making."

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Andrea Posig

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