Latinos in Taiwan Pt. 3: Chicano hip hop scene
Posted September 22, 2009 2:48 am (about 3650 days ago)
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Mr. Chino Tattoo Shop
Although my friend Mike and I left Doobiest truly appreciating Berry and Chicano’s hospitality and friendliness I was still taken aback by some of the gang-related items I saw in the store. I was glad they were interested in learning about something different and I really hoped that gang-life wouldn’t be romanticized.
As we walked towards Mr. Chino's shop we came upon a big sign for a tattoo shop that had a big number 13 on it. Although I had walked by this sign before I paid it no mind until I had this new context. Walking into the store was a bit intense as we were unannounced and the two guys behind the counter definitely had their guard up. Chino himself had a bald cut, was tattooed up and didn’t seem happy to see us. Since we weren’t there to get tats he flat out asked us what we wanted. Fortunately Mike was able to explain that I was just a curious tourist and that Berry had recommended him as a good person to speak with.
Once we asked questions he lightened up. I tried to ask some tough questions without being insulting or aggressive. I merely wanted to learn about the scene, not project all my impressions and assumptions. Yet I didn’t want to gloss over some of the real issues. When I show some of the activities of Asian “cholos” to Chicanos, even some who are gang-affiliated, there’s a mixture of wonder, amazement, and often discomfort, for the reasons I mentioned previously. It’s easy to just get mad, but there’s rarely malicious intent and it works both ways. So what exactly was up?
Because Chicano rap is such a small component of the hip-hop scene I asked Chino why was he drawn to it. Like the others, he said that was only one style that he listened to and that he was into all types of genres. However, he said that Chicano rap stood out because it was “more real,” unlike all the commercial stuff on the radio. He liked the samples and their heavy emphasis on “oldies.” Chicano rappers were less interested in appealing to the mainstream and more about getting their stories out. I asked him if he was drawn to the violence and criminal activities that many of these rappers highlighted and he said that this was a definite downside. He said that he tried to talk to some of the kids and teens who were interested in the scene about not getting caught up in the negative and that one his own idols, the artists Mr. Cartoon often spoke about the downsides of gang life and people leaving it behind. Chino didn’t speak English or Spanish, I don’t think, so I wonder how much of the music content he could just ignore, like Americans often do with reggae that’s violently homophobic, or even English-language hip hop that has a good beat!
I asked him what the 13 represented on his sign and he said it had nothing to do with gangs and is a lucky number for tattoo artists. This made sense as there’s a tattoo shop near my home in Oakland that has a big 13 in the window, although it’s red.
We moved on to art and he said that he was heavily influenced by Chicano artists, including Aztec symbolism, as well as specific artists like the aforementioned Mr. Cartoon. However, he also said that was constantly working to develop his own style and not merely copy others. I asked him if he had spent time in L.A. and he said that he was so busy since he got into art and opened his store that he hadn’t been over yet. Interestingly enough, his shop looked like it could’ve been teleported straight from L.A., or an image of L.A., complete with trinkets from its famed Olvera Street! He said that he had gone to Japan where the Chicano scene is much more established, including a strong Soul Assassins presence.
I asked him if any of the local Mexicans or Chicanos ever came by the store and he said no, although the world-famous DJ Fatfingaz out of New York had gotten a tattoo when he toured Taiwan.
There was also a woman sitting next to Chino this whole time who was listening intently and obviously spoke English as she visibly responded when I said certain things. I asked her what she thought about this whole Chicano thing and she said that she thought it was stupid. She said that she wasn’t into trends, whether they were American, Mexican, or Taiwanese. I immediately wanted to ask her more questions, but some people entered the store and it was apparent that our time was up. However, Chino said he was definitely open to doing a longer interview when time permitted.
All in all, as short as these conversations were I found them to be very enlightening and I hope they open up further dialogue and maybe even collaborations. All three said they were open to answering questions from the students I work with and I’ll definitely take them up on that. It’s apparent that while other Americans have connected with the scene it doesn’t seem that too many, if anyone, is really documenting this scene and engaging with its participants. I could be wrong of course.
At a broader level, for those into this scene, can you really respect the music and culture if you don’t think critically about it? I strongly believe that disconnecting it from the community is merely playing charades. But again it works both ways and it’s an opportunity for some broader dialogues, like the best of art and culture’s supposed to do. Hip hop has always had Asian influence; Wu-Tang Clan, The Fu-Shcnickens, Jeru, the Mountain Brothers, and even The 2 Live Crew had Fresh Kid Ice! African Americans have had strong ties to Asia through jazz, the Black Panthers, and Robert Williams, to name a few. It should be no surprise that the long history between Latin American and Asia is also gaining more ground. As time permits, I’ll try to add more to the discussion. In the meantime, I appreciate everyone who made time to chat it up with me, including my boy Mike for all the translation!