Established in Ink: Asian American Tattoos from the Streets to the Studio

Not all stories are written down or spoken. Some stories are inscribed on bodies. “Established in Ink” is a visual storyboard about one way Asian Americans tell stories about themselves, their culture, and their aesthetics: on their skins. Though tattooing is a practice dating back thousands of years in multiple cultures and for multiple reasons. This process of storytelling begins in the studios of ink shops between the artist and their clients. "Established in Ink" showcases tattoos as a popular expression of art and storytelling within Asian America through the lens of artist Richard Vasak. This digital exhibit also tells a little about his story: from the streets to the studio.  

Richard Vasak, a world-renown tattoo artist is not your conventional storyteller. Richard was born in Los Angeles from Cambodian immigrants fleeing the violence of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and the imperial wars in Vietnam and southeast Asia. As a young man growing up in Los Angeles, poverty and violence on the streets were struggles his family faced as one of a few Asian American families in the area. In his preteens, the Vasak family faced another daunting challenge. They had to rebuild after the Los Angeles Uprising in 1992. As the Los Angeles community protested over their frustrations with policing and racial violence with the culmination of the Rodney King trial, his father’s donut shop was one of the many buildings destroyed in the weeks of upheaval following the acquittal of police officers. Like many small Asian American business owners, his father did not have insurance for his shop. His family had to move into a small apartment in Alhambra to start all over again.

Like many in the larger community of Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees, poverty was a central feature of the family. This was especially so because families, with few resources, were struggling to establish themselves in a country that was both the cause of their migration and a source of their marginalized status. Their story, the Vasak family, is both illustrative and unique to the shifting Asian American demographics of the San Gabriel Valley. Families escaping the colonial wars in Southeast Asia were refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants. Resettled in the United States, families arrived and built a network of mutual aid and community through their own ingenuity and resources. Here, they built a new life. 


Curated by Azalea Camacho, Dr. Juily Phun, and Jamie Zeffery