In 1958 a Navy sailor from Chicago was briefly onshore in Cuba while the revolution was underway. The sailor, named George Klauba, became first a tattoo artist and then a painter.
For years now, he has focused his artistic energy on remembering a moment in history and putting his dreamlike impressions on canvas.
Below, a slideshow of Klauba's paintings.
Tony Fitzpatrick: George is a monument to that idea that your memories constitute your history. How long have those images been percolating, how long have they been just bubbling under the surface?
You never forget the woman that lit your heart on fire, you know?
Jay Shefsky: George Klauba is a self-taught Chicago artist in the middle of a quest to recall the Cuba he encountered as a 19-year-old sailor in 1958.
George Klauba: One time they had a carnival that the Navy put on the base there and they invited the locals to the carnival, and a buddy of mine met a couple nice young Cuban girls and made a point of getting together with them, and on liberty taking a bus into Guantanamo. I’d notice road signs and billboards with “Batista” and they’d be X’ed out with red paint and [say] “Viva Castro.”
Another time we were at a little carnival, Cuban carnival there, in the nighttime. We went with the girls and we were on the little rollercoaster, and all of a sudden realize that we’re getting hit with tomatoes and vegetables, and well my buddy and I we got our whites – our uniforms – on and the girls are crying and we cover them up so they wouldn’t get hit, the ride stopped and there’s a big crowd standing out there all quiet, we walked through them and we start running up the hill.
So they took us over where the post office was. The safe house. There’s police over there and shore patrol …
Shefsky: He says his paintings are not political but personal. After nearly 60 years, he still recalls his girlfriend’s name.
Klauba: I always wonder what happened to her, you know, if she’s still alive today, what kind of life she had, I hope – God bless her – she had a good life.
Shefsky: George Klauba's artwork is in the collection of the Illinois State Museum, and he has a long association with Chicago's Ann Nathan Gallery. Previously, he has explored nautical themes in his art, including “Moby Dick” and World War II battles in the Pacific.
For perspective on his work, we spoke with another prominent Chicago artist, Tony Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick: I encountered his work as a teenager because we were seeing pieces around Chicago signed “George Tattoo” and as a kid I loved going in on the tattoo shops because I was surrounded by art that nobody had yet bothered to tell me was art – comic books, tattoo imagery, horror movies.
Whenever he approaches a subject, like “Moby Dick,” like WWII, like Cuba, he goes deep. It’s a prospect of years in the making. I learned a great deal from George, I learned to attempt to go deep.
Shefsky: Klauba called himself “George Tattoo” at the time. He had already been a tattoo artist himself for years.
Klauba: I got into tattooing about early ‘70s I guess, and I started incorporating that in my artwork too in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It was a big influence on my artwork and my life, too.
Shefsky: He’s amazed at who gets tattoos these days.
Klauba: It’s a whole different world today, teenagers, women – hell, old grandmothers and young kids, all. It’s unbelievable. Before it was bikers, gangsters, oddballs, weirdoes, whatever.
Shefsky: Klauba got out of the tattoo business, but he still makes indelible impressions of a time and place that made a mark on him.
Klauba: It was an exciting time, the whole thing of a young man meeting this young girl and things were vibrant. And then what was going on around us, I mean, aware of what was happening there. And people were great, people were really kind, [laughs] I mean there was a mob chasing us and a maybe a mob trying to get us or kidnap us – I don’t know – but overall people were really great, friendly and great.
Fitzpatrick: There’s a great deal of compassion in what George does. He’s also a very humble man who’s not prone to promote himself, so the world kind of has to find him.
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