The Skin as Canvas: Tattoo Art in Cuba

By Naty Gabriela Gonzalez

HAVANA TIMES — Following the migratory crises of the 1990s, tattoos went from being the mark of sailors, former inmates and criminals to inscriptions born by a wide range of people, not all of whom had a “socially unacceptable” past.

Owing to a lack of supplies and equipment, Havana’s first tattoo artists did everything from using pen ink to slicing, cutting, piercing, covering up or marking skin (to use the popular lingo) with razors and any sharp object they could find, letting the wounds scar in the form of the tattoos. At the time, the “slicing” was done with improvised devices and needles that had been adapted to fit these.

Tattoo art has not been immune to the changes brought on by post-modernism and the global age, and it has acquired undreamt-of dimensions. In Havana’s downtown areas, we can see teenagers showing off an increasing number of different tattoos on various parts of their bodies. The concepts and designs used by tattoo artists of both genders is becoming highly diversified.

As writer Margarita Mateo points out, despite the growing popularity of tattoos, many sectors in Cuban society still consider it a reprehensible practice. The young and not-so-young with tattoos are regarded as weirdos and delinquents and associated with urban tribes that have been stigmatized as instigators of criminal activities.

The nearly ritualistic scarring process involved conceives of pain as a means of elevating the individual who has a tattoo inscribe don their skin. The process is as old as humanity itself. Originally, it had a magical and religious nature (as in the case of Maori, Egyptian, Nordic, Central American and other cultures, such as the Japanese and ancient Greco-Roman cultures). It was used to stigmatize those who broke the law, to condemn them to carry the anathema their entire lives.

The Yakuza mafia marks the prostitutes working for them with a wide range of tattoos, such that, were they to flee from the mob, they can be found anywhere. It is an indelible mark of the kind used on cattle, a testament to how the art of tattooing can be transfigured into something terrible.

The history, origins, uses and variety of tattoos make it a complex form of artistic expression. Rather than paper, cardboard or canvas, the skin becomes the medium: it is a living and moving art, an exhibition that transcends the borders of the physical in all senses.

Like other phenomena that have taken long to reach the island owing to the information lag, tattoo art has not been extensively explored. Most of the time, neither the tattoo artist nor the person who gets a tattoo have any knowledge of the safety and sanitary requirements or about the drawing they wish to inscribe on their skin.

Similarly, tattoo artists have no Cuban magazines they can turn to and no access to the needed materials (from ink to gloves), as they do not have a license (like other self-employed people) that would authorize them to do their work legally. They operate illegally and must secure their materials through different channels, without institutional support. There is also no place in Cuba where they can purchase these materials at prices lower than those involved in bringing these from abroad or buying them “under the table”, as they say.

Ninety-nine percent of the materials used for tattoos are disposable. As such, they are extremely expensive, and this increases the price of tattoos (unbeknownst to society in general). Some tattoo quasi legally because they are visual artists who are members of Cuba’s Visual Arts Registry or the Hermanos Saiz Association. Those who, because of their age, background or situation do not belong to any of these institutions are caught in a kind of legal limbo.

Tattos on the famous like Kat Von D.

Having no place where they can purchase the needed materials, many tattoo artists work in a kind of improvised and irresponsible fashion, putting the health of their customers (who are unaware of the illnesses they can contract, which include HIV) at risk. Many are working with needles which no one can be sure are new or have been properly sterilized.

From the sanitary, financial and cultural points of view, the solution is to offer a license to tattoo artists, such that they can operate legally and are spared having to import their materials.

In this connection, tattoo culture, from designs to the ways in which tattoos can be made, could also be divulged in Cuba through local magazines, forums, competitions and exhibitions – practices that can promote the culture surrounding an art that is as complex as the very concepts of art and beauty.

4 thoughts on “The Skin as Canvas: Tattoo Art in Cuba

  • In the early 1960’s, while a sailor in the U.S. Navy, I commissioned an unusual tattoo on my–what else but–LEFT arm: a scrolled document containing a declaration from Diego Rivera’s mural “Dream of the Almeda Central on a Sunday Afternoon.” Though the three words of this declaration have become indistinct during the intervening fifty+years, I’m glad I had it inscribed. They express who I am, and who I will be ’til the end of my days.

  • I can believe that you are a tattoo artist, and glad that you recognize that it is the happiness of the recipient that is beautiful rather than the tattoo. As originally a Northern Scot with Pictish blood I am aware of tattooing as an ancient custom – it was a Roman General who named the Picts (the tattooed people). That being after the Romans were defeated by the Picts at Mons Grapius and prior to retreating southward to build a wall from the Clyde to the Forth Estuary and then when that was torn down, retreating still further south to build a wall across the North of England – Hadrian’s Wall. Do you happen to have any photographs of tattoos forty years later and how do tattooists charge for their work – by the hour or by the square inch?

  • Tattoos aren’t a new trend – many cultures have had tattoos for centuries. And many older people have them today. People in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s already and (the ones that I have spoken with) don’t regret them and still love them.

    Getting a tattoo has nothing to do with lacking self confidence or wanting to prove something. I don’t understand what information you’re going on to make that assumption but as a tattoo artist I can tell you the reason post people get tattoos is to do something for yourself. Whether it be a memorial piece, or art they like, or whatever. They’re getting a tattoo because it makes them happy, and there’s nothing more beautiful than someone’s happiness. Even when they’re 60.

  • The human skin deteriorates with age and the tattoos change their form in consequence. The neck skin of Kat Von D will wrinkle and sag resulting in a withered looking rose, the woodland shown on the back of a lady will expand giving the trees distorted trunks. Youth is temporary but the canvas for body art is permanent. The combination of a lack of self-confidence and desire to prove something to others causes those bearing tattoos to wear sleeveless shirts and clothing that allows others to view the so-called body art. Hope they enjoy looking at the tattoos when they are 60!

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