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.
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.