Cuban Tattoo Art and the Challenges Ahead

A young artist’s take on the industry

Young tattoo artist Maike Roque Zequeira will open his tattoo studio Neotaino soon.

By Paula Henriquez

HAVANA TIMES – There’s one thing many Cuban business owners know for sure. It’s that there isn’t a force that’s going to stop them from putting their projects and ideas into action.

Such is the case of young Cuban tattoo artist Maike Roque Zequeira. He is currently working non-stop to get his career on track, a career in a legal limbo in Cuba.

Add on the COVID-19 situation, which not only puts his work in danger, but also his life in society.

Maike is what you call “self-employed”, like so many other Cubans are. He depends on his work to feed himself; even when his profession is not legally recognized in Cuba. Maike talks to us about this and many other issues. He also recalls his childhood and how he became a tattoo artist.

Where are you from, Maike?

I was born on April 20, 1991 in Guanabacoa, Havana. My memories are vague because I moved to another part of the city when I was 6 years old. I have more vivid memories of this second neighborhood. I used to live in a building in the Chivas neighborhood, where I grew up as a child until I moved to Regla as a teenager.

How would you describe your childhood?

I wasn’t one of those kids who used to play out on the street. Out of resignation sometimes, and because I just wasn’t interested other times. I preferred to watch TV, draw and those kinds of things. I would burn all of my energy when I visited my cousins or went to spend the weekend at my father’s house. If you were to ask my mother, I think she’d tell you that I was quite a calm kid.

What were you most interested in?

I have always liked drawing ever since I was a little boy. My mother used to take me to the cultural center to attend workshops, and it’s something that’s been with me ever since I was 3 or 4 years old, up until now, it’s something that has stuck with me. This was always my focus and nothing has changed in the present day. I might have moved away from drawing at some point when I was a teenager when I started playing sports, but it wasn’t long before I went back to my passion for drawing. As a result, drawing became my dream and mission in life when I finished high school.

But there’s quite a journey from drawing to giving someone a tattoo… it’s one thing to draw on a piece of paper, canvas, etc. and it’s another thing to draw on skin. How did you learn how to tattoo? When did you begin?

I’m not going to deny that it took me several years to decide to start tattooing people. I got my first tattoo when I was 19 years old because I was really into it. That was what I wanted to experiment with at the time. I began to tattoo when I was 23 years old. It’s been six years now.

This journey you mentioned in your question was quite difficult. Back then, we didn’t have Internet access like today and there wasn’t exactly a school to learn how to tattoo. I had to start out by visiting different tattoo artists and asking questions. Not everybody was willing to share their knowledge, so I had to experiment.

That was how I gave lots of friends and people I know free tattoos, so I could gain some confidence and greater control of this new medium and materials. It was a completely different experience to anything I had ever known. Plus, social media has helped to create greater unity. It makes it easier to connect with other tattoo artists, so we can share knowledge.

Is it legal to own a tattoo studio in Cuba? Tell us a little bit about this.

Tattoo art is in a legal limbo in our country. There is a movement today, an initiative by tattoo artists, to create an association to seek legal status. The name of this group would be the Cuban Association of Tattoo and Perforation Artists (ACATP). This legal procedure has been in the works for over 3 years, and we still haven’t received a response. The closest thing to authorization or a permit were two courses put on by Public Health. They were to train us about hygiene in our work. Having a tattoo studio in Cuba today, is a complete gamble for tomorrow.

However, this legal limbo will be resolved at some point… What stage is the Association currently in?

Yes, I think so. However so far, the higher institutions, the decision makers, are taking their time to answer our demands.

We have a lawyer in charge of the whole process. However, like I said, it’s been more than three years without a response. Despite everything, tattoo artists have never given up on their efforts to legalize their profession and gain legal status. Conferences and events are held every year (except this one), and there is always a space for discussing the Association.

I can imagine that all of this makes it hard for you to work… What are the main challenges that lie ahead when it comes to giving people tattoos?

Legal protections are one, along with the lack of recognition. This complicates a series of everyday tasks for the artist. Getting access to materials is extremely difficult. As our profession isn’t legal, we don’t have a store where we can go to buy all of the supplies we need to do our work with all of the safety and rigor that health regulations call for. We work with the materials we get from people who can travel and bring back what we need to work.

As you can imagine, this isn’t a stable solution. A tattoo is a challenge through and through for the artist, because they have to come up with a way to navigate shortages without compromising the quality of their work and the client’s health.

Everybody knows that we are going through a rough time right now. COVID-19 has put us in check and is trying to distance us from any social activity or connection. How has your work been affected by this? How has your life been during lockdown as a result?

Well, it’s like you yourself said. As the supplies we need aren’t sold in the country and flights into the country are suspended for the time being because of the pandemic, supplies aren’t coming in either. You’ve probably imagined that my work is on standby until further notice, which has affected my personal life. I rent a place in Playa municipality… and it also affects when I’ll be able to reopen the studio. I don’t have the materials to decorate and create proper working and hygienic conditions. On the other hand, there is a fear of being infected, both of the population as well as myself. It’s a very tough situation, but I prefer to wait it out. If I can start again, I will take great care with hygiene.

How do you manage to get by then?

Doing the math over and over again… I imagine that we all are. I’ve had to live off the savings I had for my studies and even though I’m not working at the studio, that doesn’t mean I haven’t looked for some private work on the side.

Maike tries to move ahead with his career in spite of a lack of supplies to tattoo and maintain optimal hygienic conditions.

Maike, do you work at your own studio or at somebody else’s studio?

I have worked in other tattoo artists’ studios as a guest artist. When the pandemic came, I was in the process of opening up my own studio, but anyway… we’re moving ahead, changing all of the equipment in the new place that will be called “Neotaino Tattoo Studio”. You can find us on social media with this handle.

Quite an uncertain future ahead… anyhow, what do you think things will be like for tattoo artists in two or three years?

If we manage to create the Association and we can bring in supplies to do high-quality tattoos legally, I believe that we’ll catch people’s attention because Cuba has high-quality tattoo artists. I still insist that this lack of legal status will make everything slower and more tedious. Nevertheless, quality comes first, and you can see this at every event. I believe that when we finally have our proper status, we will gain greater recognition. Likewise, we will have proper marketing and won’t have to be afraid to advertise ourselves.

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