By Ivett de las Mercedes
HAVANA TIMES – Tattoos are widely accepted by young people in Cuba, like they are in other countries, although some people are still taken aback by this new trend.
The reality is that tattoos continue to be a conversation subject, whether it’s because they are in fashion, or a rebellious act, or a sense of belonging to a certain social group or because people just love it as an art form, although the majority seem to be more concerned about aesthetics than the health risks involved.
Ana Maria Herrera has fallen victim to an incurable disease which she contracted from tattoo needles that hadn’t been properly sterilized.
HT: What made you want to get a tattoo?
Ana Maria: At that time, I was going through an identity crisis. Growing up as a pretty girl was a curse. People always expected something from me in terms of behavior. I had to be sweet and nice, especially to guys. Speak softly, sit properly, take care with my uniform, always do my hair properly.
This continued to spiral until I became a teenager and I was no longer myself. Sometimes, I wanted to jump up and down and curse. Nobody seemed to care that I was intelligent, that I was interested in something other than looking good.
When I became a teenager, nobody could control me. I started being the exact opposite of what people expected from me, I even joined a small neighborhood gang. My mother ended up taking me to a psychologist, I remember that the doctor took a few minutes to silently contemplate my situation and then she said: It’s easy to be a rebel, what’s hard is being yourself.
Those words stuck with me for a few days. That’s when I saw my body for the first time and decided to make it my flag. The idea of tattooing my body came by itself. I wanted a beauty that I had chosen and I started to look for a tattoo artist.
Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. The first thing someone who wants to get a tattoo done has to bear in mind is their own satisfaction, to be OK with youself, because if you aren’t, then you want to get rid of it later down the line and that is just as much as a health risk as getting it done in the first place.
HT: You were already sure you wanted a tattoo, then what happened?
AM: I always liked paintings. I had a collage of my favorite works in mind, but it took me a while to find the perfect place to do it. When I found it, I was already 18 years old. The place was a dreamworld, its walls were covered with works of art, and the tattoo artists were two young men who seemed to really know what they were doing. To tell you the truth, I was so awestruck that I didn’t pay attention to the needles, I just assumed they were professionals. When I left there, well that was the first time I felt completely happy.
HT: What was the recovery like?
AM: It wasn’t painful. Back then, I wasn’t having sex and I was extremely careful to keep that area clean, and dry, I also didn’t expose it to the sun. Plus, my tattoo was done in a place that isn’t very painful, unlike the skin between your thighs and stomach.
HT: Have you ever regretted getting tattoos on your body in these twenty years?
AM: Never, not even when I found out I was ill. I am lucky that my tattoo is still as beautiful as it was that first day, I can’t say whether it was the ink, or my skin, or whether it’s because I use sun protection. Although my boyfriend wasn’t as lucky. The tattoo he has from his younger days didn’t mean anything to him anymore, then it became deformed. He was unsure about what would be the best way to get rid of it for a while, until he decided to get it removed using Laser technology, which got rid of it but left marks.
HT: Have you ever been discriminated against because of your tattoos?
AM: Of course. In Cuba, stereotypes are still an everyday occurrence. I have to cover up my tattoos in many places or they don’t let me in, especially because I’m a woman. People still believe that only men, marginal men, have tattoos, it never even crosses their mind that a tattooed body is a work of art.
In this country, tattoos aren’t really admired and receive a lot of criticism. We’re still in the Age of Cavemen. I’ve sometimes had to travel to other provinces and when it’s scorching hot, I can’t take off my blazer while working.
HT: It’s not very common to run into someone who doesn’t regret their mistakes when they were young, including when these mistakes lead to a chronic illness.
AM: My tattoo wasn’t a mistake from my younger days, it was the first step towards my emancipation. Contracting the disease was the result of my inexperience. Nowadays, I know that young people make sure that needles are new or sterilyzed by proper equipment. My suffering won’t stop me from facing life with a smile, maybe that’s why the quality of my life hasn’t really been affected.
HT: Tell me a little bit about how you discovered your illness.
AM: A few months after getting the tattoo done, I began to feel pain in my joints, I had some diarrhea and nausea, I was always exhausted. When I finally went to the doctor, they sent me to do a ALT blood test after my routine check-up and my ALT levels were high. Having to deal with my mother’s reaction was worse than accepting the disease. Hepatitis C.
HT: How did you deal with it?
AM: I was treated with Interferon for a while, then I was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis. Anyone else in my place would have given up, but remember I was the pretty girl, and so I always had a different path in life to other people. The first thing I did was forbid anyone from speaking about the disease. I carried on working as if nothing had happened. But, I did improve my diet, I did research and I took charge of it. I gave myself new challenges every day, I believe that all of this helped me be chosen for a transplant.
HT: What can you tell young people today?
AM: I believe that being yourself is the most important thing, but that isn’t easy at all as we know all too well. Sometimes it takes us years to recognize who we are, to be original, to not let ourselves be swayed by what other people think. It’s good to be accepted by others, but this acceptance shouldn’t be the defining factor in our lives.
Young people today need to look more within than outside. Things always come and go out of fashion, just like rebels with and without causes have. The media always does its own thing, giving us subliminal messages about preferences, lifestyles and behavior, even ideology. However, we need to be capable of looking at all this information and choose what is best for us.
Getting a tattoo done is a responsible act because it will be on your skin forever, and you always have to take a lot of precautionary measures. You need to be sensible and reflect, which many people think young people are incapable of, but I refuse to believe that there aren’t young people like those of my own generation nowadays. If I could find myself and value my body, why can’t others?