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Posted February 10, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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By TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News

Body art, applied with makeshift needles, seen as symbol of change

HAVANA – Anisley Molina shrieked when the needle pierced her skin.

“Hold still!” Junior Perez told her as he drew a tattoo on her tummy. “But it hurts!” she wailed.

No matter, tattoos are the latest rage in Cuba, and even the faint-hearted are putting up with the pain.

Body art is especially popular among the island’s Generation Y crowd, those under 25. And many are having their skin emblazoned with symbols of defiance: from marijuana leaves and the face of reggae legend Bob Marley to guitarist Jimi Hendrix and Harley-Davidson’s screaming eagle.
The craze is yet another sign of change in Cuba, led by Fidel Castro since 1959.

Some people believe it underscores Cubans’ deep yearning for broader individual rights and greater basic freedoms.

“The new Cuban youth own the streets and ... they’re staking claim through an explosion of body art,” Ben Corbett writes in his 2002 book, This is Cuba – An Outlaw Culture Survives. “It’s a new revolution ... a new rhythm of the flesh, throbbing to a tempo the bureaucracy will never grasp.”

Government officials deny any new surge of social defiance and say most young people back the socialist regime. Tattoo artists say many Cubans not just rebellious youth get inked.

“All kinds of people come here,” said Mr. Perez, one of only seven professional tattoo artists in the nation of 11 million people. “I’m swamped.”

A similar fad swept the United States in the 1990s as Hollywood celebrities, sports stars and others got tattoos. Among them were actors Robert de Niro, Roseanne Barr, Cher, Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton.

So pervasive was the trend that even some Barbie dolls were sold with tattoos. And by last year, Americans were getting etched in ink at a record rate.


Black market fringes

In Cuba, the frenzy is different, yet just as intriguing.

Tattoo artists operate on the fringe of the black market. They’re not allowed to advertise, and their work is still too extreme for Cuba’s humdrum television stations, some of which show fish swimming in an aquarium to fill air time.

Making things more difficult, no tattoo-drawing equipment is sold in Cuba. So when Mr. Perez, 28, started out nine years ago, he had to improvise.

He made his own tattoo machines, gun-like contraptions used to inject ink just below the skin.

“I took the motors from small tape recorders and made my own tattoo machines,” he said. “Motors from Walkmans and electric razors also work.”

When tattoo artists can’t persuade a tourist to bring them American-made tattoo needles, they sometimes use acupuncture needles, which can be found in Cuba. Some have also used water colors when they couldn’t get tattoo ink.

Buying all the equipment can easily cost $400 or more, said Leovaldo Canosa, a tattoo artist in Alamar, a town east of Havana.

Yet tattoo artists charge just $2 to $20 for most tattoos, a fraction of U.S. prices.

“We barely survive,” Mr. Canosa said. “We do this for love, not money.”

Still, he said, business has improved as Cubans shed many of their old prejudices.

“A lot of Cubans used to think that only criminals had tattoos. And that men who dyed their hair blond or wore earrings were homosexuals. But people have changed.”

And that includes his own family.

When Mr. Canosa began drawing tattoos in 1995, he said, his parents and relatives detested body art. But he turned them around.

“Now my grandmother, mother, father, stepfather, aunt and uncle all have tattoos.”

‘A real hard look’

Tattoos still aren’t universally accepted, especially in rural Cuba, he said.

“Go into the countryside with a tattoo and people will give you a real hard look. Even an extraterrestrial would create less of a fuss.”

But in Havana, the craze thrives. Many people like traditional designs: panthers, lions, hearts, roses, stars, skeletons and skulls.

Tribal patterns are popular, especially among prostitutes. Many wear them just below the pant line “like a license plate,” Mr. Perez said. Others are getting more creative and ask for tattoos to be placed at odd angles, he said.

Most people get tattoos to be part of the “in” crowd, impress their friends or give themselves a new look, tattoo artists say.

But customers also include housewives and even grandmothers who have permanent eyebrows and other features tattooed onto their faces.

Yandy Rodrguez, 19, a cook’s helper, wanted something symbolic, so he had the image of two hands rising from the earth etched on his leg.

“It means peace,” he said. “I’m thinking of getting another tattoo, of a sun and two moons.”

Alain Gutierrez, 28, a journalist, went for something a little more offbeat a bee just below the beltline.

“It signifies fertility. What makes it clever is the idea of whether the bee is going to sting you or not.”

Lorenzo Tamayo, 36, a musician, prefers scorpions and has one on his back.

“I did it because I like it. Plus it didn’t cost anything. It was a gift.”

Anisley, 17, wanted a tribal design forever painted next to her bellybutton. So like other customers, she climbed the dimly lit half flight of stairs to Mr. Perez’s apartment.

Inside was a makeshift parlor and the usual paraphernalia a tattoo machine, rows of ink bottles, sterilizing equipment and dog-eared magazines. Chuli, a dachshund who has a tattoo on his stomach, dozed on a stool.

Mr. Perez had the teenager lean back on an office chair. Then her boyfriend, David, and her mother, Adoracion Aza, watched as she yelped in pain.

“If this hurts you that much, just wait until you have children,” her mother joked. “Then you’ll know what real pain is.”

But soon it was over, and Anisley was beaming.

“It really didn’t hurt that much. I didn’t mind it,” she said, failing to convince her mother.

Largely tolerant

Cuban tattoo artists say they owe at least some of their success to the island’s art schools, which offer a free education. And while there are no classes on tattoos, they say the government is largely tolerant of not only tattoo artists, but rappers, hip-hop musicians and others seen to be drifting from the socialist mainstream.

The government encourages these groups to join the Saz Brothers Association, a youth arts organization under the Ministry of Culture. Tattoo artists who have accepted have formed a group within the association. It’s called Living Canvases. And with government support, members have been allowed to give public presentations on their trade.

They applaud officials for that but want more.

They’d like, for instance, to be able to advertise their wares and operate Internet sites. And they want government licenses so they can operate legally.

“We’re not illegal,” Mr. Canosa said, “but we’re not legal, either.”

Meantime, they walk a blurry line and try not to step on too many bureaucratic toes. And under such straits, they surprisingly sometimes talk customers out of potentially troublesome tattoos.

“Some people come to get tattoos of the American flag. I tell them, ‘Look, brother, are you so interested in politics that you’re going to plaster yourself with the tattoo of an American flag? You’re Cuban. Get something else,’ ” Mr. Perez said.

Some customers pay attention, but others insist on the tattoo they want “even if they aren’t sure why they’re getting it.”

“I tell them to think about a tattoo that’s artistic or spiritual, something deep. Just because you’re a bread maker doesn’t mean you tattoo a piece of bread on your arm. That’s silly.”

E-mail traceyeaton2004 @ yahoo.com

  1. Follow up post #1 added on September 28, 2009 by Oscar Verdad

    Interesting Blog.  I was thinking af getting a Cuba Flag Tattoo on my next trip there. http://talkingcuba.wordpress.com/


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