Cuba Culture

Tattoo art becomes craze in normally conformist Cuba

Posted April 05, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Culture.

Vanessa Bauza | Orlando Sentinel
HAVANA—When Che Alejandro got his first tattoo with a sewing needle 12 years ago, his parents were so angry they threw him out of the house. Ink on skin was synonymous with prison life and “anti-social” behavior; too much rock ‘n’ roll, too little revolution.

The former carpenter is now one of Havana’s most sought-after tattoo artists, seeing clients at his small “TAT-2” home studio by appointment only. What’s more, his father, a devout Communist, now also sports a permanent portrait on his shoulder: a young, cigar-chomping Fidel Castro.

Like skaters, rappers and heavy-metal rockers, Cuba’s tattoo artists have carved a niche for themselves in the past decade despite being seen by some as outcasts in a society that prizes uniformity.

Many work with homemade tattooing machines assembled from tape-recorder motors, sewing-machine pedals and disposable acupuncture needles. Tattooing supplies are not available in Cuba, so artists rely on networks of friends abroad, often trading their work for bottles of brightly colored dyes, magazines featuring the latest trends or even a coveted factory-made machine.

Tucked away discreetly in homes and often without any signs to summon potential customers, studios exist in a gray area of Cuba’s laws, which tightly regulate private enterprise. They are not licensed, taxed or inspected but are officially tolerated.

Near Havana’s outskirts, in his parents’ fourth-floor apartment overlooking a sea of drab buildings, tattoo artist Renier Rodriguez, 25, sees a steady stream of clients in his tiny bedroom, where the green walls are decorated with posters and postcards of 1980s heavy-metal bands such as Iron Maiden and Pantera.

On a recent afternoon, Rodriguez’s ex-wife, Yudelis Melchor, winced at the hot sting of his humming, homemade tattoo machine. As he etched a red-haired Viking vixen onto Melchor’s back, their 4-year-old son, Elvis, jumped on the bed to the beat of Bob Marley’s reggae tunes.

Rodriguez, a former high-school art teacher, quit his day job a year ago to tattoo full time. Like others, he charges about $15 for a medium-sized tattoo, a fraction of the going rate in the United States. Still, he earns more than doctors or lawyers, who make the equivalent of about $25 a month. But he says it’s not about the money.

“I like this more than painting. You can’t erase; you have to be prepared,” said Rodriguez, who has the word FEARLESS tattooed across his belly as well as a tangle of thunderbolts, skulls and demons down both shoulders. “People come here for zodiac signs, Aztec designs. They get Marilyn Manson or Che [tattoos],” Rodriguez said.

“Women my age have come to get tattoos on their ankles,” said Rodriguez’s mother, Concepcion Ruiz, 54, as she lingered at his bedroom door. “I don’t know whether this is a fad or not, but a lot of people are getting it done.”

Young women tend to get inked with tribal designs across their lower backs or flowers and vines like the ones covering Melchor’s Caesarean-section scar. The most cutting-edge designs are influenced by American skate companies’ logos or a U.S. trend known as “new school”—fresh interpretations of 1940s and ‘50s tattoo designs.

For now, tattoo artists are using official channels to gain a wider audience and skirt restrictive laws on self-employment. Last week they hosted a Tattoo Expo at Havana’s Hermanos Sainz center for young artists, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. Earlier this year, tattoo aficionados held their first conference in Havana’s National Library, discussing everything from tattoo history and techniques to recent trends.

“There are people within the Ministry of Culture who see this as an art form, as something to promote,” Alejandro, 31, said.

“Others don’t see it that way. In a country like ours, you have to belong to a cultural institution to support you. That’s how you’re able to keep working.”

At the expo, artists took turns showing off their skills with live demonstrations at four tattooing stations while the music of AC/DC and Quiet Riot blared in the background.

“There are some taboos here; tattoos are seen as marginal,” said Marsden Castellanos, 23, a painter-turned-tattoo artist who attended the expo. “We try to break those barriers and show that art can be made with tattoos. This is a new movement in Cuba; there are still some prejudices.”

Another tattoo artist at the expo, Deinni Alonso, 23, said his body art puts some people off.

“My girlfriend’s father thinks I’m a delinquent,” said Alonso, who has a Betty Boop cartoon tattoo on his calf. “Some people don’t relate to people like me. They lived in other times; we live in ours.”

Vanessa Bauzá writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Member Comments

On June 07, 2004, Clare wrote:

Can I please be notified where the ‘TAT-2’ studio is located in Havana & how I can get in contact as I own a tattoo clinic in Australia & will soon be in Havana. Thank you. Clare

On June 13, 2004, Lewis Samuel wrote:

I want to come to cuba to do a tattoo please tell me how i can contact a reputable artist

On July 13, 2004, "WOODY" WOOD wrote:

Hi,I am a collector of tattoo studio cards,posters etc.I was very happy to read your article.Please send me something for my collection and I will respond to you.Thanks and best wishes.
Brian “Woody” Wood
PO Box 13130
N1 City(near CAPE TOWN)

On July 20, 2004, jp kustom ink 2 wrote:

my name is jp
iwant info.of sua tattoo studio the name of the artist jean pierre alfonso

On October 24, 2004, Panchita wrote:


I love going to Cuba, for it’ beautiful beach, food and especially because of the people.  I am going this coming November for holidays, and I have been wanting to get a tattoo for the longest time now.  It just ocurred to me to get it done in Cuba, would it be possible for you to me find a tattoo shop/studio in Havana or Varadero/Matanzas?

I appreciate your help.


On December 08, 2004, Paul Kia'i Modde wrote:

I have negociated to open the first legal tattoo studio in Havana. Name will be Havana Cuba Tattoo’. We are organizing all the tattoo artists in Cuba. We are also working on the first International Tattoo Convention in Havana Cuba date to be announced. More information contact Paul Kia’i Modde @ .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or Phone 604-251-5805

On December 03, 2005, cubanito wrote:

Hi, the address of TAT-2 Studio is

Tulipan 520
entre Ayestaran y Ayuntamiento

Please, check the map

On November 13, 2006, Esben wrote:

hi, my name is Esben and I am a cuban-american tattoo artist in the states.iv been tattooing for close to 10 years.I would love to know how to get in contact with el che.So if you can please send me info it will be highly appreciated.

On March 24, 2007, Thatch wrote:

I am a Tatoo’s artist in Texas, I have been indifefrent conventions I own my shop.
I have been doing the art about 10 years , I learned 15 years ago.
I am a second generation Cuban-American.
I would love to go to Havana to a Tatoo convention, it is my dream.
My mother hd visited Cuba and she tells me how beautiful is.
I have been an skater for many years, mother gave me a picture she took of an skater ramp in an small park in front of Hotel Melia across from Malecon, sounds great.

Please give me more details about skaters and Tatoos convention.

On March 24, 2007, publisher wrote:

Well, you found our tattoo article. Here is an article on skateboarding. This is all that we have at this time.

On July 26, 2011, Josee Fortin wrote:

Hello, I will do a trip to Santa Clara 3 September 2011, I would like to have Tattoo cosmetics for eyelashes, eyes, and mouth, I want to know the price for each tattoo, and where I could find the tattoo shop more near Santan Clara. Thank you!

On October 19, 2011, Sugar wrote:

I am from a group called Amigo Skate Cuba in Miami, Fl. We have been organizing skate contests, tattoo shows, and music expos with the locals in Havana for the last year. We are returning early in the new year to give away a few hundred pounds of skateboard equipment in Havana. We are more than happy to answer any questions about tattoo shops or the local skate scene in Cuba. Please visit the island, it will change your life smile
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