Los Tatuadores de Cuba
Amongst all the changes happening in Cuba right now one thing is the same; owning a tattoo studio and tattooing is prohibited, with only one licensed studio in Havana. Tattooing is only one of a few art forms not accepted by the Cuban government. Despite the governments’ suppression, tattoo artists have managed to create a thriving underground tattoo scene. Since tattooing functions within an opaque legality, inspectors are often paid off; sometimes they decide to shut down shops, other times they leave the artists alone.
This subculture can be found throughout the whole island; walking the streets of Havana, or any other city in Cuba, it is common to see local people adorned with tattoos. Yet, where they get these tattoos and how are they so well done is harder to see, with tattoo studios operating outside of the main stream.
Historically, tattooing in Havana came to popularity in the 90’s. One of the men from the beginning is a veteran skateboarder named Che. He, like all Cuban tattoo artists, is self-taught with the most limited resources and has done it all. He is still an icon in the tattoo scene today, and is one of the main men who keeps it going. He, as well as some others, helps out beginning artists by showing them alternative ways of sterilisation, since autoclave machines are illegal in Cuba. This usually entails using a pressure cooker to its maximum. Che has been trying for years to have tattooing become a recognised art form in Cuba. His shop is currently the oldest in Havana, and he is always making sure new, younger, promising artists have the supplies to thrive. Even after all the suppression he has faced, the fact that he is still as determined as he was 20 years ago is testament to his character and that of the tattooing scene in Cuba.
Even the most basic tattoo supplies are very hard to come by; either brought in by friends visiting or bought via the black market – and come with a major price tag. Ink and needles can go for four times what you would pay in the ‘states.
A good tattoo artists gets paid cash, pays no taxes on their income, and makes upwards of 200 pesos a week. To put that in perspective a typical government worker makes around 25 pesos a month. A doctor makes around 100 pesos a month. Most tattoo ‘studios’ are found in the living room of artists’ homes. Some of the more successful artists have managed to have another space outside of their home, and more like an actual shop. To find one of these artists or shops you must know someone who knows an artist; they are quietly tucked into the Cuban streets like any other home.
Tattooing has spread to every city throughout Cuba, not just Havana. The names of some of the extremely talented artists have even spread abroad. People travel to Cuba just to get tattooed by a certain artist they have heard of. Whether or not they are able to find the camouflaged shop remains its own challenge.
Allison is a freelance food and product photographer working globally, a graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology has won various awards for her photography. These include ASMP photographer of the year, 2008 Fotoweek DC silver award, and Photography Masters Cup award in 2010. She specialises in shooting various degrees of still-life. They range from food to table top still-life setups. She also enjoys shooting the reportage of the kitchen and/or restaurant. Clients include Food Arts, Food and Wine magazine, Niche Media, Ritz Carlton Hotels, The Washington Post, Delta Sky, Mikasa, This Old House magazine and many others. In her spare time she works on photography documentary projects featuring issues she thinks should be made known.