Amongst all the changes happening in Cuba right now one thing is staying the same, owning a tattoo shop and giving tattoos are prohibited. They are the only art form in Cuba that is still highly illegal.
I took it upon myself to investigate this matter, and see just how far it goes. Despite the governments’ suppression tattoo artists have managed to create a thriving underground tattoo scene. This subculture can be found throughout the whole island. You walk the streets of Havana, or any other city, and see people adorned with tattoos. The questions remain the same, where are they getting these tattoos and how are they so well done?
Tattooing in Cuba came about in the 90’s by two men in Havana, Che and Leo. I tracked these guys down, as well as many others, and their stories are just as compelling as their dedication to tattooing. They are both veteran skateboarders and lovers of hard rock music. They, like all Cuban tattoo artists, are self-taught with very limited resources and have done it all. Both of these guys are still icons in the tattoo scene today. They help out beginning artists by showing them alternative ways of sterilization, since autoclave machines are also illegal to own. This usually entails using a pressure cooker to its’ maximum. Che has been petitioning with the government for years trying to have them legalize tattooing. Even after all the suppression he has faced, the fact he is still as determined as he was 15 years ago is eye opening.
Since the government outlaws tattooing, typical tattoo supplies are hard to come by. Supplies are either brought in by friends visiting or bought via black market, and come with a major price tag. Prices for ink and needles go for 4x what you would pay in the states. A good tattoo artist gets paid cash, pays no taxes on their income, and makes upwards of 300 CUC a week. To put that in perspective a typical government worker makes around 25 CUC a month. A doctor makes around 50 CUC a month. Most tattoo “shops” are found in the living room or bedroom of an artist’s home. Some of the more successful artists have managed to have another space outside 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 building.
Tattooing has spread to every city throughout Cuba, not just Havana. The names of some of the extremely talented ones 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 adventure.
In recent months the government has been cracking down even more on these artists, and threatening them. They have gone as far as conducting random searches of homes/shops they think belong to artists. Since they are technically making money illegally, the government can seize anything they have bought with said money. Their house if they own it, their belongings, anything. Even with all the government pressure to stop tattooing these artists are thriving.
So why doesn’t the government give in and legalize tattooing? Tax the artists like any other Cuban business? Charge for a permit and make even more money from them?
About Allison Dinner
Allison Dinner is a freelance food and product photographer/photo editor working worldwide. Allison, a graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology has won various awards for her outstanding photography. These include ASMP photographer of the year, 2008 Fotoweek DC silver award, and Photography Masters Cup award in 2010. She specializes in shooting various degrees of still-life photography. 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. [Official website]