Photos by Stacey Rupolo
This year, a 52-year-old politician named Miguel Diaz-Canel was appointed vice president of the ruling Council of State in Cuba, making him a likely future leader of the country. Some Cubans hope he will lead their country into a new era. One reason: while he was governor of Villa Clara province, he sponsored a tattoo festival.
Today, when Cuban Americans journey back to their native country for visits, they frequently come bearing gifts for friends and family, ranging from sunglasses to flat-screen televisions. Che Alejandro wants something else: tattoo magazines, ink, and needles. “Right now there are only a few people bringing tattoo supplies to us,” Che Alejandro, who is known as the godfather of the Cuban tattoo scene, told me. “You can’t get a license to import them, so they have to bring little things in luggage and sell them to you. Many times it’s not the best quality.”
All the equipment tattoo artists need is either illegal or unavailable in Cuba. Autoclaves, which sterilize tattoo needles, are banned. This has forced tattoo artists to improvise. They fashion makeshift machines from baskets, medical supplies, and pressure cookers. Being a tattoo artist in Cuba is hard. But it makes Che feel that he is expanding space for personal expression in a country where individuality has long been frowned upon. Tattoo supplies are hard to find, so Che has innovated. He draws designs from his skateboard and comic books. He makes his own needles, and when working to complete a larger, more intricate tattoo, he offers big discounts to customers.
“We are going too slow,” he said, assessing the pace of change in Cuba. “We need to step up. People die waiting for freedom.”
Cubans are embracing cultural trends from abroad more fervently than at any time in the last half century. It’s hard now to walk a block down the sun-soaked streets of Havana without spotting tattoos.
In Cuba, tattoo has long been a dirty word. The stigma has remained potent. As recently as a few years ago, tattooed Cubans were not permitted on beaches. State-sponsored book fairs still refuse to stock international tattoo magazines. There are unofficial rules against employing tattooed people; some Cubans reported that tattooed people can’t get work in the airport.
An elderly Cuban, Alberto Carmona, recalled that when he was growing up, only prostitutes and criminals had tattoos. He said the current youth obsession with tattoos reflects a generation disconnected from the revolutionary spirit that animated many of their parents.
“If there was a protest, the people that would come out had tattoos,” he said. “If these kids would join the Union of Young Communists, then the nation would be stronger.”
Many of the young Cubans who go to Che Alejandro for tattoos know that getting inked can be stigmatizing, leading them to have trouble going to college or finding work.
Sosa Santa, another tattoo artist who works out of a dingy apartment in Old Havana told me, “I made my first tattoo machine. Now I give tattoos to all types of people. I give tattoos to cops.”
Although tattoo artists operate on the margins of society, they make good money. Most Cubans working official, on-the-books government jobs earn only about $30 per month. “Being a tattoo artist, I can make more money than being in the government,” Sosa said. “The doctors and the teachers are supposed to make more than me, but they don’t.”
A tattoo artist can make more than most people make in a month from doing one tattoo. Customers find their artists by word of mouth, often asking tattooed friends for guidance. Recent economic reforms have legalized many forms of small business, from restaurants to aerobics studios, but tattoo parlors are not on the list.
Many of the most popular tattoos in Cuba are similar to those you see in Miami and New York. Men sport pinup girls or swirling, sharply defined tribals. Women favor flowers and claw marks. Dragons are popular. So are images of Jesus. Some older Cubans sport tattoos of the Cuban flag or of revolutionary leaders like Che Guevara.
Alberto Veldez, who was begging for spare change near the stately Plaza de Armas, said he gave himself his first tattoo when he was 14. He now has more than two dozen. His favorite is a single word—Libertad—on his right shoulder. He said Cuba needs more freedom. He said his tattoos have spurred police to rough him up.