In Cuba, Tattoo Artists Make More than Doctors and Lawyers
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.”
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