A few months before the death of their revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, I was able to visit the island of Cuba with a friend. The idea was to experience the country, with its communist history and anti-West tendencies, before globalisation and capitalism changed it forever.
Without getting too political, Cuba, like any country, has many positive and negative aspects. Its dedication to providing homes for its people means that homelessness does not exist; its investment in training doctors and nurses gives it one of the best healthcare systems in the world; and its limited industry has meant that much of the island remains beautifully natural and untouched.
Despite such fantastic achievements, there are still many areas where Cuban society can improve. In both its quality and quantity, food is one such area. Throughout my time in the capital city of Havana, I was not able to buy a single tomato, pepper, onion or potato. The internet would be another area where Cuba lags behind much of the rest of the world. And though this situation is apparently changing, the reality for many Cubans is that they have to visit public WiFi spots around the cities – often carrying their laptops with them – in order to get online. And even then, what they are able to access is restricted by the government.
Despite its image as an island of anti-West and anti-American sentiment, it was surprising to see just how influential the USA has been. Even with a decades-old trade embargo preventing goods and people from moving between the two countries, clothing emblazoned with the US flag was common and the influence of US culture was clearly visible within the modern Cuban music scene.
As much as the Cuban government would hate to admit it, I think the younger generation of Cuban citizens aspire to be a little more like their US cousins.
With the recent lifting of the embargo, relations between the USA and Cuba are improving, and the early signs are that the Cuban people are excited about what the future may hold. Among other things, the re-engagement of the two countries has coincided with a relaxation on Cuban laws surrounding private enterprise, allowing individuals to establish and expand their own businesses, in some cases for the very first time.
One such industry, hoping for a brighter future, is that of tattooing.
Though you wouldn’t know it from the amount of people sporting ink on the street, until very recently, you could not legally become a tattoo artist in Cuba – and even now you have to be incredibly lucky to be awarded the necessary paperwork. Vice News reported that it existed in somewhat of a legal “grey area”, with an underground black market, fuelled by word of mouth, and being tolerated by the government. But with the growth in popularity of tattoos, the government recognised that individual profits could be made, and soon began shutting down the artists’ home-based-tattoo-parlours.
Following the near global trend, tattoos in Cuba went through a period of criminal association before becoming more tolerated, accepted, and then sought after. Writing on VanishingTattoo.com, Lars Krutak, the expert tattoo American anthropologist, writer, and researcher, said that as tattoos became more popular on the island during the 1980s, the government became more lenient, allowing artists to practice their trade as long as they joined government-run “artists associations”.
Despite government restrictions – for example outlawing the private ownership of an autoclave – the tattoo scene in Cuba slowly began to grow. Whilst many artists left the island to ply their trade abroad, away from government interference and with the ability to make greater profit, by 2005, Krutak believes there were “ten noted tattooists in Havana”, and the city had even hosted a number of “mini tattoo conventions” where artists could showcase their work.
Unable to advertise in the traditional sense of the word, and wary of how far the government were willing to tolerate their work, tattooing remained a minor industry driven by word of mouth, where artists trained themselves and operated out of their own homes.
Krutak’s interviews with the Havana-based artists echo what I discovered when I was there myself. If you wanted to find a tattoo parlour, you would have to go and stumble across one. And once you discovered it, you would find that the prices were surprisingly cheap. I was approached by one man who offered to do a piece on my arm, roughly the size of a smartphone, for no more than £20. And though the quality of the art was not the best I had ever seen, it was certainly not the worst either.
As with most equipment and technology in Cuba, the necessaries for tattooing were refashioned and recycled. The embargo, and the shortages it has caused, has instilled a mentality that items should be used more than once as opposed to just thrown away. Acupuncture needles are said to be common, as is old hospital equipment. Those with contacts in other parts of Central or Northern America are able to “order” new equipment and ask friends and relatives to bring it with them when they visit.
Peruvian-born Cuban citizen, Naty Gabirela Gonzalez, writes that “like other phenomena that have taken long to reach the island owing to the information lag, tattoo art has not been extensively explored.” It is because of this limited knowledge, alongside the government’s hesitancy in fully legalising and supporting the industry, that health and safety is not always adhered to. Gonzalez writes that “most of the time, neither the tattoo artist nor the person who gets a tattoo have any knowledge of the safety and sanitary requirements.”
The lack of information on the subject and the lack of support from the government, then adds to the problem of gaining the material needed to tattoo in the first place. Not only is equipment near impossible to come by, even the basics are in short supply, gloves, ink, and magazines showcasing designs are not widely available on the island.
Gonzalez, and other advocates of fully legalising the trade, believe that the “solution is to offer a licence to tattoo artists, such that they can operate legally and are spared having to import their materials.” This will allow the creativity of Cuban artists to flourish, improving the budding tattoo scene on the island, improving the health and safety for both artists and customers, and provide a source of tax income for the Cuban government. And though progress towards a more open economy is slow, it seems almost inevitable that Havana will be home to a safe and legal tattoo scene of its own at some point in the near future.
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This article was originally published in Skin Deep Tattoo Magazine issue 273