Young Cubans and tattoos: fashion or generational mark?

Despite the stigmas on the island about corporal design, tattoos are making way as a sign of a generation.

Foto: Jorge Luis Baños_IPS

It is said that seamen introduced them in Cuba and that it was a religious sect, that of the ñañigos, who first assimilated them. The truth is that tattoos are today a usual practice among Cuban young people despite the fact that their parents or grandparents continue seeing them as characteristic of a marginal world.

I remember the first time my nephew got home with a tattoo. My sister hit the roof. Our parents has passed on to us that those corporal drawings were a symbol of bad taste and attributes that corresponded to prison inmates, prostitutes and elements belonging to the most stigmatised layers of Cuban society.


Today’s adolescents and young people see their film, television and sports idols profusely tattooed and, though according to specialists, those who identify with them are not a majority, each day there are more persons aged between 15 and 30 who bare on their arms, back or torso, drawings with which they manifest an unspecified rebelliousness: not political, not anti-social but rather simply toward the preceding generations.


It could be said then that tattoos in Cuba are more than a fashion – even though they are also this –, they are a mark that already has a numerous group that shows them off and with a handful of tattoo artists who, to the surprise of many, are not included among the self-employed to which the State grants licenses, which some identify as a prohibition.


However, the HermanosSaíz Association, an official institution that groups together young Cuban artists, has held meetings with those involved in that trade, considered by almost all of them as art.


And it is possible to consider it thus since Cuban tattoo artists are generally graduates of the art schools in the specialty of painting and using the body as support does not detract from the quality of their work.


They affirm that it is much more difficult to paint on skin than on canvas or bristol board and, in many cases, suggest the design to the clients. The prices for their work oscillate between five and 35 CUC and their workshops are spread throughout the national territory, even when they are not authorised to carry out this sui generis work.


Last year, however, the complex La Marca opened on Obispo Street in Old Havana. Its functions include corporal painting, makeup, engravings on the body as the centre of expressiveness and accessories of all type to create in the client an identity image.


A numerous group of young people, who already have a certain curriculum in the panorama of Cuban visual arts, work in La Marca. They affirm that with this project they aim to given Cuban tattoos a seal.


In the Juan Marinello Cultural Research Centre and in the Centre for Studies on Youth different specialists have devoted themselves to the study of tattoos in the framework of Cuban society. One of the most outstanding among them is Jaime Santana, who has affirmed that tattoos contribute to building the identity of different youth cultures.


It is most common to find them among the so-called “rockers” who prefer this type of music and use dark clothing, piercings and chains. They prefer the more universal corporal drawings.


But other many young people identify with national symbols and according to investigations carried out regarding this, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the Cuban flag and the image of Che Guevara are the most recurrent topics in their tattoos.


Tattoos are a youth symbol in all contemporary societies and, in my opinion, should be as accepted as in preceding generations in which long hair and miniskirts ended up being imposed.


On the other hand, the State must recognise the tattoo artists as independent workers and this would contribute to their being provided with the necessary supplies and to watch out for the hygienic-sanitary measures that are not always taken and bring about dangerous consequences for the health of those who undergo this painful and complicated operation.


The tattoo boom in Cuba took place starting in the 1990s and generated many criticisms and stigmatisations by those who saw in them a practice related to marginalisation, of which we have spoken.


Perhaps the permanent character of a generational mark of identity – which is also a fashion – will generate concerns in those who see them as something irreversible despite the fact that there already exist some techniques to erase them.


In any case, it seems that their acceptance is a consummated reality by many parents who, like my sister, have seen how numerous drawings have started appearing on the skin of her children and even signs that for them symbolise something that frequently escapes our understanding. (2016)

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