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Tattoos as Art?

Che Alejandro and Leo Canosa, two young men who have devoted more than ten years of their lives to a very stigmatized practice, arrived this week in the offices of JR full of passion, though a bit distrustful. Both creators look like «living canvases,» live in Havana and are members of the Hermanos Saiz Association (AHS).

Several drawings decorate their bodies, and also those of some of their closest relatives. Proud of their work, Che and Leo promote a club of friends who meet to exchange experiences. They themselves say that they have lots of things to thank the AHS for, which accepts them as members and has enabled them to hold exhibitions, debates, meetings and other activities. However, there are still some tattooists who havent made it to the association.

«The ideal is to have an opportunity for cooperation and debate, for exchange and integration where the art of tattoos is at the center.

«There are tattooists with work that is commendable; they exhibit in cultural centers and galleries. However, nobody knows about it because there is almost no promotion. It is important for us that people know about our work, that people know that this is also art and that we take all the measures to prevent adverse reactions and other complications,» said Che and Leo, who "according to them" frequently ask the Public Health Ministry to inspect their work places and confirm that everything is in order.

Nonetheless, prejudices and myths around tattoos arise like barriers against those who devote their time and talent to creation on human skin. At the same time, there is a raging debate that has made a great impact on the tattooists social recognition. Do they create art?


Contemporary arts have moved along several routes, and this may generate confusion, because many artists create on the human body. «For instance, Manuel Mendive paints on dancers and models. He creates what the critics call art in movement. He transfers his artistic world through a different medium. That is art. But I dont think that tattooing is,» said Margarita Gonzalez Lorente, a specialist at the Wifredo Lam Cultural Center.

«Nevertheless, many tattooists perform their work in a creative way and make their greatest effort so that the tattoo is well done (regarding design, shape and the aesthetic of the drawing they make). There are even artists who are getting closer to this world and make aesthetically correct designs, pleasant to the sight and that transmit a message or an idea.

«In this case, there is an artistic intention and I would dare to call it art. But not when they are reproductions of other artists drawings and works,» said the arts critic.

There is an unavoidable reality. There are some tattoos that are real works of art. But there are also those which do not create any aesthetic emotion. This is the case of the repetitive designs of hearts, dolphins, flowers or names engraved on the skin of people who choose these drawings without knowing in some cases which their meaning is.

In opinion of Che Alejandro, who besides being a tattooist is also a cartoonist, said «nobody who creates tattoos respects themselves if they havent done their homework. The real artist, before making a tattoo, designs their own work; they do exclusive drawings.

«Each one has their style and can be recognized for it. We tattoo out of love for this art. When a person comes to your house asking for a unique design to cover their entire back, I wont rest until I see the finished work. Thats art to me. What is important for us is to feel satisfied with the work we do.

«If an institution as important as the National Library opened its doors for us to give a lecture on tattoos it is because they recognize our work some what. Or is it that the gallery artists who give us a space to show our work and the art critics who call us artist are all wrong?,» he said.

The debate has been joined by Dr. Magui Mateo, a tenured professor of the Higher Institute of Arts and a member of the Cuban Academy of Language. Mateo has devoted part of her time to studying the phenomenon of tattoos in Cuba, and she is convinced that there is a group of tattooists in the country who have an undeniable talent for arts, especially for creating drawings on skin: «an avant-garde that tries to do its best, and this has been recognized by the Hermanos Saiz Asociation, which is somehow trying to path and orient this kind of art.»

It is true, though, that not all tattoos are art and not all those making tattoos are artists or have the same talent, she said. However; «most of the people who devote themselves to drawing on skin prioritize the artistic part, and they dont do it with a profit motive in mind (though there are some who do).

«Many of them have picked up great works of Cuban painting such as Tropical Gipsy Woman. They have been nurtured by Cuban painting tradition, which is reflected in their tattoos and shows that there is indeed an artistic interest. In addition, tattoos are being recognized as popular art worldwide. It is not fully accepted yet; therefore, it is still a marginalized art. However, the numbers of tattoos exhibitions, international meetings and recognition to great tattooists are on the rise. »


Psychologist Humberto Garcia, from the Psychiatrist Hospital of Havana, who has made a broad study on the matter, considers that the motives for tattooing vary with the epochs and the social and political conditions in which the phenomenon takes place.

«The confluence of multiple social and psychological causes, among them fashion and advertising, have had a significant influence on the interest in tattoos. Some people do it not to fall behind their peers, motivated by the elemental desires of people to do what they want and what is accepted, or just for artistic pleasure. Others do it although they dont have a solid argument justifying it, or maybe because it is religious sentiment that makes them put the image of their favourite saint on their body. There are people who do it as a response to their identity or a sense of belonging.»

A study carried out by this therapist, with patients addicted to alcohol and other drugs, revealed that «57 percent of these individuals regret at least one tattoo. The desire to change this situation puts them in an uncomfortable psychological situation: the dilemma of whether to seek medical assistance or not (even when they consider that the restoration is not going to be perfect). Or, they impose limitations on themselves - like swimming wearing a t-shirt to cover all the tattoos they dont like anymore, » the psychologist noted.

As to if there exists in Cuba any legal impediment that forbids tattoos or putting them on another person (with that persons consent), Antonio Pillo, lawyer and professor of Criminology at the University of Havana said: «Tattooing is not a violation or contravention of the legal order. It is not a crime either. The constitution says nothing about it and today anyone can have a tattoo. »

Why then do we frown on those who have chosen to mark their skins with one of these drawings? How it is possible that some people assume the right to exclude valuable people for the mere fact of having a tattoo?

This is not about promoting tattoos. This is about respecting the individual choice of each person and their right to be appreciated for their values and principles that distinguish them as human beings.

Source: By Aracelys Bedevia, Claudia Fonseca and Cinthia Alvarez Juventud Rebelde

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