Thousands of art curators, collectors, museum directors, and artists from around the world are flocking to Havana for Cuba's 12th biennial, the country's largest art festival. Installations have sprung up along the Malecón that runs along Havana's northern coast, and gallery showings and events have been taking place each evening — ranging from the construction of an ad hoc ice rink to the release of hundreds of LED-clad pigeons.
But in the midst of this massive celebration of art, there is one community of artists not faring very well — Havana's tattooists. Coinciding with the opening of the biennial two weeks ago, tattoo artists in the city began to receive unexpected visits from Cuban officials ordering them to shutter their businesses.
"I asked the people who showed up to close me down why this was happening, and even they said… they didn't know," Che, one of the city's most respected and best-known tattooists, told VICE News.
The 42-year-old was among the first tattooists to receive such a visit. When officials showed up at his studio, which he operates from his house in the neighborhood of Vedado, he was told that he must permanently close or risk having all of his tattooing supplies — and all of his other possessions — confiscated by authorities.
When I visited his studio this week, it was clear he'd taken the orders seriously. Che's home is filled with reminders of his past as one of Cuba's best skateboarders; decks adorn his walls, and a few local skaters hung out on his couch watching an old Bones promo tape. But when he invited me into his studio, hardly anything remained.
"I've put away everything for good," he said. "I still get a lot of calls from people asking if I can do some work for them, but I have to keep saying no."
Che in his now empty studio. (Photo by Daniel Oberhaus)
Che, who'd been doing tattoos since 1994, said he had never had any problems with the government. This was despite the fact that tattoo artists in Cuba have always existed in something of a legal grey area.
"It's not a grey area anymore," Che said. "It's illegal now. Everybody's shop is in danger of being closed, but a lot of people don't know — there was no announcement on TV or in the papers saying there is a new law."
Leo Canosa had been tattooing in Cuba for two decades before he opened Havana's first tattoo parlor not run from a private home this past January. He believes the increasing popularity of tattoos in the country may be partly to blame for the recent wave of closures. While tattooing was previously a niche art form in the country, a recent explosion of interest in body art has turned tattooing into a more profitable venture. As a result, more and more people have opened shops, which may have attracted the attention of the government, hoping to generate revenue in the form of taxation and licenses.
Leo Canosa in his studio. (Photo by Daniel Oberhaus)
Most Cuban tattoo artists operate studios from their homes. They can only be found by word of mouth, which allows them to keep a low profile, and working from home also allows many Cubans to begin tattooing with minimal startup costs. Some tattooists believe closing these unregulated parlors may be the government's first step in seeking to raise revenue from the growing industry.
While certainly an inconvenience to tattooists, Che says he and many others would be perfectly willing to work within government parameters. But the Cuban government has yet to give any indication that it will follow up with licensing and taxation measures. In other words, tattooing as it exists now is being declared illegal, and the government is not providing any avenue to do it legally.
"Why shut down tattoo artists when you could make a license for it and then charge them?" Che said. "If it's money you want, you can have money. Just tax it, regulate it, give it a license. All we want is a way to practice our art legally."
That would seemingly be in accord with the government's relatively recent change in policy allowing citizens to pursue entrepreneurial ventures. Begun in 2010, it has been widely embraced by the Cuban population. The fact that tattooists aren't being given an avenue to continue operating has caused speculation — some artists believe they're the result of a government official's personal vendetta — and as Canosa explains, the closures are being hastened by the fact that the tattoo community is beginning to turn on itself.
"People who are getting shut down say, 'Oh, why are you closing down me and not him?' and the next thing you know, the other guy is getting shut down too," he said. "If the government started doing licensing, we might be able to keep the good people in the community and the bad out, but right now, it's impossible."
Cuban tattoo artists have long had a difficult time procuring needles, sanitary equipment, and ink. This has forced many to innovate or cut corners, using acupuncture needles and sanitizing them with pressure cookers instead of autoclaves, clinical devices that use high-pressure steam to sterilize equipment. Artists who manage to obtain autoclaves typically do so via the black market; if caught with the machines — often lifted from Cuban hospitals — artists face three years in jail.
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Many artists also forego basic sanitary protocols, such as wearing gloves or using alcohol swabs.
"Every time we hear about someone starting out to do tattoos, we walk over and try to explain the steps for proper sterilization," Che said. "I help them even if they are assholes….. You can be a crappy tattoo artist, but you don't have to go give a disease to someone."
According to Che however, sanitation was not cited as a reason for the closure of his shop.
Canosa's studio, La Marca Body Art, sits in the middle of one of the most heavily trafficked corridors of the touristy Vieja neighborhood. He says he spent almost $80,000 importing equipment and building out the shop — a small fortune in Cuba, which Canosa says he managed to raise by traveling around the world and working at tattoo conventions.
When I visited the shop, Leo had just received word from one of his friends that Cuban Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas had expressed a desire to stop by the shop in support — a sentiment that seemed at odds with the recent closures. But Canosa explained the discrepancy.
"The people who shut down Che are the same who shut down restaurants or whatever [businesses] need licenses," he said. "It's not cultural people, its people concerned with business."
Follow Daniel Oberhaus on Twitter: @DMOberhaus