2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Ailed Duarte on the unique pressures and pleasures of tattooing in Cuba

Ailed Duarte is co-founder of La Marca studio, which has helped bring tattoo art, once illegal throughout Cuba, into the mainstream.

Ailed Duarte is co-founder of La Marca studio, which has helped bring tattoo art, once illegal throughout Cuba, into the mainstream. She and host Nathan Thornburgh talked at Fábrica de Arte Cubano at the first-ever international tattoo convention in Havana about the robust art and precarious commerce of Cuban tattooing.

This is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Ailed. You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Thornburgh: Tell me about this big event. What’s going on here?

Ailed Duarte: Well, this is the first event of its kind in Cuba, on tattoos. A lot of tattoo artists have done exhibitions. But for this, so many artists from all over the country have come, some have been invited from Mexico, from the United States, and are showing things other than tattoos—this is the first time.

Thornburgh: So this is the first major tattoo convention?

Duarte: Yeah, we think so. But we’re trying to show it as a body art exhibition, not just tattoos, because there are piercings, hair-styling, and Afro fashion, and soaps and some oils for the skin—everything around the skin and body art.

Thornburgh: Well, and this is the reason that we’re here in Cuba this week, because Michael Magers, who’s got an exhibition of Japanese tattoo photography here at Fábrica de Arte Cuba, was explaining it to me. And when he said, “first tattoo convention of its kind in Cuba”, I realized it was a big deal, because tattooing has been very political here. This has not been an accepted art form. So tell me, what’s the short history of tattooing in Cuba that we should know?

Duarte: Well, I think that in Cuba, like in many other countries, tattoos were not well-regarded, not accepted, because they were associated with prisons—at first.

Thornburgh: So in that Japanese style? It’s got an association with criminality.

Duarte: Yes, the same. People that were in jail had tattoos, tattoos about their mothers, or love, that kind of message. And after that, tourists came to Cuba and people started to see a lot of visitors with whole-body tattoos and styles that were different from what they had seen before.

There is no license for tattoo activities in Cuba, but we never had problems with that.

Thornburgh: What was the Cuban style? Was it simple, like you would think of as prison tattooing?

Duarte: Yes. The same as in the other countries, because the techniques and the instruments and the supplies they had to hand weren’t good. So it was mostly names and simple images, or religious symbols.

From 1998, a group of artists joined the association of young artists here in Cuba and started to create tattoos as artistic expressions. And we worked on that and made a lot of small exhibitions. But that association is for artists under 35 years old. So, when these first artists reached the age of 35, they had to leave the association, and there isn’t another artists’ association that accepts them.

Thornburgh: So there’s an age limit?

Duarte: Yes, because it’s a young artists’ association. You’re supposed to belong to another association of artists before that, and after that.

Thornburgh: So there’s no old tattoo artists’ association?

Duarte: No.

Thornburgh: When did you get involved? Was it around that time or later?

Duarte: I’m not a tattoo artist. I’m married to [Leo Canosa], one of the old tattoo artists.

Thornburgh: That’s how La Marca got started?

Duarte: Yes. My husband had been tattooing for 25 years, in his house. The other artists here in Cuba, they work in their own places, small places, trying to have all the health requirements they do in other countries, but without a license. They have to be conscious about that, about the responsibility that their work has. And five years ago—we were always dreaming about having a first tattoo shop, with all the artists involved, and have it be a gallery, and to have exhibitions and activities around tattoo artists—we bought a place.

Thornburgh: So you own your own store, and you bought that five years ago?

Duarte: Yes. It’s in Old Havana.

Thornburgh: So five years ago, it’s kind of late to be opening the first tattoo shop. You say it’s like other countries, but this is later than a place like Mexico?

Duarte: Yeah, because you need to be brave—to buy a place and burn some money to convert to housing and building a tattoo shop, with all the necessary health requirements. You need to be prepared for all that, and it’s a risk, because nothing is certain.

Thornburgh: Yeah, it’s a different entrepreneurial climate here in Cuba. With your husband, and it’s true with other tattoo artists, there’s a political dimension, right? He’s been at odds with the government here at times as you know, as many of my closest friends in Cuba are from time to time. How do you balance the politics with the business of running a successful shop?

Duarte: Well, there is no license for tattoo activities in Cuba, but we never had problems around that. So we think that we are not doing anything wrong. We are doing our job right, and we try to do it as right as we can. And if we do that, we think we won’t have any problem with our activities. And someday, they will recognize the importance of what we’re doing. Maybe eventually we will have a license and some recognition around that. But these kinds of activities [the convention] we think are really important too, for the tattoo movement.

Thornburgh: Right. So this is a big week for you to be able to show, Listen, there are international people, there’s attention, there are dollars coming in. You’re part of a global movement and have that connectivity. What is the licensing? There’s no kind of board for licensing what you guys do.

Duarte: No, no. But we are not [restricted]. We have social media, a lot of followers, and we put up everything we do. It is public so everyone can see what we are doing, if we have an exhibition, or if we come here to do tattoos. Everything we do, we are really transparent. So if [the authorities] don’t want to recognize us… But at least we don’t have any problems at the moment.

Thornburgh: Right. And this is not the only activity in Cuba that is done publicly and known widely, and yet doesn’t really have an official space. There seem to be a number of those kinds of activities. I remember talking to [musician] X Alfonso about the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, and how that started—also, very much in a gray area. It’s how you guys get shit done. It’s just, do it, and kind of see where it goes, right?

Duarte: And for sure, a lot of people will come today and will talk about that. And they will see that we are doing something good. And that is a good way to do this kind activity here in Cuba. If we do it in an artistic way that’s not just about business, it will be fine.

The first thing about La Marca is that we don’t copy anything. We don’t work with a reference that customers bring. We draw everything, we create everything. And that way, it will always be a Cuban tattoo style.

Thornburgh: How would you describe the style? Is there an indigenous Cuban tattoo style?

Duarte: I think that we have a lot of references from a lot of tattoo movements internationally. But if the tattoo artists do their style, what they feel, then that’s a Cuban tattoo style. So the first thing about La Marca is that we don’t copy anything. We don’t work with a reference that the customers bring. So we draw everything, we create everything. And that way, it will always be a Cuban tattoo style. That’s what we defend.

Thornburgh: That word, to defend the Cuban style. That’s one way that should do it. Are there visual reference points? Is the color palette different?

Duarte: Yes, we use really bright colors. We do that without thinking about it, the artists are just doing what they feel.

Thornburgh: One of the things that I saw from some of the work in La Marca felt like there was almost like a brutalist style, a really muscular style of portraits that reminded me of old Soviet posters or something that you would find in the Eastern Bloc somewhere. Is there something from the Cuban propaganda styles or visual styles that influences artists?

Duarte: Oh, for sure. One of our artists is Roberto Ramos, he’s our designer and does all the style that represents La Marca and our art—the design of the shop, the identity, our logo—and he was certainly influenced by that style.

Thornburgh: So Roberto Ramos is somebody who you’ve brought into La Marca to do tattoos, but he had a designer career?

Duarte: He is a designer, and in the beginning he was a tattoo artist, and he only does stick-and-poke today. A lot of people wait to get inked by him. He’s really unique, what he does.

Thornburgh: How do you deal with one of the biggest problems I think for Cubans, which is…

Duarte: The supplies.

Thornburgh: How do you get them? What are the challenges for you?

Duarte: We can’t buy anything from here. We don’t have a shipping system. We need to travel and buy everything and bring it here, and we can’t do that in big quantities. We need to buy what we need for a short time and bring that in, because in Cuba, you can’t buy anything for tattoos, or get it cheaply—nothing.

Thornburgh: So it’s like a mule system?

Duarte: No. All our artists can travel, and many get [residencies] in tattoo shops around the world, and go to conventions that are a really good opportunity to buy good supplies, and that way, we make it work.

Thornburgh: The other issue is pricing. Cuba still has a difficult time. There are so many amazing things here, but they’re really available more to me, as a foreigner, or to the Cubans who have access to hard currency. How do you deal with pricing and making this accessible for all?

Duarte: Our prices are not cheap, because a tattoo is not a necessity. If you want a good tattoo that lasts forever, from a healthy place, that is not cheap. We can’t do cheap, with all the supplies we need to bring in from elsewhere, and all the measures we have to take to ensure a good job, and to ensure the safety of the customer. There are a lot of foreigners that come and get tattoos with us, but a lot of Cubans too, because people are learning about the importance of choosing a good place, with all the conditions the artists need to do safe work.

Thornburgh: Where you would like to see tattooing go in Cuba and what do you think it can become?

Duarte: For sure, we want to see some recognition from [Cuban] cultural institutions for tattoo artist, like all other talented artists in Cuba. Cuba has always recognized good artists, and has a rich art culture, and we would like tattoos to be part of this movement, the cultural movement.

You can listen to the full episode of The Trip Podcast Episode 104 with Ailed Duarte here

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