Nothing comes easy in Cuba. Because of a U.S.-imposed trade embargo of more than 50 years, locating everything from car parts to computer components is nearly impossible. Tattoo supplies are no different. Ink and needles are impossible to find. Autoclaves are virtually illegal. Gloves have to be used and reused. For the tattoo artists operating in Cuba, every day is spent wondering where your supplies will come from or, even worse, when the police will show up to shut you down.
Recently, a group of skateboard industry veterans (including this writer) banded together to bring over 200 skateboards to Cuba after seeing online footage of kids struggling to skate in Havana. Once we arrived, we wished we had brought tattoo gear as well.One of the recipients would no doubt have been the unofficial leader of the Cuban skate scene, 36-year-old Che Alejandro Pando Napoles (Che, for short). This interview with Che, one of the most renowned tattoo artists in Havana, is just a glimpse into the difficulties an artist faces when closed off from the rest of the world.
INKED: How long have you been tattooing?
CHE: For 16 years. I was surfing at the time with a bunch of guys and everybody started getting tattoos by this guy named Avalio who was poking by hand. The designs were not prison gang tattoos—it was more artistic. I sold a bunch of stuff so I could get tattooed by him. Then I started learning by tattooing myself.
Did he show you how?
I guessed by looking and asking a bunch of questions, and then I tried tattooing a bunch of friends.
Is tattooing legal in Cuba?
We are in a gray area. We don’t pay taxes, but they could shut it down if they want. But what we are trying to do is learn more, do more art exhibitions, work with painters and people who are into the system. It’s important that you get a little bit of support from important people or they can crush your business.
Is that why you tattoo out of your house?
Yeah—every tattoo artist in Cuba has to tattoo in their house. You cannot open up a studio. You can’t rent a place like in the States. You can’t do that.
Are there a lot of tattoo artists?
Yeah, there are a bunch of them. They’re really good guys. There is a guy doing amazing work that works with Dutchman Tattoo in Canada from time to time. His name is Lao.
What’s your style?
I like to do cartoony stuff. Funny stuff.
What was your first tattoo?
It was a couple of women with a squid. That was by hand. Never retouched it. I don’t like to retouch my tattoos.
How do you sterilize equipment here in your house?
We always try to do as much sterilization as we can. I wash everything with a lot of soap and water and then put it in a liquid sterilizer. Then we put it in a pressure cooker. That way, you go through the process two times—with liquid and with steam. Then you can use it. We try to use new gloves all the time and needles all the time. If we don’t get the tattooing needles we could use acupuncture needles; someone gets them in the hospital and sells them to you. Stuff like that. Black market.
How hard is it to get actual tattoo needles?
Hard. Almost impossible. It is the same with everything. You need something for your computer? You’re gonna have a hard time. Skateboarding is the same. Everything is the same.
You have several tattoo machines. Did you make them yourself?
When you’ve been tattooing as many years as me, you get to know people and the people want to help and they bring you stuff. There’s also a bunch of people here that already learned the mechanics about making machines, so they’re making their own.What about an autoclave?
The autoclave you can’t get. If someone came to your place and sold you an autoclave that was stolen or broken in the hospital and they’re throwing it away and this guy got it, fixed it, and wanted to sell it to you, since they didn’t have any papers the police could show up at your place. You could end up spending three years in jail if you bought something that is stolen. The other thing is that you can’t get the parts. It’s not like the States where if something is damaged you might throw it away. Here we have to fix everything and often make our own parts in metal shops.
How many times have the police been here?
A couple of times, asking about me. But since I’ve been working with artists since ’96, making exhibitions and art expos—and I try to behave myself in the neighborhoods—I didn’t get in any trouble.
We haven’t seen a lot of people with tattoos here.
But a bunch of people have them! Police officers, people in the government, women, old men—everyone is getting tattooed right now. The people are changing mentally. It’s better than Spain. In Spain, when you’re walking through the streets the people look at you like you’re a gangster or from the mafia. It’s not like that here. It’s changing right now.
Was it like that at one point?
In the beginning, you’d get stopped on every corner. Police officers would see you and say, “You been in jail?” No, man. But now it’s changing. There are a couple of dinosaurs that didn’t evolve and those are the motherfuckers that give you a hard time. And actually, that’s the people in the government.
You’re tattooed, you skateboard, and you’re named Che. Do you get any adverse reactions from people just because of the name?
No, people actually like the guy. I don’t give a fuck about him because I really know what’s going on with those guys. I used to skate with his grandson. The guy is a punk. He would skate with us all the time. We’d get in trouble and they’d throw us in the police station for hours and he would get out like nothing. As soon as they find out, “Ah, you are this guy? Okay, you can go. But Che, you are gonna stay.”
You were recently in Barcelona.
Three months. I went to Barcelona for a tattoo convention. That’s the first time a tattoo artist from here could travel just for a convention.
Did you consider staying in Spain?
Yeah—I’ve been trying to get the papers done, but it’s hard. If you leave Cuba for three months and you don’t come back in that time, then you can never come back as a Cuban citizen. You can come back as a tourist but in three months they will kick you out of Cuba again. So you can’t stay here. And I have a daughter and my family here, my mother and my house. So I can’t leave it behind. I have a pretty good life for living in Cuba because I do whatever I fucking want.
From what we understand, the Cuban government assigns citizens an occupation. How did you end up a tattoo artist?
It’s not like that. The government doesn’t do that—but you have to work. If you don’t work, you get thrown into jail. If you don’t work and you drink all the time and the police officer sees you, you could go to jail. They’ll tell you, “You have 15 days to get a job or you go to jail.” So I used to be a carpenter, a gardener, I swept the floors in a mechanic’s place—I didn’t mind it. But then tattooing started to blow up and I said, “Okay, I’m gonna try it for five years and hopefully it’s a great five years.” But I’ve always been waiting for the police to knock on my door and take me away and take all my stuff. But 16 years have passed and I’m going to keep going.
What types of people do you get coming into your shop?
All different kinds—journalists, everything. I have a bunch of people from the university coming here to learn because they like tattooing and they wanted to research tattooing for the university.
How do people find you?
You’re tucked away in your house. No sign. Nothing. You can’t put up a sign. People just talk mouth to mouth. It’s better that way. You work in a nice, quiet environment, not too many people around you. I work by myself. I don’t like to be crowded with a bunch of people. At the convention, I was shaking. There were too many people there. I don’t like that kind of stuff.
How do you get ink?
Same way as anything else—praying. To my friends, I’m like, “Man, if you’re coming over here I need reds. I need this brand. It’s a new brand and I think it’s gonna be brighter. Try to help me out. I could pay you if you have the money, or we can exchange it for a tattoo, whatever.”
Has there ever been a point when you were out of ink and couldn’t work?
Yeah. But I will think ahead. You gotta think ahead. There are a lot of tattoo artists in Cuba that are lazy. They don’t think ahead. I always try to ask for more. I don’t like to run out of anything.
How tight is the community of tattoo artists here in Cuba?
Can you borrow ink like you borrow eggs? Yeah, right now it is getting tighter. Back in the day, no one would give you anything because everybody was competing. But right now there’s work for everybody.
What are your rates for a tattoo?
Well, Cuba has the highest prices you could ever see. It’s like living in France without the benefits of the salary. At the store you’d see a TV that’ll cost 250 bucks, and the average person is going to make 10 bucks a month. Sometimes I charge 10 pesos for an hour, but most people do not have that money so I trade for food or whatever they have to trade.
You have tattoo magazines in your shop. Which artists do you like? Who is an inspiration for you?
Anything. I like a bunch of traditional stuff and comic art. This French guy, Dimitri, makes funny stuff. Real funny. You see his tattoos and you laugh like you were watching cartoons. There’s always something funny happening and the colors are bright. I wish I could tattoo like that someday.
Aside from everything else, how difficult is it just getting magazines for reference?
Almost impossible. I tried to get this book for so long and no one could get it for me. Every time I’d ask, no one could get it. It’s a book named Art Class for Tattoo Artists. When you read it, sometimes you already know some of the stuff because you’ve been doing this for so long, but then you learn something that you didn’t even know. When you read it you say, “I’m so stupid! I want to try again!” You learn a little bit. You can learn anything from anybody. Maybe you see a guy that’s been tattooing for one year doing something that’s better than you and you can use it. When you stop learning you become an asshole.