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.