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.