Cuba's socialist government only allows about 120 types of private-sector business. These include restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and art galleries. However, tattoo shops do not make the list.
While it’s against the law, it is still going on. But, because of the ban, it is being done in a primitive way and often unsanitary, explained James Langner, a general manager of the eight Atomic Tattoos parlors in Hillsborough County, Florida.
This is why Tampa tattoo artists are coming together to help Cuban artists.
"There are sort-of tattoo shops," Langer said, "They are down back allies through side doors that need a triple knock and a handshake."
Amigo Tattoo, a nonprofit organization established by Langner and Atomic Tattoos, bring Cuban artists supplies, such as medical gloves; rubbing alcohol; and classes on sanitary practices.
Amigo Tattoo has held two tattoo seminars in Havana so far, and attendance averages nearly 300. These courses cover everything from sterilization to advanced art drawing.
This support is extremely important because in this type of environment, Cuba is tattooing its residents jailhouse style.
Langer said artists typically fuse hypodermic needles together and use parts from random machines to make their own tattoo guns.
Amigo Tattoo is looking for donations to help finance the work, by sponsoring the Viva Cuba Libre Art Auction and Fundraiser in Ybor City. Local art will be auctioned and proceeds of drink specials will be donated to Amigo Tattoo.
"Their talent is insane," Langner said. "They take ballpoint pens and 8-by-11 graph paper and sketch Picasso-like art. If they had the right supplies, those guys would be doing some great work."
To further pull on your heartstrings, Amigo Tattoo also brings along paints, brushes and other various art supplies, as well as supplies for basic living, like toothpaste and toothbrushes.
10 to 20 Amigo Tattoo representatives pack 50-pound bags to give out to the Cuban people.
"Whatever we can collect, we bring," Langner said.
"They are bringing to Cuba their art, culture and experience," said Brian Schaefer, owner of the venue the fundraiser will be held. "It is important to promote this art form in Cuba, even if it is illegal."
However, Langer has met police officers and politicians with tattoos. Whether the Cuban government likes it or not, the citizens are, have been, and will be continuing to get ink.
The inspiration for Amigo Tattoo came from a Miami-based nonprofit that supports the Cuban skateboarding industry, called Amigo Skate. Skateboarding is allowed in Cuba but there are no skate shops. Similar to Amigo Tattoo, Amigo Skate brings “decks, wheels and other supplies to the island at least once a year.”
As tattoos and skating go hand in hand, for Langer, Amigo Tattoo was a no brainer.
The nonprofit's next trip will be in December, and will be its first solo undertaking. Amigo Tattoo hopes to offer seminars more than once a year.
"We've had people hitchhike halfway across the country to come,” Langer said. “It took them two weeks. That's how excited they were.”
To read more about Amigo Tattoo, and show some support and love for the work they do, visit their site.
“Amigo Tattoo is dedicated to supporting tattoo artists in Cuba and assisting them in improving the conditions for tattooing in Cuba,” as their mission statement says. “Their struggle is our struggle.”