Tattoo artists in Oaxaca: a lawyer and a fine arts graduate make strange bedfellows with tatuadores

articles Culture & Arts

Alvin Starkman

A Voice from Oaxaca
Photo Gallery: Tattoo artists in Oaxaca

Background to tattoos and body piercing in Oaxaca through the eyes of a lawyer

Lawyer Kaireddyn (“Kai”) Orta began fabricating his own, rudimentary tools for making tattoos in 1996, while still in high school here in Oaxaca, Mexico. One day, a neighbor saw him carrying a shoe box, and asked him what was in it. Kai showed him the adapted motor, needles, ink and other paraphernalia. The neighbor was the recipient of Kai’s first tattoo. Kai then began doing tattoos for his schoolmates.

Kai had been interested in tatuajes (tattoos) and perforación (body piercing) since boyhood. It was natural for him, since his father was a history teacher, constantly recounting stories of rituals of Mexico’s indigenous populations. There was no shortage of books around the house with images of pre-Hispanic peoples who were accustomed to self-adornment. Kai ate it up.

But throughout Kai’s youth, seeing tattoos in the flesh was a rarity. Aside from in books and occasionally coming across a tattooed person on TV, he only had an opportunity to actually see real live people with tattoos and body piercings when he would catch a glimpse of tourists — mainly North American and European tourists — in downtown Oaxaca, a Mecca for international tourism.

The modern tradition of tattoos and body piercings had been established in countries such as Canada, the U.S., Spain and Britain, long before it arrived in Mexico. As with so many representations of emerging subcultures, it takes upwards of a decade for them to catch on in Mexico, especially in the more isolated and conservative regions of the country, like Oaxaca.

The state of Oaxaca was by and large physically isolated from the northern half of the country, and indeed the broader world, until the arrival of the Panamerican highway in the late 1940s. While the odd adventurer would make his way down to Oaxaca between then and the early 1960s, it was the hippie movement later that decade and into the early 1970s that opened up southern Mexico to the concept of North American and European countercultures, including tattoos, and then body piercing. However the prevailing sentiment of the Mexican middle classes was that their children should be insulated from foreign youth, and all that its subculture stood for.

Leap forward to the 1990s. Change would begin to emerge in Oaxaca. Tattoos, body piercings and other non-traditional forms of self-expression had begun to be perceived as mainstream throughout the Western World. The silver screen and magazines promoting its pierced and tattooed stars had become commonplace. Oaxaca had to take notice. And that included its older generation, which was then forced to recognize — if not accept — that the ritualized behavior of their grandchildren (and to a much lesser extent, their children) could no longer be equated with something devious, dirty and wrong, simply as a consequence of changing their physical appearance through piercing and painting their bodies, permanently. Many in the Oaxaca youth culture were becoming critical thinkers through higher education, therefore better able to make informed decisions, stand up for them, and celebrate them.

Kai is thirty years old. Practicing law wasn’t for him. By the time he had graduated and had a taste of the working world of attorneys (less than a year), he had already become an established tattoo and body piercing artist, with his own studio, albeit quite smaller than his current digs. And besides, most lawyers in Oaxaca do not earn the level of income that provides for a middle class lifestyle, at least by Western standards.

Kai’s current storefront on Calle Crespo, in the heart of downtown Oaxaca, consists of:

  • The reception area with long desk and computer, tropical fish filled aquariums, display cases with mainly jewelry relating to body piercings, wooden African floor sculptures and masks (as well as a few Mexican masks), a bookcase filled with albums containing drawings and photographs of mainly tattoos, and two comfortable sofas where customers can browse through the “catalogues” at their leisure
  • A similarly adorned middle room with supply cases by now of course filled with modern, commercial equipment and supplies, and a small adjoining workroom
  • The back room, with chairs and “operating” table, for attending to tattoos and body piercings

“Here in Oaxaca we don’t refer to ourselves as ‘artistas,’” Kai explains. “In the United States, there’s much greater acceptance of the art form and those who are dedicated to the skill, so in the U.S. and other countries such as Canada, it’s acceptable to use the term ‘tattoo artist.’ But in Oaxaca we just refer to ourselves as tatuadores.

Kai and colleagues participate in 12th Annual Tattoo Fest in Oaxaca

During the course of a 3 ½ hour interview at Kai’s studio, his friends and fellow tatuadores from Mexico City, Daniel (Tuna) Larios and his girlfriend Angelica (Angy) de la Mora, were in the shop working and otherwise serving customers, while Kai was out running errands for part of the time.

Tuna has been a tatuador for 12 years while Angy began doing tattoos only a year ago, when she began living with Tuna. Together they opened up a shop in the nation’s capital. Before then, Tuna had been doing tattoos for customers at other studios. He was introduced to the trade from having had his body tattooed. Angy learned the skill from Tuna.

But for Angy, learning to be a tatuadora was a natural extension. She already held a degree in fine arts from a university in Chihuahua, and had participated in several collective traditional art exhibits. “But it’s easier to make a living doing tattoos than as an artist,” Angy concedes. But unlike Angy and Kai, most tatuadores in Mexico do not have advanced training for other career path options.

Tuna and Angy had come to Oaxaca to participate in the 12th annual Tattoo Fest, held on August 21 and 22, 2010, a couple of days earlier. Kai is one of three festival organizers, and was on the ground floor of the concept when the first fest was held back in 1998.

“Until this year the event was called Expo Tatuaje,” Kai clarifies. “We decided to change the name with a view to attracting more foreigners. But back in the early years, we held the exposition so that we could meet to exchange ideas, improve access to modern equipment and supplies, and raise the level of consciousness of the Oaxacan community, so that hopefully there would be a greater acceptance of what we were doing. Now the purposes and functions of the event are much broader, since we are well on our way to achieving our earlier goals.”

The success of Oaxaca’s Tattoo Fest 2010 was evident from the crowds (hundreds by all estimates) and sales. Tuna and Angy between them did 11 tattoos over the two-day period. “I’ve been coming to the fair for the past four or five years,” Tuna explains, “but this is the first year I can actually say that it was worth my while, profit-wise, to come to Oaxaca. You know I had to close my shop in Mexico City to come here. I think this show has finally turned a corner.”

This year there were approximately 30 booths, about a dozen of which were dedicated to doing tattoos. In the course of a one-hour visit on the Sunday, during that entire time each and every tatuador was kept busy working — and in many cases there were onlookers in queue awaiting their turn.

Many vendors had come from other parts of Mexico to participate. They converged on Oaxaca not only to do tattoos and piercings, but to also sell a broad diversity of related materials including:

  • Tattooing and body piercing equipment, supplies and other paraphernalia
  • CDs, DVDs and posters all with alternative themes (both Bob Marley and Alice Cooper live on in Oaxaca)
  • Body piercing and other personal adornments, wrestling masks, and clothing, custom-painted while-you-wait

The event was much more than a sales opportunity for retailers, however. It provided a chance for those in the business to promote their industry, source state-of-the-art and otherwise imported equipment and supplies (since many tatuadores don’t get to Mexico City very often, and most imported machinery, needles and paints arrive initially in Mexico City), and entertain tattoo and piercing collectors, aficionados, and the curious, all under one roof, the Salon Señorial located across from Oaxaca’s renowned Abastos Market.

As Kai contends, there appears to be three classes of people in Oaxaca, and presumably in other countries, who get tattoos:

” The colecionista who usually ends up filling most parts of his or her body, attempting to adorn with as broad a diversity of designs as possible, or with a particular class of design or artistry (i.e. demons, pre-Hispanic figures, animals, famous faces), often seeking to get the work done by several different top tatuadores from various states and countries if possible ” The aficionado who wants a few tattoos strategically placed on select body parts ” The casual individual who desires one or two tattoos for self-expression or to make some kind of statement, having seen a tattoo he or she likes, whether on a celebrity, friend or stranger on the street, or electing to do a specific design; a tattoo of the logo of one’s favorite sports team exemplifies this type work

It’s not unlike other hobbies and interests. Human nature remains the same. The first category represents an obsession with collecting, just with antiques, salt and pepper shakers, folk art, weigh scales, and so on. The second is an enthusiast who imposes boundaries, either by design or subconsciously based on personality trait. The third does only selective thinking about it, whatever the product, holding some interest, often fleeting but long enough to result in a purchase or two.

In the course of the two day celebration of all that is still somewhat considered counter-culture in Oaxaca, there was:

  • Live entertainment including seven predominantly rock and reggae bands, as well as belly dancers and other forms of choreographed performances
  • An outdoor makeshift restaurant serving beer, soft drinks, and hamburgers
  • Panel discussions and forums with themes including methods for advancing the reputation of this alternative art form in Oaxaca, and dealing with allaying health and safety concerns through the adoption of U.S.-style norms

Health and safety issues

Throughout the U.S., there are health and safety regulations relating to tattooing and body piercing; not so in Oaxaca, though it’s a hot topic throughout the Mexican tattoo and body piercing community.

The word “normas” is constantly being bandied about. The tatuadores at Tattoo Fest and — more particularly — Kai, Tuna and Angy, made a point of indicating that most in the industry follow U.S. norms for health, safety and hygiene. According to Tuna, the United Kingdom has the strictest, all-encompassing laws relating to tattooing and body piercing, which he views as a good thing.

It appears that virtually alltatuadores are sensitive to the clout carried by the authorities, even without specific laws relating to tattooing and body piercing. In Oaxaca it’s the Secretaria de Salud (ministry of health) which does in fact conduct spot checks of studios, much the same as it does of restaurants in Oaxaca. It has the ability to shut down a restaurant, eatery or comedor, on the spot. And the same holds true for a tattoo studio.

The threat or perceived threat of incarceration perhaps serves a positive function in the tattoo and body piercing milieu.

While Oaxaca’s inquisitorial, Napoleonic legal code is slowly changing (oral trials arrived in the state of Oaxaca in 2007, albeit for only the most heinous criminal offences), the attorney general’s office still has the right to jail alleged offenders of virtually any rule, law or regulation, where a personal injury has resulted. Without specific laws relating to tattooing and body piercing, perhaps Oaxaca’s current legal system — as high-handed as it might appear — serves an important function for the tattoo-buying public. Certainly it appears to keep those in the industry in check.

“We won’t work on a minor, plain and simple, without parental authorization,” Tuna stresses. “And in fact, rather than relying on written permission from a parent, for me, I personally want the father right there in my studio when I’m working on his son or daughter.”

Having been trained as a lawyer, Kai has a special appreciation for the implications of not ensuring a clean, safe work environment in his studio, and following health, safety and hygiene procedures established in other jurisdictions, “to the tee:” packaged needles; equipment kept under wrap; gloves and masks; first aid, fire and related health, hygiene and safety equipment close at hand; a “surgical” workspace segregated from the retail portion of the shop; etc. The back of his business card lists steps that should be taken by recipients of tattoos from the moment they leave the studio, to reduce and hopefully eliminate the risk of infection or other complication. Other tatuadores hand out leaflets listing the same or similar precautions that should be observed.

According to Tuna, in Mexico City one can take courses in tattooing and body piercing at a couple of different institutions. But they are for learning the trade, and are not government regulated. Tuna views an inconsistency between government treatment of dental offices and tattoo and piercing studios, and unfairness: “There are a lot of dental offices around which are much less clean than our studios, and whose staff do not follow the most sanitary of practices; and yet the dentists are not subjected to the suspicion and innuendo that we are.” [At least dentists are required to have a minimum level of training regarding matters of health, safety and hygiene.]

Kai, for one, is clearly an expert at his trade. From the outset, dating to his high school days, he would invariably read and otherwise learn before starting to work on someone. He would always work in consultation with a doctor, a relative of the family. The doctor was a most valuable resource for Kai in terms of guiding him through all the appropriate health and hygiene procedures, for every step. Kai has never worked on anyone without approaching the task with a high level of confidence. But, he acknowledges, “you never stop learning.”

The economics of tattoos and body piercing in Oaxaca

Angy is working at the counter, doing a pencil drawing of a 1950s pin-up — with a twist. A young woman had come into the studio the day before, wanting a tattoo on her leg of a vintage pin-up girl, but part of the body to be non-traditional, as in one leg and half the head perhaps with skeletal bone exposed, the rest shapely and feminine; as in a Mexican Catrina, as Angy puts it, “but with a bit of flesh on her body.” The customer is due back today at 4 p.m.

Two men in their twenties come in to look at tattoo samples. They sit down and browse through two albums for about 40 minutes, then arrange for one of them to come back the next day for a fairly large black tattoo of the Pumas Mexican soccer team logo. Then two younger girls come in looking for eyebrow rings or other similar adornments, in the 250 to 300 peso range.

Kai’s studio does a brisk business. He charges a minimum fee of 400 pesos for a simple tattoo, a tribal literally “tribal,” as they’re known, or perhaps a letter. It was the same minimum charge at the Tattoo Fest: “Sure, some tatuadoreswill do a tattoo for 150 to 200 pesos, but most of us prefer to start with prices where we can take our time to do quality work that the customer will definitively appreciate, and therefore want to come back, show off to friends, and so on. I’ve been doing tattoos long enough, and my quality is such that I should command that kind of price, and the customer is more than satisfied.”

Kai and Tuna charge within the same range. They both are happy to work by the job, or per daily session. Kai charges 1,000 to 1,500 pesos per session, which can result in a fairly substantial, detailed, color image. Tuna will do a full back for 10,000 to 15,000 pesos. Each has done large, complex multi-color tattoos for as much as 20,000 pesos. That seems to be the top price in Oaxaca.

There appears to be a desire to reinvest profit into securing a better work environment, and higher end equipment. Regarding the latter, in most cases it’s simply a matter of imported machinery and supplies commanding a higher price, and the fact that the options for Mexican-made equipment and supplies are much more limited. Hence the desire to search abroad for more diverse product lines. “Don’t get me wrong,” Tuna cautions, “there is high quality equipment manufactured here in Mexico, but we lack the range in products, and of course everything imported is perceived as better and therefore fetches a higher price.”

Continuing education also seems to be a priority for tatuadores. A few years ago, Kai traveled to Guadalajara to take an intensive course. According to Angy, sometimes tatuadores will take a brief, area-specific art or drawing course to enable them to keep up with market demand. Most tatuadores do not have training in fine arts, so seizing the opportunity to learn is something to which many aspire. In some cases, rather than turn away a prospective customer for lack of particular expertise, it’s better to invest in learning a new aspect of the trade through training.

It’s rare for a tatuador to turn away business, but it does happen. It’s usually a result of the artist not being able to do quality work based upon the requested design, than finding it repugnant. Perhaps it’s simply that tatuadores do not often encounter someone who wants, for example, a swastika on the forearm. “Usually what happens is someone comes in and wants a small tattoo, of whatever, on a finger or arm, and I know that I cannot do a good job given the requested size, or that after a short period of time the quality will diminish,” Kai admits. “So I suggest something different, something larger or with a different color scheme, or for a different part of the body. Sometimes the customer agrees, sometimes he leaves, and sometimes he insist, in which case I decline the job.”

“We can all use more business, but it’s a skilled trade that we want to elevate in terms of its reputation, so we must all strive to maintain standards, as well as our personal integrity;” Kai asserts.

The main reasons that customers do not return is lack of funds for either additional tattoos or to continue with the same project, or pain. “Different people have different pain thresholds,” Tuna advises. “The sex of the customer sometimes is a determinant of the pain one can expect will be felt, depending on the particular part of the body. Working on the same part of the body can affect men differently than women.” Only 50 percent of Tuna’s work is repeat business.

Kai has a preference in favor of working on men rather than women. Why men? Men tend to want larger tattoos, which translates to more artistic license and a greater ability to produce a true masterpiece. “But don’t get me wrong,” Kai adds defensively, “I love working on women, and do just as high quality work, always.”

Customers in their twenties make up the largest age group. Otherwise, occasionally a teen comes in with a parent, perhaps 20 percent of tattoo-seekers are in their thirties, and a much small percentage comprises an older clientele.

Advice for Americans, Canadians, Europeans and those from further abroad wanting a tattoo in Oaxaca

Tuna admits that in Mexico there are perhaps two high quality tattoo artists per 300 tatuadores, stating that in the U.S., the numbers are very different, two per hundred. It’s difficult to accept his figures, having seen several quality tattoos on the bodies of Oaxacans, and having had an opportunity to speak with many Oaxacan tatuadores and evaluate their dedication to the skill, and their desire to elevate its reputation through self-improvement. Tuna contends: “If someone wants a tattoo that I know another tatuador can do better, I refer him to a colleague. That builds public confidence. For me, I know that in black, I’m at the top of my game.”

The triumvirate of tatuadores is ad idem when it comes to passing along advice for tourists visiting Oaxaca and wanting a tattoo:

  • Don’t rush; spend as long as required with the “tattoo artist,” chatting, looking at his or her designs, and examining the surroundings of the studio
  • Ascertain if the tatuador has a particular specialty, or higher level of competency in one area versus another (i.e. color as opposed to black)
  • Address any health, hygiene and safety concerns, since while the ministry of health does have rules and regulations of general application, and spot checks of tattoo studios are conducted, no specific body exists for policing the tattoo industry
  • Notwithstanding the foregoing, as indicated, the lion’s share of the tatuadores in Oaxaca do follow the American norms, those in the industry wanting to elevate their trade to having a more mainstream perception amongst the Oaxacan populace
  • Look for instructions regarding how to care for a tattoo, starting with the moment after leaving the studio, to reduce and hopefully eliminate the chance of complications — either on a flyer or on the back of a business card
  • Ask questions, questions and more questions until satisfied that both the process and the end result will meet or exceed expectations

Tattoo removal in Mexico

Tuna confirms some obvious reasons for seeking to have a tattoo removed:

  • As required by an employer (i.e. change in job position)
  • For the purpose of attempting to secure employment
  • The individual was very young when he or she received the tattoo, and later had a different attitude toward this type of body adornment
  • The quality of the tattoo was poor or questionable from the outset
  • A change of mind regarding the image or toward body alteration, conceivably later perceived as adulteration

With the modest cost of quality plastic surgery in Oaxaca, tattoo removal in the state proves to be an attractive option for those wishing a return to a tattoo-free existence.

References for tatuadores in Oaxaca & Mexico City, and a Oaxacan plastic surgeon for laser tattoo removal

  • ” Dermografics, Primera Calle de Crespo #106, Centro Histórico, Oaxaca, Oaxaca, cel: 951 119-8642; e: [email protected] (Kaireddyn Orta)
  • ” Toltecan, Eje Central #191, esq. Dr. Duran, Col. Doctores, Mexico City, tel: 55 3126-6558 or 55 3146-9578; e: [email protected] (Daniel Larios & Angélica de la Mora)
  • ” Dr. Filiberto Fajardo, Circuito la Cascada #1|03, Fraccionamiento la Cascada, Oaxaca, Oaxaca, tel: 513-8921 or 515-3715
Published or Updated on: March 1, 2011 by Alvin Starkman © 2011
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