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Cuban women emerge from shadows to promote body art once seen as taboo

While tattoos themselves are not illegal in Cuba, the island's traditional "machista" culture has long stygmatized the practice, relegating it largely to seamen, prostitutes and prisoners.

tattoo, body art, cuba tattooWomen with tattoos gather in Havana. (REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli)

An eclectic group of Cuban women brandishing tattoos has emerged from the shadows on the insular, communist-run island, pushing the boundaries of a legal vacuum and leveraging the internet to promote an ancient art that has only recently become common again in Cuba.

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The nearly 200-member woman’s association, called Erias, was founded in July 2021, and is the first to actively and openly promote body art on the island, a practice for decades considered taboo in Cuba, especially among women.

While tattoos themselves are not illegal in Cuba, the island’s traditional “machista” culture has long stygmatized the practice, relegating it largely to seamen, prostitutes and prisoners.

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tattoo, body art, cuba tattoo Beatriz Fernandez Tapanes displays her tattoos as she poses for a picture in her house in Havana. (REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli)

“I was so self-conscious. I felt like I couldn’t express myself,” said Marian Leyva, one of the group’s founding members. She credits the group with helping her regain her own self-esteem.

“It was like being born again for me. You should not be discriminated against for having your skin tattooed.

“The open activism of Erias’ members is not without risk. Cuba’s government maintains a list of approved, private-sector trades, and “tattoo artist” is not among them. Though the practice is not explicitly outlawed either, the legal limbo has long forced the art to remain in the shadows.

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But growing access to the internet – which only recently became commonplace on the island, as well as cultural exchange through the island’s tourism industry have increasingly exposed the population to practices like tattoo art so common elsewhere.

tattoo, body art, cuba tattoo Lili Aguero, 19, tattoos Linda Kelly Gonzales Leyva, 23, during a photo shoot in Havana. (REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli)

As a result, the women of Erias say body art is no longer viewed as taboo.

Ariam Arrieta, the photographer and co-founder of Erias credits the fast-growing group with providing safety in numbers for its members, who increasingly feel comfortable expressing
themselves.

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“Unlike just three years ago, today we can say that women are getting tattooed here on a daily basis,” Arrieta told Reuters amid a photo session in Havana.

The rise of tattoos on the island of 11 million comes as Cuba puts to public referendum a family code that seeks to liberalize the rights of the LGBTQ community and beef up laws protecting the rights of women and children.

tattoo, body art, cuba tattoo Growing access to the internet as well as cultural exchange through the island’s tourism industry have increasingly exposed the population to practices like tattoo art so common elsewhere. (REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli)

Tattoo artist Amanda Santana said the lingering legal vacuum is no longer the barrier it once was, as the internet offers new modes of advertising and helps spread the group’s message of
acceptance.

“It is not legal but it is not illegal either (…),” tattoo artist Santana told Reuters as she began work on a tattoo. “All tattoo artists use the internet to promote ourselves. I have my Instagram page, contact with my clients online,” she said.

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First published on: 07-03-2022 at 12:00 IST
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