Tatto Artists in Oaxaca, Mexico by Alvin Starkman

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 tattoos (tatuajes) and body piercing (perforación) 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 would only have an opportunity to actually see real live people
with tattoos and body piercings when he would catch a glimpse of mainly North American and European tourists walking the streets of downtown Oaxaca, a Mecca for international tourism.
The modern tradition of tattoos and body piercings had been established in countries such as Canada, the US, Spain and Britain, long before it arrived in Mexico. Like 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 pan American 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 which opened up southern Mexico to the concept of North American and European counter-cultures, 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 Oaxacan youth culture were becoming critical thinkers through higher education, therefore, better able to make informed decisions, stand up for themselves, and celebrate themselves.


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 US 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.”
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 Angélica (Angy) de la Mora, were in the shop working and otherwise serving customers, while for part of the time Kai was out running errands.


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. As distinct from Angy and Kai, most tatuadores in Mexico do not have advanced training for other career paths options.


Tuna and Angy had come to Oaxaca to participate in the twelfth annual Tattoo Fest, held on August 21 & 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 thirty booths, about a dozen of which were dedicated to doing tattoos. In the course of a one-hour visit on Sunday, 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 to not only 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-u-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, and entertain tattoo and piercing collectors, aficionados, and the curious, all under one roof, the Salón 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: First, the colecionista who usually ends up filling most parts of his or her body; Second, the aficionado who wants a few tattoos strategically placed on select body parts; and Third the casual individual who desires one or two tattoos for self-expression or to make some kind of statement.


I 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 real barbecued hamburgers; Panel discussions and forums with themes including methods for advancing the reputation of this altern ative art form in Oaxaca; discussions of health and safety concerns through the adoption of US-style norms.



Health & Safety Issues a Concern of the Body Piercing & Tattoo Trade in
Oaxaca, Mexico

The tatuadores at Tattoo Fest, and more particularly Kai, Tuna and Angy, made a point of indicating that most in the industry follow US 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 all tatuadores are sensitive to the clout carried by the authorities, even without specific laws relating to tattooing and body piercing. The threat or perceived threat of incarceration perhaps serves a positive function in the tattoo and body piercing milieu.


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 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, painting 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 – 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 tatuadores will do a tattoo for 150 – 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 – 1,500 pesos per session, which can result in a fairly substantial, detailed, color image. Tuna will do a full back for 10,000 – 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. “We can all use more business, but it’s a skilled trade which we want to elevate in terms of its reputation, so we must all strive to standards, as well as our personal integrity;” Kai asserts.


Customers in their twenties make up the largest age group. Otherwise, occasionally a teen comes in with a parent, perhaps 20% 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 US 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.