Cuba bans tattoo parlors so getting one carries health risks. Tampa artists to the rescue.

"It is illegal, but everyone is doing it," said James Langner, 41, general manager of the eight Atomic Tattoos parlors in Hillsborough County. "It is being done in a real primitive way."
Published November 13 2018
Updated November 13 2018

Skin art is now on prominent display in Cuba, from the streets of Havana to the island's rural areas.

But tattoo parlors are against the law in the socialist nation.

"It is illegal, but everyone is doing it," said James Langner, 41, general manager of the eight Atomic Tattoos parlors in Hillsborough County. "It is being done in a real primitive way. That means it is not always sanitary."

To the rescue comes the nonprofit Amigo Tattoo, established by Langner and Atomic Tattoos to deliver Cuban artists supplies like medical gloves and rubbing alcohol as well as classes on sanitary practices.

Amigo Tattoo is looking outward to help finance the work, sponsoring the Viva Cuba Libre Art Auction and Fundraiser 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday at The Bricks, 1327 E. Seventh Ave. in Ybor City. Local art will be auctioned and proceeds of drink specials will be donated to Amigo Tattoo.

Art created by the Cubans they met in their travels there will also be on display.

"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."

Amigo Tattoo also brings along paints, brushes and other supplies for use in art beyond tattoos, plus basic supplies like toothpaste and toothbrushes that are in high demand.

"Ten to 20 of us pack a bag of up to 50 pounds and give it all out to the people," Langner said. "Whatever we can collect, we bring."

Still, inking skin will be the focus when Amigo Tattoo returns to Havana Dec. 6-9.

The group has held two tattoo seminars in Havana so far, Langner said, and attendance averages nearly 300.

"They are bringing to Cuba their art, culture and experience," said Brian Schaefer, owner of The Bricks. "It is important to promote this art form in Cuba, even if it is illegal."

Cuba's socialist government permits only about 120 types of private-sector business, such as restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and art galleries.

Tattoo shops are not on the list.

"There are sort-of tattoo shops," Langer said, "They are down back allies through side doors that need a triple knock and a handshake."

But Langer says he's met police officers and politicians with tattoos. Whether the Cuban government likes it or not, its citizens are getting inked, he said, "and the talent there is great."

This speakeasy-like culture has its drawbacks. Langer has met tattoo artists who solder together hypodermic needles and use parts from random machines to make their own tattoo guns.

"That's what we call jailhouse style," Langer said.

Amigo Tattoo doesn't dare break the law by delivering tattoo equipment or demonstrations in their techniques. So they settle for the next best thing.

"We do four or five instructional classes," Langer said. "Courses like sterilization, advanced art drawing, stuff like that."

The inspiration for Amigo Tattoo came from Amigo Skate, a Miami-based non-profit that supports the Cuban skateboarding industry. Skateboarding is allowed in Cuba but there are no skate shops, so the organization brings decks, wheels and other supplies to the island at least once a year.

"Tattoos and skating go hand in hand," Langer said.

Amigo Tattoo's first two seminars on the island were held in conjunction with Amigo Skate. The nonprofit's trip there in December will be its first solo undertaking and it hopes to offer seminars more than once a year.

"We've had people hitchhike halfway across the country to come. It took them two weeks. That's how excited they were."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or follow @PGuzzoTimes.