An eclectic group of Cuban women brandishing tattoos have emerged from the shadows on the insular, communist island, pushing the boundaries of a legal vacuum and using the internet to promote an ancient art that has only recently become commonplace again in the world. Cuba.
The nearly 200-member women’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 considered taboo in Cuba for decades, especially among women.
While tattoos per se are not illegal in Cuba, the island’s traditional “machista” culture has long stagnated the practice, largely relegating it to sailors, prostitutes and prisoners.
“I was so self-conscious. I felt like I couldn’t express myself,” said Marian Leyva, one of the founders of the group. She thanks the group for helping her regain her self-esteem.
“For me it was like being born again. You should not be discriminated against for having your skin tattooed.”
The overt activism of Erias’ members is not without risk. The Cuban government maintains a list of approved private sector professions, and “tattoo” is not among them. Although the practice is not explicitly prohibited either, the legal uncertainty has meant that the art has to remain in the shadows for a long time.
But increasing internet access – which only recently became commonplace on the island – and cultural exchange through the island’s tourist industry have increasingly exposed the population to practices such as tattoo art so common elsewhere.
As a result, the women of Erias say that body art is no longer considered taboo.
Ariam Arrieta, the photographer and co-founder of Erias, credits the burgeoning group by providing security in numbers for its members, who are increasingly comfortable expressing themselves.
“Unlike three years ago, today we can say that women are tattooed on a daily basis here,” Arrieta told Reuters during a photo session in Havana.
The rise of tattoos on the island of 11 million people comes as Cuba holds a family law in a public referendum seeking to liberalize the rights of the LGBTQ community and strengthen laws protecting the rights of women and children.
Tattoo artist Amanda Santana said the lingering legal vacuum is no longer the barrier it once was, as the internet offers new ways of advertising and helps spread the group’s acceptance message.
“It’s not legal, but it’s not illegal (…),” 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 my clients online,” she says.
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