Last summer, Cuban government officials swept through Havana’s tattoo establishments, shutting down tattooers permanently and confiscating their equipment. However, La Marca Body Art Gallery and Tattoo Studio, located in the historic district of Old Havana, was left intact. Owner and artist, Leo Canosa and his crew waited for weeks with documents ready until it was their turn to either show proof that they had the right to tattoo or close up shop, but that time never came.
“We do not know what [the raids] were due to. Maybe there were health concerns or an interest to put a stop to these activities in the absence of laws that would permit its legitimacy,” Canosa told us. “We do not know for sure why they never bothered us. Although, we believe it was due to our professional standards, the recognition that we have as artists, and for all of the cultural work we undertake and promote.”
La Marca—Spanish for “The Mark”—opened its doors in January 2015 to formally and legally adorn skins on the island. It is considered an alternative cultural institution that blends the art of tattooing with other art forms—such as theatre, dance, literature, graphic design, and music—with a focus on community outreach, cultural development and gender equality. The gallery showcases bi-monthly exhibitions from new artists, as well as host concerts and creative workshops aimed for children and specialists alike. Aside from offering their space to the community, La Marca’s staff often participates in events and cultural projects organized by other private and governmental institutions as well, and its team volunteers by offering up their art skills.
Starting out in tattooing is rough for Cuban artists—working with unsophisticated and unprofessional materials, bartering with tourists in exchange for tattoo work, paying people that travel abroad to bring back tattoo equipment, and picking up tidbits of information from magazines and videos that are shared among the artists. La Marca’s staff, however, is today fortunate enough to be able to travel abroad to purchase the materials needed to tattoo the proper way.
“For us, the road has been long and difficult. I have been fortunate within the last ten years to have attended international tattoo events, and I was able to meet and exchange with artists from other countries,” Canosa stated. “I have received the support and help from a great Dutch-Canadian teacher, designer, painter, and tattooist, John Van’t Hullenaar, also known as ‘The Dutchman.’ He is responsible for changing the course of my work to be more conceptual.”
La Marca’s team, headed by Canosa—who has two decades of experience in tattooing—includes tattoo artists and a graphic designer.
Mauro Coca has been part of La Marca’s team since they opened for business. Even though he is only in his early 20s, he already has almost a decade slinging ink. Coca first tried his hand at tattooing at the age of 15. Today, with experience in nearly every style of tattooing, the versatile artist is always willing to work with clients to help them get the best custom tattoo imaginable.
Another artist who has been with La Marca since day one is David Pérez. He studied fine arts in the Academy of Art San Alejandro, the oldest and most prestigious fine arts school in Havana, and he then continued at the University of Arts of Cuba. After graduating, tattooing piqued his interest, and he dove right in. After almost five years of tattooing, Pérez prefers to do black and grey pieces in traditional and tribal styles. Thanks to his art background, he is also able to draw up something unique and tailored just for you.
Rounding out the team is designer and visual artist, Robertiko Ramos, whose work includes illustration, costume design, interior design, poster and web design, and tattooing the traditional way, without electronic machines. Ramos first delved into tattoos 20 years ago, often alternating it with his Design and Communication studies at the University of Havana. With La Marca, he rediscovered the art while developing the branding for the studio, designing its interior and then creating custom flash with his own style. As the curator at La Marca, Ramos avidly links the art of tattoo with other forms of art, utilizing the gallery space to propel the works of young artists and create community outreach projects, all the while advancing the Cuban tattoo culture.
With tattooing progressively becoming more acceptable by a large part of Cuban society, coupled with the recent changes in relations between the Cuban and U.S. governments, Canosa feels hopeful that the Cuban tattoo culture will one day be officially recognized and valued like any other art form in the country, and that it will reach other parts of the world.
“We hope that in the near future we can function in the same way that the rest of the tattooist in the world do, where we can buy our material online and receive them in Cuba, and pay for a booth in conventions, and share our work via the Internet like any other tattoo studio. I believe if we continue to work hard, improve the artistic quality, and we educate about the necessary sanitary procedures, soon tattoos will be considered like another artistic expression,” Canosa expressed, adding, “That’s what we are working toward at La Marca—it’s our main objective.”
La Marca Body Art Gallery and Tattoo Studio
108-C Obrapía St. (between Oficios St. and Mercaderes St.)
Old Havana, Havana, Cuba 10100
Phone: (53)7 863 8026