The artist Tamara Santibañez did not invent the fine line, black and gray, West Coast-style of tattooing she's become known for — and she'll be the first to tell you that if you try to give her some sort of credit for its popularity. But as Santibañez, who is Mexican-American, started working in tattoo shops in New York City, she realized the Sailor Jerry-style flash she was learning how to do didn't really speak to her identity. So, she started practicing the style that had originated in the Latinx community around the 1960s and '70s after law enforcement on the West Coast started sending more immigrants to prison, where they didn't have access to colored ink. She began reinterpreting traditional Americana flash by adding Chicanx references into her work. Judging by the over 60K followers @tamarasantibanez has on Instagram, this resonated with plenty of other people too.
Below, Santibañez talks more about how she developed her tattoo style, cultural appropriation in tattooing, her work with justice impacted women, and why she just doesn't have a book of flash for you to pick from.
How did you start tattooing?
I started tattooing sort of on my own, when I was in school for printmaking. I was getting tattooed a little bit in shops, but I was also living in punk houses where I had done some stick and pokes and machine tattoos at home. I ended up buying [a machine]of my own and started trying to figure out tattooing more seriously. I had some support and direction from professional tattoo artists. I didn't really know what I was doing, but I have a lot of punk friends who were down to just get whatever tattoos. They didn't really care if they looked bad and, honestly, probably liked it better that it looked a little bit rough.
I did that for about a year or so, and then I ended up getting offered to go work at [Three Kings Tattoo in Greenpoint, Brooklyn] where I had previously been hired to do a screen printing job in exchange for a tattoo from one of the owners. They had seen some of my printing work and some of my drawings, but then they happened to see a tattoo that I did on a friend of mine. So they called me in to have a meeting with them and basically offered me to go work there on the spot. I started doing tattoos there two days a week during my last semester of college. After I graduated, I started working there full time. I was there for four years before moving over to Saved [Tattoo, in Greenpoint], where I've been for about six years.
How did you develop your personal style of tattooing?
When I first started I was expected to be able to do all different kinds of tattoos, and I think that was really good for me. [The first shop I worked at] really emphasized versatility, which was an older way of looking at what a tattoo artist should be or what function what we should perform. Now it seems like the industry is shifting a little bit more toward specialization and having a really distinctive style that you could be recognized for. I don't totally know how I feel about that yet; part of me recognizes that I benefit greatly from having a distinctive style and I think that's what a lot of us as artists work toward or strive for.
But, there's also that part of me that's like "What if one day nobody wants that anymore?" I need to be able to do strict lettering and portraits too. I also really see the ways that that versatility and that well-roundedness of technical ability makes the work you do even stronger.
Anyways, most of the people that I worked with [at my first job] really liked doing traditional tattooing, whether it was Japanese tattooing, or American traditional. Neither one of those styles particularly resonated with me, even though they're such industry stand-bys and they each have their own history. I wanted to see more black and gray tattooing, which at the time wasn't as common on the East Coast. It was more of a West Coast born and bred style. That was really important to me because it was being practiced mostly by Latinos and by people who were Mexican-American. Feeling a kinship with that origin and seeing a lot of nationalistic imagery that really meant a lot to me as someone who's Mexican-American.
At the same time, a lot of those images — as much as I love them — didn't necessarily include my daily experience as a punk. Punk is kind of like my culture of origin as a teenager, my chosen family. The punk community that I had grown up with, and then that I was around at the time in New York, didn't feel as diverse. The heavy metal scene definitely wasn't diverse; the hardcore scene definitely wasn't diverse. The punk scene in New York has become so much more diverse in recent years which is beautiful and incredible. But at the time [when I was trying to develop my personal tattoo style] I was just feeling my way around, cobbling together bits and pieces of who I was and what I knew, and what was familiar to me, and trying to make that look like a cool tattoo that I would want to wear or that felt like it came from me.
It has been a slow process. It's a slow evolution, and the way that I tattoo is always going to change. But, I love being able to bring that fine line black and gray look to, for example, a tattoo of a woman's face that looks kind of goth or like a little punk. It's all about being able to mix different elements of who I am, what I know, what I see, what I learn about, and trying to make something that feels authentic to me.
A lot of tattoo artists have hard and fast rules about never doing what they would consider appropriative tattooing, but based on your past interviews, it seems like that's a little less black and white for you. [Santibañez told Remezcla: "I don't consider myself the gatekeeper of who does and doesn't deserve to have a particular type of image tattooed on them."] Especially with the style of tattooing you're most known for, are there any conversations about appropriation that happen with your clients?
That's a newer conversation that's happening, and I think there's a huge gap in tattoo practices. Historically, a lot of tattoo flash is really racist. When I first moved to New York, I worked at the counter in this place that was a tattoo piercing head shop in the West Village. They had all this flash on the wall, and some of it was so deeply offensive on just a visceral level. There was some really violent, misogynist tattoo flash that was right across from where I was sitting, and I had to just look at it all day. I remember thinking to myself, If I'm ever a tattoo artist, I would never tattoo anything like that. So maybe I had a sense from early on that there were limitations to what I would do, even before I even thought of learning how to tattoo.
Nowadays, I think a lot of my clients are very self-selecting. A lot of clients come to me because we have a shared identity or because the work I do resonates with them on a personal level. More often than not, we connect over what they want to get tattooed. I'm really happy to be able to provide that for them. If clients come in with a tattoo that's really specific to Mexican culture, for example, and I can immediately recognize what it is, and we can talk about what it means to them and what it's meant to me and connect in that way... I think that can add a really nice level of meaning for somebody.
But on the opposite side of that, there are some very hard limits to the tattoos that I won't do. Definitely no swastikas, no hate symbols, things like that. There are other tattoos that make me personally uncomfortable that I would not feel good about doing. But, I try to have a conversation with the client as to why, rather than giving them a hard "no" or shouting at them in some way. [Tattoo artists] occupy a really special position where people do trust us. We somewhat occupy a position of power and have some sort of position to shape culture. In a lot of ways, I found that if I have a trust and a rapport that I develop with a client — even if we're not on the same page politically or don't have the same shared set of beliefs — we can have an open conversation in a way that I might not be able to with somebody who was a stranger to me because they hopefully trust that I have their best interest at heart.
There have been times that people will come to me and they'll want something, and I think about what it would mean for that person to be wearing that image. I'll ask them some questions. I'll say, "What does this mean to you in particular? Because this is how it's coming across to me, so maybe there's a better way to communicate what it is that you actually want to say." If you don't feel connected to this personally after we've talked through this, what do you feel connected to? What is something that could be more true to you that we could work from instead? For the most part, people are super receptive to that, and we end up having really great conversations, and they end up saying something like, "Wow, I really didn't think of it that way, and I'm glad that you brought that to my attention because I think I would've felt embarrassed if I got my original idea."
If clients come in with a tattoo that's really specific to Mexican culture, for example, and I can immediately recognize what it is, and we can talk about what it means to them and what it's meant to me and connect in that way... I think that can add a really nice level of meaning for somebody.
I'm not here to be a cop. I hope to act as a conduit for conversations. A lot of the time people can come to their own conclusions, and we can really find a common ground that feels good for all of us.
As I've gotten older, I've gotten a lot less pissed off about things. There's a lot to be upset about, and I feel really tired. Truth be told, a lot of it comes from doing prison abolition work, and believing in transformative justice. I have my own boundaries, of course, that are personal to me, but I want to give people every opportunity to learn and to meet them where they're at, and for them to meet me where I'm at and to believe that we can grow together. I want to find a way to minimize conflict and maximize education and growth.
I don't want to take away from anger. Anger is a really positive tool; anger's really necessary. It's a very justified and valid response to a lot of our current conditions. But rather than sit in anger and feel helpless, I try to think about what is in my immediate control, and how to hopefully move that into something actionable.
What are some of your favorite types of tattoo designs to be doing right now?
I'm really into doing large scale work. It's really fun and satisfying on a technical and creative level, plus it also gives me a chance to see regular clients once or twice a month as we work on this tattoo.
Because of how [the tattoo industry] has been changing [to allow for a wider variety of styles], clients are so open to your artistry, and that's kind of taken me a long time to adjust to. I come from doing walk-ins where people would bring in exactly what they wanted you to do. Now, a lot of times people will email and they'll say, "Oh, I'm open, I would just love to just choose from your flash or look through your book of designs." I don't really have a book of designs! I have some designs if you want to look through stuff that I've drawn, but I don't have a huge menu of things to select from because part of the fun for me is the collaborative aspect. It's exciting when people like what I did enough to just get it tattooed on them. But, I also love hearing about what they like and getting their sense of detail or how they would steer the design. I like trying to make it feel like something that they had some involvement in. I'm trying to challenge myself to think in a more pure and open-ended sense. Like [asking myself] if I could tattoo anything, what would it be? And then making drawings from those answers.
There's definitely a shift, at least in my personal experience. When I started getting tattooed about a decade ago, people would mostly ask me, "What does that tattoo mean?" And now more people ask me, "Who does your tattoos?" Do you also see that shift, where clients are seeing their tattoos more as a collection of different artists' work?
I do think people are coming into the shops with a collector mentality a lot of the time. Even if they have a concept, they want to intentionally choose an artist that they think will bring something special or particularly individual to that design, which is very cool. In the same spirit of that, I love revisiting old flash designs or images that have become the standard in the lexicon of tattoo imagery. Like if I feel stuck, I look at old designs even by traditional Americana artists and think, "How could I make my version of this?" Even if I'm redrawing something from Jack Rudy or Phil Sims, who are artists I've looked at a lot throughout my career. It's cool to reflect on what it mean for me as a young, Latinx tattoo artist woman in New York to be drawing a version of this in 2019 and how I'm adding to the image's story.
How is getting a tattoo with you different from getting one from anyone else?
Well, Saved is a really special and unique environment. It has a lot of self-awareness. Everyone that works there is very open and very down to make adjustments or make changes in the way that we do things. It's very collaborative among the artists who work there. The owners, Stephanie [Tamez] and Virginia [Elwood], have been in the tattoo industry for a really long time. But, they're also really open to hearing from the people that work there, as far as what our needs are and what we see that could use improvement.
New people are brought into the shop with a lot of consideration to how it's going to affect the dynamic and what they're going to bring to the table socially as well as with their work. We're trying to make sure the shop is well rounded and diverse, especially with guest artists. Lately, we've been making more of an effort to have younger artists come. We're reaching out to young people who we think are doing really special work in the industry.
I think the shop environment is really important. Saved has a lot of open space. It's really big, so you have a little bit of a sense of personal space. It doesn't feel crowded. Everyone who works there is really friendly. We definitely are mindful of things like the music that's being played or the language that we're using in the shop. I think we've worked hard to make it feel like an inclusive environment in a way that's very useful. So, when clients come in, they see a really wide range of people represented, both in the clientele getting tattooed, but also the people doing the tattooing.
Remezcla recently called you "The Most In-Demand Chicanx Tattoo Artist in Brooklyn" and Complex has named you one of the best tattoo artists in NYC. When did you realize you'd hit a new level of success with your tattooing? What sort of responsibility, if any, did you feel come on at that point?
I think that concepts of success are so ephemeral, and they're really shaped by social media. Someone else defining you as successful doesn't necessarily mean something positive for you and your work. I'm actually very wary of being labeled the best of anything. I really despise that type of labeling, and I don't appreciate that kind of hierarchy. Especially when it comes to Chicanx tattooing, because I am not the inventor of it in any way. I really, really pay homage and infinite respect to the people who originated the style and the people who are really holding it down. The older generation that shaped what it is today are people who taught me so much, just by existing and making their work and telling their stories. I just have been doing what I've been doing. I've been trying to do it consistently and trying to do it with as much integrity as I can.
I do think that in New York, I was one of the first people to start applying that style in the way that I was applying it, and now I see a lot of people doing it, which is really exciting to me. I love seeing that younger people are coming into tattooing and knowing that that's the style that they want to work in right off the bat, seeing how they interpret it and how they evolve it. I feel most excited about young people in tattooing right now because they just have this sense of no rules. They want to break the rules and do what feels right and intuitive to them, and that's what necessary for the industry to grow. Only time will tell what tattoos hold up with age and what looks the strongest 20 years from now. It's so exciting for people to just question what we've been taught, and see if they can figure out a newer or better or different way of doing stuff.
I've learned from people who are younger than me in the same way that I learned from people who are older than me. With increased visibility comes increased vulnerability. I think it's important to share that I'm just a human. I don't always do things perfectly. I'm trying to figure stuff out as I go, too. Not everything I do is ever going to be the strongest, best painting or tattoo. I need space to be able to do that. I would say through all of it — my own creative process aside — what is really grounding and important to me is trying to use whatever I get for other people. Because it's not just about me. It's not about my success. It's about my culture. It's about my people and my communities. I'm always asking myself what can I do better or who can I pass the mic to, and how can I be interconnected with people around me rather than isolate myself because of some sense of accomplishment.
It's not just about me. It's not about my success. It's about my culture. It's about my people and my communities.
Personal and creative growth are great, and stability is great. It feels really wonderful to have clients and to be able to shape the works that I take on to reflect what is fun for me to work on, and with people that I feel excited to work with. That's a privilege that comes with the years that I've put in. I try to stay really grounded in what success looks like to me. It doesn't look like making tons of money or raising my rates, or doing the most tattoos that I can. It's really important for me to not slice the people that I want to be tattooing out of my tattoo practice, I try to remain accessible to the people that I want to be working with. That, often, is also a lot of pro bono tattooing. I would caution people to rethink their concepts of what success as a tattoo artist looks like. To me, it's like: I can pay my bills, I can live in New York City comfortably, but I can also afford to work for free when I feel that that's important.
You're also using that success to promote social justice. Can you speak about your work at the Rikers Island jail in New York City and other correctional facilities?
Social justice is something I spend a lot of time and energy engaging with and thinking about. I've been trying to pull my tattooing work back into that as much as I can. I've taught drawing classes at Rikers Island and other correctional facilities in New York state, which were really important experiences to me. The last time I taught in one was about a year ago. Since then, there's been some changes in what programs are and aren't allowed at Rikers Island. So I've taken a step back from that now, and instead I'm focusing more on some re-entry aspect work.
At Saved, we do events with the Women's Prison Association to offer free cover up tattoos and re-works of tattoos on women who have been justice impacted. A lot of those tattoos are painful reminders of their past experiences or their histories. Giving them a cover-up can be an important way to restore to them a sense of bodily autonomy or a sense of control over their lives or their futures.
I see a really enormous radical potential in tattooing in all of my clients. For example, a woman who is feeling a sense of loss of bodily control because of the legislation around reproductive rights might get a tattoo to assert a sense of ownership over her own body. Or someone who is queer getting a really visible queer tattoo to signal who they are to other people around them. It's like a cancer survivor wanting to mark their journey of survival, or somebody wanting to tattoo over self-harm scars to make that part of their body something that they feel proud to look at. There's just so any ways that tattooing can be transformative.
I think of the body as a site of resistance and a site of authority over our own lives, particularly within the prison industrial complex. Tattoos can exist as a way to connect people to their identities outside of those facilities and to remind themselves of the ways that they do have freedom, even in places where they're having to wear uniforms or aspects of when they can shower, when they can eat, when they can sleep are being controlled by the state. Something about being able to record your own history on your body is really significant.
I'm not the first person to have these ideas in any way, but I am trying to speak about it publicly more. I want to reconnect the history of tattooing with those aspects of it because it's easy to get lost in the cool art. Yeah, it's aesthetic and that can sometimes be enough; not every tattoo session has to be this deep healing work. I think there's still something really significant about getting a cool picture that you like that you want to have on you forever, and you don't even have to talk about how important it is or how not important it is.
But for tattoo artists, those significant moments or those meanings can enter into the work that we do so frequently, and we don't really address it. We don't often acknowledge the responsibility we have to our clients on that level or the toll that it can take on us personally. I don't think I ever had a moment where somebody that I worked with said like, "Hey, I know that was a really heavy client, like I saw your client crying. How are you feeling?" I think that we have to acknowledge that and support each other and also acknowledge our own limitations as emotional beings. We're not machines; we're people. We're creative people. A lot of us are really sensitive. So, how can we devise strategies or devise preparedness to be the best that we can be to our clients, but also make it a healthier and more balanced environment for ourselves?
I think there's still something really significant about getting a cool picture that you like that you want to have on you forever, and you don't even have to talk about how important it is or how not important it is.
A lot of clients have had negative experiences where they didn't feel listened to by their artist, or they felt really pressured and they got something that they weren't happy with because they didn't feel like they could speak up. As culture is shifting [tattoo culture], I think it's part of our professional responsibility as artists to grow alongside that, and be able to be the best practitioners that we can be for our clients. The social and customer service aspect of it is a huge part of that.
I just worked with the Women's Prison Association to create a short pamphlet [for tattoo artists] specifically about working with survivors of violence and women who are justice impacted. It covers informed consent throughout the process, ways to communicate, tips on active listening. I'm working on expanding it to a larger piece of writing, hopefully as a free resource about a trauma-aware approach to tattooing that takes into account this sort of unseen work that we do. I'm hoping to work with other people and source some practical tools. Maybe devise some consent workshops for tattooers. I believe that tattooing wants to grow just as much as its clients want it to grow.
Almost everyone I've spoken to for this column lists you as one of their tattoo mentors. Who were some of your mentors when you first started?
I always try to do a past, present, future answer to this question. I want to shout out Stephanie Tamez, who's the owner at Saved, because she is this incredible force who has been a constant in tattooing and has been so hardworking for so long. She really came up in the queer community in San Francisco. Having Steph, who is also Mexican-American, as a guiding star has been super significant for me. I really love encouraging my clients to get tattooed by her because a lot of young people only see young people.
As far as contemporaries, Doreen Garner and Anderson Luna are two people who I learned so much from. Doreen is a younger tattoo artist, but she's been a visual artist for a very long time. Anderson is another person who has just quietly been doing his thing for years, and his work is just, like, next level stunning. His technical ability, his sense of composition, the cultural references that he's pulling into his work... He's making these incredibly beautiful, large-scale pieces of Orisha deities, or of Taíno chiefs, or of beautiful indigenous women, or of African royalty.
As far as younger people, JayBaby [Jaylind Hamilton] is really awesome. I really love what Sema [Graham] is doing. Keegan Dakkar is another young tattoo artist who has a private studio in New York. His tattoos are just so out of this world, and he's been tattooing for like, five minutes.
When I first started, I had people in my life who were sort of informal mentors. I owe a huge debt of gratitude towards the people at Three Kings who brought me there in the first place. They really took a chance on me, and I was just this grimy, punk kid doing crazy-looking tattoos inside my house. In that, they saw some kind of potential and gave me this really incredible opportunity to work in a professional environment, to learn from them, to have access to their clientele, and also to be able to benefit from the reputation of their shop and what they had built.
That experience showed me how important it is to lend your credibility to other people you believe in to give them space to grow, and to bolster them a little bit. I'm young, but I've been tattooing for about 10 years now. Hitting that decade mark has really made me think about where I sit on the spectrum of experience in tattooing. I'm not a new person on the scene anymore, so what responsibilities do I have as someone who's been around longer? When we think of passing the torch or shaping the future of tattooing, a lot of that is thought of solely as apprenticeship processes and as taking on someone as your student and employing them. That's obviously a huge commitment. It's not something most of us have the space or capacity to be able to do.
I'm not a shop owner; I can't give anyone a job. So, I like to reflect on the ways that I can support other artists — younger artists — whether that's by sharing their work on social media or referring my clients to them, or buying the work that they make, or inviting them to guest [tattoo at Saved]. There's a lot of power in tattoo word-of-mouths, and I think that having earned the trust of my clients, I'm really excited to be able to share with them people whose work I really value and trust.
Even though I did have people act as mentors to me and give me opportunities [when I was younger], it wasn't necessarily people who were like me in terms of identities. I was aware of other people, like Stephanie and Virginia. There were some other younger [Mexican-American] women who were coming into the industry around the same time that I did that I was aware of, but I didn't really have direct interaction with those people at all. It's not like they were reaching out to me to talk to me about my work, which isn't to fault them. But even the mere fact of their presence in the industry, showing me that they had done it, was a huge help to me.
So, I want to really take on the responsibility of doing that as much as I can for other people because I know how meaningful that little bit of representation was to me. I think tattooing is really exploding with diversity and inclusiveness at the moment, and it's something I'm really, really excited to see. I've had moments throughout my career where I was questioning whether or not it was the right job for me. Tattooing is something that we're really told needs to be our passion, our life's work. That's true in so many ways, but to have this idea that we should set aside who we are for tattooing is not constructive. I think allowing people to bring the full truth of who they are and how they exist in the world, how they see things, how they think creatively is really necessary to making tattooing be what it can and should be rather than letting it fall into a trap of self-selection where we end up with a narrow scope of representation.
Do you have any upcoming projects in addition to your tattooing that you want people to keep an eye out for?
Follow Tamara on Instagram: @tamarasantibanez
Book an appointment with her by: Sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.