Some regions of the world are so culturally devious that we feel the need to linger there for a moment; South America is one of them. I spent 21 days in the southern-part of the American continent and this trip of mine was full of unexpected happenings, both professionally and personally.
November 10th, Paris: I’m leaving in a rush for Buenos Aires, my suitcase contents comes down to a few clothes, my photography equipment and a road book, which is a very worn and dog-eared Lonely Planet guide of my chosen destination. It’s of course very difficult to get ready for a trip on a continent you’ve never been to but there are a few elements that I have found in the past few days that make sense and make me think that although I don’t have many contacts, the ones I have are the right ones, so I am off!
I’m finally in Buenos Aires, it’s Spring time here and is a long way away from the grey skies of France. Unlike some of my other trips, I hardly feel the jet lag and I guess it’s because my attention is focused on the sights and sounds surrounding me. It seems that each street is a new stage, a new scene meant to amaze and please me. Even if I haven’t started writing my report on tattoos yet, I have the feeling that this experience is going to be incredible, what with all these characters that seem to come straight out of fiction.
NOVEMBER 16th 4.20pm
My road book is filling up and I’ve managed to get some appointments. I was wandering the city centre when I arrived in Bond Street, a kind of tattoo supermarket composed of about thirty tattoo, piercing and clothes shops. I stroll about the alleys, unsuccessfully flicking through the artist’s books to see if their works are worth being part of my report. One of the tattoo shops, American Tattoo, manages to draw my attention thanks to a great concept and a great interior design, which are as good as those of chain stores. Twelve tattoo artists work in the two tattoo shops owned by American Tattoo, mainly in a US and realistic style. The shop window is covered with pictures of local stars that have been tattooed here, you get the picture. After having bargained with two go-betweens, I finally get to meet Mariano Antonio who definitely looks like a rock star manager who has just escaped from Spinal Tap. The atmosphere in his office is peculiar, there are animal pelts on both the walls and the floor and some Flying V guitars signed by the most famous members of a New Wave of British Heavy Metal band are hanging on the walls. It seems that this place is ruled more by marketing than by the passion of tattooing. I’ve had a productive day but I’m still eager to learn more about tattooing in this area of the world.
“I feel very lucky to be part of one of the best Argentinean teams”. The words of Mariano Castiglioni, the current boss of Welldone sounds reliable but the portfolios of the studio artists confirm it. “I discovered the Japanese style twenty years ago in Body Suits, one of the first shops of this area. I had never seen that style and was really impressed”, he says. After that Mariano spent a few years in Rising Dragon, in New York and in Madrid in Tattoo Magic before returning home and opening Welldone in 2005. He takes his first apprentice, Jair alias Dominguez Dubois, under his wing and the latter starts developing a style that he himself describes as influenced by child-like illustrations: “I’m fond of illustrations with a lot of black and just a few colours that produce a real and quick impact”. And his tattoos definitely produce such an impact even if he’s only started practicing a few years ago. His experience as an illustrator shows through in his work. Juan alias xPiranahx joins the......team in 2007 to complete the staff of one of the most well known shops in South America. He comes from a family of artists and quickly realised he was interested in drawing thanks to comics and gore illustrations: “I draw compulsively and all the time to distract myself from the world around me”. He’s definitely a very sensitive and discreet guy but his very colourful and asserted style is already pretty astonishing. His talent didn’t go unnoticed and Mariano is the one who almost forced him to use a tattoo machine: “my partners and mentors have made me understand what tattooing really is, moreover, working in a big town allows me to be in close contact with a whole lot of tattoo artists and customers. In the past few years, Buenos Aires has been flooded with passionate people creating a new impulse in the city.” There’s no doubt about the fact that Juan is part of that new generation. This team which shares a number of influences (Filip Leu, Bert Grim, Chad Koeplinger, Percy Waters etc.) seems to be working out pretty well and wouldn’t change a thing, they’re definitely right about that.
NOVEMBER 18th 11am
I’m heading towards Palermo, in the Northern part of Buenos Aires. I’m really looking forward to meeting the protagonists of Well Done Tattoos (read the interview below) and I can see that I’m not going to be disappointed. It’s one of these shops were you immediately feel at home, it has nothing to do with the “bling-bling” shop I’ve been to two days previous. The tattoo area is a well-organized mess, just like the whole city really. I watch Mariano Castiglioni while he’s working and there’s no doubt that this man knows what he’s doing. His sidekicks, Dominguez Dumois and Xpiranahx are not bad either. People often say that a photograph is only good when it shows the personality and the sensibility of its author, if it’s the same for tattoos, then these three guys are excellent: their portfolios abound with wonderful tattoos and illustrations. The American artist, Marcus Kuhn (Just Good Tattoos, Santa Barbara, USA) who is also present as a guest for two-weeks stay and speaks French with a strong Yankee accent, who tells me about the main differences between customers from the USA, South America, Japan and Europe.
NOVEMBER 19th 7.12pm
I’m leaving for the Western part of South America. The Chilean Customs bothers me with questions about my photography equipment and my stay here. Next time, I’ll make sure to wear a Hawaiian Shirt and a flashy bum bag! In the surreal landscapes of the Andean Range, truck drivers seem to be driving their monstrous trucks as if they are riding motor scooters, hence a 6 hour stopover due to the crash of a 33-ton truck blocking the only road leading to Santiago. A Californian tourist loses her patience; she’ll learn soon enough that the notion of time is quite different here.
NOVEMBER 21st 11.00am
First day of a 5 day stay. In the city centre of Santiago, I find another tattoo supermarket similar to the one I’ve been to in Buenos Aires. This place is smaller though and the production is far better than in Bond Street, Argentina. The few magazines I have left are passed around; the atmosphere is quite friendly between the different tattoo shops. The most interesting works are from Inferno Tatuajes in a dark and realistic style and the colourful, New School tattoos of Leo Rojas and Georgi Abusleme (Amor Real).
The weekend ends up in a remote squat where a series of shootings is scheduled to take place. The place is dusty and it’s creating a sharp contrast with the warm and golden light of the outside as the day ends. I’m not really amazed by the tattoos here but people still have such amazing faces! We have the feeling that people are ok with us being here but that we won’t be able too stay much longer.
On my last day here, I meet Nico Acosta (read the interview opposite). There’s no shop window here, people don’t go to Better Days out of sheer accident. The tattoo community is rather small in Europe and it seems that it’s just the same here: Nico has spent some time working at Welldone Tattoos and with Nishinja Das, two other great tattoo artists in South America- before he opened Better Days. The walls are covered with hundreds of sheets of tattoo flash and Nico has clearly been in favour of the straight edge culture for years now. The mostly Old School style of Nico and his partner Gabriel Toz is simple and understated but of a great quality.
A few blocks away from the squat, I get to meet Nishinja (see the interview on the next page) a major figure over here. I quickly take a few pictures of him in his own shop. Being here feels like being in a sanctuary of the Japanese style, which still is a must for many people.
I started hanging out in tattoo shops out of curiosity since I was about eleven years old”. Nico Acosta has been travelling around quite a lot: Mexico, L.A. and a road trip full of encounters with tattooists such as Bugs (Evil from the Needle) in London before he settled down and opened Better Days in Santiago, where Nishinja Das helped him get started. “I also owe the Welldone team who made me discover a type and a style of tattoo that I now practice.” This former Japanese-style enthusiast is now getting more focused on a traditional US style because of “its strong and timeless aspect”. He shares Nishinja’s opinion that the tattooing community is still young here but will be considered as a one of high values soon enough. His enthusiasm his definitely contagious!
NOVEMBER 26th Uruguay
I’m back on the Eastern Coast in Montevideo. It’s hard to get an idea of the tattooing culture of a country in two days but the portfolios of the artists I’ve visited confirm what my contacts told me. I improvise a set of shots in the heavy rain with my hosts Carla and Monk before leaving, all too soon, for Europe.
This few weeks in South America show that there’s an interesting potential here and that tattooing is getting more and more widespread, especially in Chile, where the phenomenon seems to be quite recent and popular amongst the South American society, at least in the towns and their suburbs. Just like in Europe, the new generation of tattoo artist is creating a new visual identity but is still influenced by its elders in a mostly North American and Japanese style. The customers are looking for high quality tattoos and tattooing is more mainstream, even if there are fewer big tattoo studios here. It’s also interesting to see that tattoo artists almost always speak about their fellow artists in the interviews showing that there’s a real cohesion between them. I leave South America with my memory cards full of a tiny part of the soul of the South American tattoo culture, with my head full of pictures and with a strong intent of coming back here to learn more about this fascinating tattooing culture.
Few tattoo artists have successfully managed to tattoo in an elegant and traditional Japanese style in Chile. Nishinja is undoubtedly the major figure of the Japanese style here, thanks to his style and years of practice. His vocation to become a tattoo artist appeared when he was fifteen and he has learned how to compose and how to use bright colours year after year being influenced by artists such as Filip Leu, Mauricio Teodoro or Jondix Junior. According to him, the tattooing community in Santiago is still too young and it’s a shame that so few great artists come here.