Colombia, La Magnifica - Daniel Acosta Leon

Published: 23 July, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 214, July, 2012

Coming from a radical evangelical Christian family, passing through Transformers and discovering tattooing at the age of 14 in Colombia, a country still not fully open to the art form and oftentimes misunderstood by outsiders, Daniel Acosta León makes for an interesting interview subject to say the least. Brushing up on my Spanish, I dove right in…

What inspired you to start creating art? Over the years, did you have any artistic schooling or are you completely self-taught?

"My mother was a graphic artist and worked for the Banco de la República as a bill designer. When I was born, she left her job to dedicate her time to raising me. When I turned eight, I started graphic design classes in a school in the mornings.

I remember stealing work from her, it was pointillism, and I remember that I really liked it and decided to copy it. Obviously the result was not what I had expected, but apparently everybody thought it was a reason to start pushing me towards art. From that moment on, I attended some drawing and painting workshops, some music as well, but nothing really serious. Graduating from school, I studied at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia for a year, then abandoned it to start tattooing."

What was the first ever piece of art you created?

"I don’t remember the first drawing I did, but what I do remember really well is a Transformers notebook I had. It had Optimus Prime on the cover and many color drawings from when I was around five years old. I don’t know what happened to that notebook. I saw it once or twice, a family member had saved it, and after that it disappeared again."

What sparked your love for tattooing?

"It all happened at school. When I was 14, I got my first tattoo. We took images from a picture book one Friday after school, and along with two other friends, we got tattooed. From the age of 14 to 18 I visited that same shop at least 12 times. I had a very addictive start with tattoos."

Was an apprenticeship part of your learning process? Where does your knowledge come from?

"Starting out was quite difficult. It wasn’t like the new tattooers that pay for classes and in two weeks are already ‘tattooers’. I had to be an apprentice and assistant in various shops before I could tattoo anyone, that took about two years, and afterwards I could tattoo my first pieces, which obviously were disastrous. At that time, the level in my country wasn’t very high, therefore, I didn’t really have anyone to learn from… all in all, it is a constant battle of love and hate."

Did you have to make any major sacrifices to pursue tattooing as a career?

"Truthfully, the mere fact of wanting to tattoo changed my whole life. I had a house, a family, I was in one of the best universities in the country; my life was quite comfortable and I had family support. The moment I decided to start tattooing, everything disappeared; house, money, help, family. I literally started from nothing just to accomplish my goal of being a tattooer. Nowadays, after several years, things are a bit better, but it was a pretty hard start."

What was the first tattoo you did and how did you feel about the whole experience?

"It was a tribal around an existing fairy. I did it on a friend. It wasn’t bad, it could have been worse!"

How did your family and friends react to you getting tattooed and choosing to tattoo full-time?

"My family is radical evangelical Christians and my friends at the time were conservative kids that came from conservative families. Being a tattooer created a gap between me and many of the people who made up my social nucleus. My life literally changed completely when I started tattooing. There are very few people from that time who I still have any sort of contact with."

Tell me about your very interesting and very special project, La Duquesa Colectivo…

"It started two years ago when my fiancée, Diana Mora, and I wanted to have a multi-disciplinary space where different artists could get together and display different innovative, cutting-edge approaches.

"When we opened, we had two stylists, my fiancée took care of administration and industrial design, and I took care of visual arts and tattoos. After that, we were joined by a graphic artist and a few months later two filmmakers joined our team. The last two additions were a new tattooer and a publicist, and we hope to continue growing."

What are the goals of La Duquesa Colectivo?

"We want to create a new vision for tattooing, art and aesthetics in this city and in Colombia. Making it more accessible to the whole world so that it stops being a taboo and becomes a culture and way of life, so that everyone will understand that our appearance does not define us as individuals, but as individuals we define our appearance."

What is tattoo culture like in Colombia?

"In Colombia, everything is very relative. We have an extremely rich cultural mix in many areas and tattooing is very influential in cities like Bogota, Medellin and Cali. Many people are tattooed and those who are not are very respectful and oftentimes have admiration for the practice, regardless of age.
On the other hand, in smaller cities like the one we live in, things are much more difficult, people are just beginning to understand tattooing as an art form or culture and for many, the concept of prisoners, criminals and prostitutes is still very implicit.

But overall, Colombia may become an international powerhouse in tattooing in just a few years. Remember me when Colombian artists are invading every city and we are on the front pages of magazines. [laughs]"

What’s been one of your most memorable client stories to date?

"I remember a long time ago, a cover up I had to do on an arm. It was an Indian with red skin that was tattooed as if in prison; it was done by the client’s mother as punishment for having failed a school year. This lady tattooed her own son so he would remember his failure his entire life! [laughs]"

If you could change one thing about the tattoo industry in South America, what would that be?

"Talking about South America in general is very generic, every country and every region has its idiosyncrasies and specific situations. In the case of Argentina or Brazil, tattoo culture is extremely developed, not only as a social movement, but also as an industry and commerce, unlike my country, Colombia, in which it is still a relatively young movement.

What we are missing are the inputs; we have very limited materials, we have to import them from the United States or from other countries and hope that, with luck, suppliers will bring materials with which it’s possible to work."

If you had to give up tattooing and try a different profession, what would you choose? Could you see yourself doing anything else?

"This is something I’ve thought about many times. I really like painting and am currently taking lessons with one of the most important masters that this country has, Jorge Mantilla Caballero. Thinking about the possibility of living from art on canvas is interesting.

"And I also really like cooking. I love it a lot, actually. Thinking about being a chef doesn’t displease me at all."

What’s the greatest misconception people have about Colombia, and what is the one thing they should absolutely know?

"As a first point, we are Colombia, not Columbia. Colombia is a beautiful country in South America. Columbia is the district to which the city of Washington belongs.

"Secondly, not every Colombian is a dealer or is related to the world of drug trafficking or violence. It is unfair to label a people for what a few misfits do.

"Thirdly, it is not a violent country nor in permanent war. There is civil conflict, but it is not like it’s shown by the news media or press in other countries.

"Colombia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. We have two oceans, a part of the Amazon, people are friendly and attentive, and it is an ideal country for every type of tourist. If they like backpacking, it has amazing areas to visit like no other country can offer. If [they] are a bit more demanding with regards to comfort, we have hotels and resorts of the highest quality in magical places like San Andres and Providencia. Colombia is much more than what people around the world believe it is."

One more then you’re free! Finish this sentence: Daniel Acosta León is...

"Always learning."

Other Mediums

I’ve always liked working with aqueous media i.e. acrylics, vinyl and watercolors. For several years they were the ones that helped me with study and experimentation thanks to their color and application.

I am currently exploring oil, it’s very different in many ways, thus allowing me to experiment and learn new concepts.

Meaningful Ink

The most special are the one on my chest that I did in honour of my mother, who died when I was a kid, and the one on my right forearm that I got for Diana, my love.

Colombian Trends

We are currently undergoing a strong revival of old school, like the rest of the world, and traditional in all its variations is the most popular at this time.

Obviously, due to its geo-political position, our country is greatly influenced by the United States and its influence on art and style with respect to tattooing is notorious. There is also a big, excellent school of hyperrealist tattooers.

La Duquesa Colectivo

Kra 34 n 41-14


Text: Barbara Pavone; Photography: Daniel Acosta Leon