Life Outside The Call Centre - Nicaragua

Published: 14 August, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 215, August, 2012

OK, so Nicaragua might not be the first country that springs to mind when you mention the phrase ‘call centre’, but as AK47 owner, Chuck Serpa, takes us for a stroll around the streets, it appears that it’s big news…

Tattooing in Nicaragua has somewhat followed its own path. It’s not really connected to gangs like it is in its neighbouring countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Nor has it evolved from a sailor or biker culture as it has in Europe. The civil war of the ’80s put the culture into a sort of hiatus and when it started up again it, there wasn’t that much culture left – not until Dorian ‘Chuck’ Serpa opened up his shop, AK47 Tattoos, in Managua, ten years ago.

Bikers, sailors and criminals – it’s been said before and it will be said again – these were the main groups of people once associated with tattoos. While rockabillys and metalheads have taking over in the western world (well, somewhat anyway) in many places less developed, the former is still the case. In Nicaragua however, due to the civil war and being one of the poorest countries in the world, it’s not quite so clear. The bikers had nothing to do with it, for instance.

“The bikers in Nicaragua are mostly rich bikers who go for Sunday trips. They’d get like a butterfly tattoo at some touristy place or wear fake tattoos, which is just ridiculous, but that’s it. There is a biker gang I call MC McDonald, who might be a little bit more interested in tattoos, but there’s not really a bike-related tattoo culture,” explains Dorian. And he doesn’t see much of a connection to gangs either – except for the use of slang – similar to some of Nicaragua’s neighbouring countries.

“For the perception of tattoos to change, we need to get people to stop saying ‘placa’ or ‘placaso’, which are the words for gang-related tattoos in Mexico and California, and say tattoos instead. We do have gang tattoos, even more with this sort of influence from other countries. Tattoos related to MS18 and MS13 (two of the most dangerous gangs in the world, who both originated in Los Angeles but now can be found in many countries in Central America) are very popular among teenagers, but it’s not like in El Salvador or Guatemala.

“We don’t have those gangs here, but in some of the worst neighbourhoods in Nicaragua, like Dimitrov and Reparto Schick in Managua, there are gangs with their own tattoo style. At the same time, it’s very mixed, so you can’t say that one tattoo belongs to just one group.”

However, if you want to be sure to see people with gang-related tattoos, according to dorian, there is a place to visit.

“A lot of people who work in call centres are heavily tattooed. It’s often people who come back to Nicaragua after having served a sentence in the States and almost the only place they can get a job is at a call centre,” he says with a big laugh.

This former graffiti artist was the first to establish himself as a proper ‘art tattooist’ in the country where tattoos are still frowned upon.

“All sorts of people in Nicaragua have tattoos today, but they have them where they can conceal them. You’re still not able to get a job in, for example, a supermarket if you’re tattooed.” But a change is in progress. The origin of this change however, is not to Dorian’s liking.

“My clients today aren’t the same as they were ten years ago. People are more open because of the ‘Miami Ink’ syndrome, but at the same time, they think that fucking shop is the only tattoo shop in the world. In South Beach in Miami alone, there are so many better shops.”

Contrary to skin art, the culture of street art is very strong in Nicaragua. As in many countries suffering from war or injustice, murals and graffiti grew into a popular mode of getting your message across. Nicaraguan city walls are filled with political, religious and humanistic messages.

“As soon as you paint or do something in the street here it has political content, but there’s not really a particular style, like in Berlin or New York. Here graffiti is sort of socially accepted because we walk up and ask the owners of the house before we start painting. You can’t just walk into a neighbourhood and start painting unless you know someone there – we only have small spaces here in Nicaragua, small houses and small streets. We don’t have a subway system and the structure of a big city, so here graffiti has had a more social perspective. There was a time when graffiti artists became idols, famous within their community. It became street fashion and they were interviewed and so on, but there has always been a political message behind it.”

Which is easily explained considering all of the political commotion the country has experienced in the last 40-50 years. Before the civil war there were some murals around, but the phenomena really took off in the ’90s at the end of the Sandinista era.  

“In the ’70s, murals existed, and then in the ’80s, nothing much happened. But starting in 1989, our history underwent a reconstruction. There were many projects launched, a lot of financing and therefore a lot of opportunities to paint. Also people wanted to tell stories of what happened,” explains Osiris Dolores Castilblanco Briones, a 28-year-old artist and art teacher who was one of many kids at the time taking the chance to learn how to draw and paint murals.

Sadly, the liberal attitude didn’t last long. In 1990 the Sandinistas lost the first democratic election since they had taken down former dictator, Antonio Somoza, in 1979, and the new government wasn’t too happy about the street art covering schools all over Nicaragua.

“They were of the opinion that all murals were Sandinista-murals, which they definitely weren’t. We had started out painting school walls and the murals on them were all removed. They even destroyed the Sandinistas books and wrote new ones, completely leaving out what happened in the ’80s. But that just meant we started painting on private walls instead… with permission of course.”

Today you see hundreds of murals in almost every city in Nicaragua, but the political factor isn’t as high. “It’s not necessary in the same way. Today there’s a need for other messages – messages of hope and confidence.”

And You Though You Were Skint!

During the war between the US-backed Contras and the government of the Sandinistas in the 1980s, much of the country’s infrastructure was damaged or destroyed. Inflation averaged 30% throughout the 1980s. After the US imposed a trade embargo in 1985, which lasted five years, Nicaragua’s inflation rate rose dramatically. The 1985 annual rate of 220% tripled the following year, rising to more than 13,000% in 1988, the highest rate for any country in the western hemisphere in that year. Which basically means that one day a loaf of bread was (for example) 50p, and a few years later, it was £65.50.

That’s one mean mother of a loaf!

Some Culture For You

Nicaraguan culture has strong folklore, music and religious traditions, deeply influenced by European culture, but enriched with Amerindian sounds and flavors. Nicaraguan culture can further be defined in several distinct strands. The Pacific coast folklore, music and religious traditions, are deeply influenced by Europeans. It was colonized by Spain and has a similar culture to other Spanish-speaking Latin American countries. The indigenous groups that historically inhabited the Pacific coast have largely been assimilated into the mestizo culture.

The Caribbean coast of the country, on the other hand, was once a British protectorate. English is still predominant in this region and spoken domestically along with Spanish and indigenous languages. Its culture is similar to that of Caribbean nations that were or are British possessions, such as Jamaica, Belize, the Cayman Islands, etc. Unlike on the west coast, the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean coast have maintained distinct identities, and some still speak their native languages as first languages.


Text & Photography: Simon Lundh