viernes, 20 de septiembre de 2013

Transforming numbers into pirate ships

The street tattoo artist is a low-budget imaginator. He transforms numbers into pirate ships, Salvatruchas into elaborate Polynesian tribals, and Eighteenstreeters into common and inoffesive people.
Sometimes the skin resists, but there is always space for more and more ink. Two millimeters below the first layer of skin redemption is found. The street tattoo artist causes everyday objects to mutate and become his principal work tools: a spoon, sewing needles, a spool from an old toy, thread, wires, and a voltage transformer from a cell phone…


“We have to be ghosts, mute and invisible in our own neighborhoods, we hide from the police and from the gangsters; clearly I don’t want to become vulture food, so it’s better that we don’t cross paths.”
Milton walks through the street covered from head to toe despite the 102 degrees that smother downtown Tegucigalpa. The constant harassment of conservative looks from passersby forces him to lower his eyes and count the bricks in the sidewalk. “This is how I live my life,” he says with a faint smile of selfcompassion.
He has in his gaze the indiscernible marks of a difficult past. Tattoos cover half of his face and many other parts of his body. In total there are 30 drawings. Each is a representation of a concrete event.
“A good step or a bad step in life, I have to put it on my skin to remember it.”
And thus he remembers his life.

“My trip to the United States was a little tough for my parents, it was them who helped me cross. I was really little, I was only 2 and I crossed with an American kid’s papers. They were the ones who suffered crossing the states in Mexico, the jungle and all that. Ever since I was little I liked art, I would draw a lot and I started to learn the technique of tattooing watching how my friends would tattoo me. When I could I bought a machine and that was it. I started tattooing like around the age of 10 or 11, trying to study all this because the truth is one doesn’t stop learning things, it’s like in school. I learned in black. If I fucked up you couldn’t see it well. Later I had some problems and they deported me.”

He moves among the people like a shadow, shy and with a will to pass by unnoticed, but when he gets to the studio where he works he becomes a peacock, he takes off the shirt that conceals his life story and enters a place where tattoos are artistic pieces in and of themselves and no one asks what neighborhood they’re from or why he has them.

“The problem is the police, how they fuck with you; they want money here, a bribe there, they take me out of the taxi, they don’t find an eighteen or a thirteen or even one bad letter and even so they screw with me. I’m scared that they’ll grab me and take me to a dark place and put a bullet in me, even though I’m not a criminal.”

That happens to him all the time. The fear.

“That’s why I always have to put makeup on my face. I´ve gotten tired of being fucked with so much.” The need for a future and a civil war filled the train cars of the resignation with migrants that made their way to the United States and at the point of eating shit they deduced that the antonym of segregation is union. The gangsters lost the battle against the system, which obligated them to change families, change friends, and even change lives. When they tattooed themselves, basically, they lost their freedom. But they were still united and so they killed, robbed, trafficked, extorted, or simply worked honestly and later they were deported back to Central America.
Back in their old home, some of them improved on their methods of stealing, extorting, trafficking and killing. They decentralized and evolved towards a structure of terror that the politicians try to destroy with a hardline approach without a prayer of succeeding. So the repression falls on the unprotected sectors of society, turning the failed effort into a social cleansing process.
The tattoos that once formed part of a resistance movement for self-identity in the alleys of Los Angeles, are lost now among low-quality layers of ink in the least-traveled corners of the slums of Tegucigalpa.
What was the fight to belong now only means survival and the precious brands are erased with generic designs pulled from an old tattoo magazine. Their tattoos become stigmas and death sentences.
Milton misses Los Angeles.

“Los Angeles is a very different world than Honduras. The difference is that… alright, the stories that the gangsters created here in the past that they would kill just anyone… there that isn’t done; there you always have someone higher up that dominates and is in charge, you ask permission for everything, if not they break you, you can’t just kill anyone. And on top of that, the gangs are very controlled by the men who are bigger than the gangs.”
“There everything is divided by race, by streets, blocks, numbers and their colors. There the way the water runs is very different than here; if you’re not in a gang you get grouped with the normal people, which they call “los paisas”. If you’re a gangster, where I was, you have to join either the southern 13 or the northern 14, which have a feud between them. You can also divide everything by community, there are black communities, others that only have Latinos or only gringos. The truth is everything is racism there, although you’ll always find good people; there is always someone who will give you a hand.”

But he didn’t throw in the towel.

“The truth is anything can be work. To do tattoo work, be it a new design on skin or a cover-up, you can use any type of machine, be it makeshift (handmade) or professional, just that with the makeshift ones you take longer and it’s less hygienic.”

Milton has always found a way to buy professional machines and maintain a studio. His survival instinct drive him – he says – towards where the money is.
He tattoos, designs cards, and sells his used needles to the subspecies of artisanal tattoo artists that limit their work to the darkest neighborhoods of the city.


“My name is Isaac, I’m from here in Buenos Aires, good to meet you.”
Isaac buys for 30 lempiras the used needles that Milton should throw out and tries to adapt them to his makeshift machines. One time he has tried with his own skin to wrap a little bit of thread on a sewing needle so that it would hold battery acid and point by point would give form to the design that he had previously drawn with a common pen.

Buenos Aires is a neighborhood of lean youth with drawn faces. Once a hill that provided refuge to Tegucigalpa’s middle and upper class, it has been transformed into a jumble of houses under construction, ruins from a better past now collapsing, crisscrossed by hundreds of alleyways, corners and stairways teeming with trash, life and death. In the daytime it’s a carnival of fruit vendors, kids playing marbles, taxi drivers, hawkers of pirated films and students.

In the night the only souls are a few brave drug addicts that lose themselves there only having come out because of the need to inject themselves with more shit, shrinking back from the corner when the four-byfours with tinted glass driven by strangers who come to buy arrive scared and in a hurry to search for their cocaine dose.
“El Viejo” (the old man), as they call the drug lord that controls the zone, is owner of taxis, businesses, and many small people who work distributing his products throughout this part of the city. Anyone who tries to sell drugs in his zone of influence will find themselves in a few days with a motorcycle in front of their house where a couple of hit men dressed as police will be given the green light.
The youth of the neighborhood consume drugs. The best sellers: marijuana and cocaine. One time, Isaac
recounts, he saw adolescents exchanging oral sex for a crack rock in the middle of the street. Isaac tattoos in a room that he maintains in one corner of the neighborhood. He lives with his mother and he doesn’t stop looking at himself in the mirror while we talk. He’s a bodybuilding fan, handsome and charismatic. His room confirms it. He only has his bed, a bench with lots of weights, and mementos from when he tried enlisting in military service.
He picks up a container and fills it with water from the basin that he shares with the tenants to which his family rents some small rooms. He switches on the boombox, heaps his clothes in one corner of the bed to make room for his customer and takes a seat on the weight bench so he doesn’t have to work from his knees.
His customer asks for a lion. Without thinking much he starts to draw directly on the skin; he doesn’t need references. Surely he stores many images in his head and takes them from there. He ties the needles to the clip that serves as the rod in the machine, connects the voltage transformer and begins the long session. He takes three or four hours to do what a professional machine would do in one; he doesn’t worry about using gloves, “You don’t have AIDS, right kid?” he asks his 16-year-old customer and thus calms him. Nor does the fly that lands on the tattoo seem to bother him. It’s all an opportunity to laugh and tell jokes: “You shower kid? Look how the flies are following you.”
“Before the tattoos done with that technique were simple and smaller; people would put their initials in quotes or would tattoo three dots.”
“Before” means when – it’s safe to say – those inoffensive little dots weren’t associated with the trinity of
the gangsters or the 18 street gang.
In 1994 his drive to understand a little of everything led him to ask a friend what pieces he would need to make a tattooing machine. Two weeks later he was ready to begin learning. He would ask advice from convicts from his block on making inks and other types of more effective machines. Then came the experimentation with his own skin. He learned from his own pain. For him, tattoos are an extreme activity. He still hadn’t learned what it meant to have to ask permission from the neighborhood “guard” to enter. Nor would the tattoo that he would do for himself need to be approved by the gang leader.

“My first machine I made with a tooth brush, one of those electric ones. The prison tattoo is the most
common, brother. It’s made with accessible materials, it can have a little motor from a boombox, a swing,
which is the switch to turn it on and off; it’s a whole process, you can use guitar strings or a clip that you
adapt a needle to. I use ink from a hardware store, because it’s cheap and it lasts me a while, but in prison
it’s done differently. With rubber, or with disposable razors. They get burned, and you put a plate over
them, the smoke rises and gets to the plate and everything that sticks gets scraped off afterwards with a
kind of sharp tip. This soot gets put in a container and gets mixed… this might sound a little heavy but
this is how it is, it gets mixed with urine, I think it’s because it has potassium; afterwards everything is
mixed with shampoo from this brand Alberto Vo5. But only the person that’s getting tattooed can use it.”

Isaac is a doitall, one of those people who knows how to do everything. One time walking through the neighborhood we ran into someone who wanted him to give them a haircut and another who wanted him to draw up their high school homework assignment, and another who wanted him to reconnect their electrical connection because the energy company had cut their service. Once in a while he has to do a koi fish or a fairy, a portrait of a baby, a grandmother, or the name of a mother. But the most demanding tattoos are those requested by gangsters and ex-gangsters. The “pesetiados” as he calls them. Letting the imagination transform their markings isn’t simple work. You have to be smart to change the letters MS the size of someone’s back into a perfect Maori tribal, or an 18 into a Celtic turtle. To tattoo a gang member or ex-gang member “you have to follow a procedure, you can’t show up and start tracing just like that,” he warns days before his experience in the market.

“Sometimes I have to work with gangsters that retired, that want to erase what they have and that know that it could go bad for them. I do it. But just to help them. I’m saving them from being killed for having that stuff one their skin. The problem sometimes aren’t the other gangsters, because to bail out I think you have to ask permission, but the cops for sure will break them if they grab them.”

The gangsters that want to desert don’t ask for much. Whatever will get rid of their tattoos and not make them look like gangsters will work: sandpaper, a red-hot iron, car battery acid or any other medieval method of self-mutilation that will do the job. The idea is to hide the canvases on their skin, to not allow society to keep cornering them and to stop living like reptiles in captivity in their own houses.

“They just ask to cover the numbers they have, or sometimes the letters. The thing is all their tattoos are real big and need work. Sometimes they want to get rid of them themselves but it ends up worse, like burns, really horrible. One time I covered one for this crazy guy, that one was good because I pulled it out of my head, I didn’t have a design and I had to engineer one with the shape of the eighteen; a made him a pirate ship, because between the one and the eight he had some spaces that looked like those paddles on ships.”
Walking with him is like walking with the mayor of the city. Everyone knows him, he goes along greeting all the neighbors and once in a while he gives a “God bless you” to someone he’s never seen before. He’s street smart. He could move around no problem in the most hostile environment. In fact, that’s what saved him from being killed one September day when some “customers” kidnapped him and took him to their “destroyer” – a house that belongs to the gang – in the market.

One day he thought he saw a black car that stopped half a block away every time he moved between places. At first he thought it was simply paranoia. He walked 100 meters further, just to test, and the car moved again.

“I didn’t want to scare my friends, so I didn’t say anything, just said bye and left them.”
He walked a little more and when he saw that the car was following him he tried to run. This is how he recalls what happened next.
“Hey you! Don’t do that! Stop!” They can get me now or get me tomorrow, he thought to himself. “What’s the problem? I’m heading home.”
“Better get in instead. And put this on your head.” A black cloth bag.
When they took the hood off the room was dark. He noticed the difference in the attitude of the people he was with. They weren’t telling jokes or talking about buying Chinese fried rice “pal bajon” -munchies- like when they were in the car. Without saying anything they kicked him as much as they could in such a tight space, not to mention the AK-47 that he noticed later, and like he was a cookie they broke his ribs.

“You sold us out, huh? Dog!”
“No man, I didn’t do any... ” Kick.
“Why’d you bring the cops to the neighborhood? Answer!...” Kick.
“No man, I didn’t... ” Kalashnikov.
“Talk! Things are gonna turn out worse for you.”
“No man, I just wanted to help, for real I didn’t do anything in bad faith. My friend just wanted to make a report, but about tattoos. We don’t want to screw anyone.”
“Turn on the light, let this pussy see us. That way he’ll tell us the truth.”
“It’s true man, I swear. That guy’s not police.” They turned on the light.
“Fuck, it’s you? It can’t be Isaac. It’s you? Fuck! How’re you gonna do this to me?”
“Pecas?...Pecas! Damn Pecas, you know me.” He immediately throws himself to the knees of his executioner. “You know I wouldn’t do something like that. You know I’m not trash, we know each other from church, we’re brothers man.”
“Fuck, how are you gonna come shit on everything?”
“You know I’m not lying, that thing was nothing, we just wanted to help out and take pictures of the tattoos. But we didn’t want to screw anyone over. We asked them to cover their faces when we recorded. So there’s no problem.”
“You can’t do that, you got yourself into some shit. You telling the truth?”
“No bullshit. It’s the truth.”
“We don’t want to see anyone with cameras in the neighborhood, you hear? Not even close to the
“Yeah man, I won’t do that again.”
“Look, if it hadn’t been you, who knows… it’s all good, we’re gonna let you go.”
“Thank you friend. Thank you. You know I’m not bullshitting you.”
“But we’re gonna have you do something in return. See, my friend wants to get tattooed, and you’re going to have to do it for him.”

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