Tamara Santibañez is a young, Brooklyn-based tattooer currently working at the infamous Saved Tattoo in New York. With a background in printmaking, Santibañez’s work seamlessly straddles a number of tattoo styles and often integrates imagery and objects from fringe subcultures. We caught up with Santibañez recently to discuss, among other things, her recent move to Saved, her interest in BDSM, and her relationship to the Chicano subculture.
For those who are unfamiliar with your work, please introduce yourself, where you work, and how you began tattooing.
I was always fascinated by tattooing, though most of the tattoos I was seeing were of the very homemade/DIY variety. I began getting tattooed when I moved to New York, sometimes in bedrooms and kitchens, sometimes in shops, and after doing stick-and-pokes on friends I got some encouragement to pick up a machine and start trying to tattoo more. It started as fucking around on my punk friends, but as some tattooer friends were supportive of me along the way, I started painting flash and looking at traditional designs and trying to figure out how to replicate them. I had done some screen printing for Three Kings Tattoo in trade for getting tattooed by Alex McWatt. They happened to see a tattoo I did on a friend of mine and called me and asked if I wanted to come do some tattoos at the shop by appointment, see where things went from there. As you can imagine I practically puked from excitement and nervousness, said yes of course, and did that a couple of days a week till I finished school, when I started there full time.
As of January 2014, you’ve started working at Saved alongside an already all star cast of tattooers. Can you talk a little about this new environment, how it has influenced you thus far, and how you hope to be influenced by it as your time there grows?
Leaving Three Kings was a tough decision as it was the shop where I started- they gave me this incredible opportunity, and being at such a high volume shop with such amazing artists I was able to hit the ground running. Once I started to get comfortable I got into a bit of a rut where I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be doing, what kinds of tattoos I wanted to be making, I had just settled into too much of a routine. The move to Saved has served to re-invigorate me in a major way- you are working with a whole new set of tattooers who do phenomenal work, and you want to earn their respect and put your best work forward right off the bat. I was also looking forward to joining a shop that had a number of female artists, and a number of people well-known for black and grey tattooing. I wanted to be in a situation where people weren’t coming to me by default for either of those things, to force myself to figure out what my style was and what I wanted to define my tattoos. People at Saved seem to have a very balanced perspective on tattooing that I’ve already noticed improving my work. No one is rushed, the hours are shorter…when I get out of work I don’t feel totally burned out and I’m ready to go home and draw, then wake up in the morning and draw some more, but it doesn’t feel like a chore, it’s exciting.
From what I understand, you have a background in printmaking. How has this informed your work as a tattooer and what do you see as the similarities and differences between the two mediums?
The transition and overlap in tattooing and printmaking has benefitted me in a number of ways. They are both skilled crafts that require an attention to detail, a steady hand, keen eye, and meticulousness. With both there is a process of learning to draw for the medium, and working one color at a time. Both have a long and colorful history…I have always identified more with printmaking as a popular and democratic form of disseminating art and ideas, such as in Posada’s work, gig posters, zines, etc. Same with tattooing- there is a huge range of talent and mastery but at its most basic level anyone could potentially pick up a sewing needle and india ink and make a crude image. The first prints i made, I had coated screens in my closet, washing them out in my shower, printing blocks by hand and rubbing them with spoons. I am a nerd for process and technique, but love the way both offer opportunity for infinite personal interpretation. Every tattooer and printmaker has their tricks and secrets and the exchange of information is a big part of the ongoing learning process that can keep you evolving over a lifetime.
Recently we have begun to see the emergence of leather, chains, and other bondage/fetish gear in your artistic output. Could you explain your fascination with these sorts of objects and images?
Ever since I was in school for printmaking I have explored imagery and icons of subculture in one way or another. Back then I was putting all these cultural signifiers on nonhuman forms in a silly way- making caricature style drawings of, say, an ice cream cone with arms and legs wearing a leather jacket or spiked collar, because I was so entertained that it made it immediately recognizable as a “punk” ice cream cone or a “heavy metal” whatever, and then I made these monster sculptures that all had a different personality, a biker monster, hesher monster…I was, maybe in an obstinate and juvenile way, pulling all these things that I knew and inserting them into my work as an inside joke of sorts- like if you knew which Motörhead song that lyric was from, you would get it, and if you didn’t you just didn’t. Then I began to experiment with overlapping different subcultural imagery and seeing how it could overlap, where there were similarities and where they were at odds. I made some black and grey illustrations combining punk lyrics and symbols with Chicano imagery, like a bandana patterned Crass symbol, “vida loca” in the Dead Moon lettering, seeing how they worked together. Most recently I have been making paintings of specific leather objects. It began almost as an experiment in rendering, with a huge composition of all these leather things, some BDSM related, some very innocuous, and the finished product was a bit startling in how ominous it looked. An assortment of these shiny black leather things all grouped, it had a very sexual look to it, even though a lot of the objects were things like a vest or a wallet. I’ve made a few others since then, a couple of single objects, most recently a large combat boot. It’s an attempt to isolate and present these objects that have an enormous number of associations depending on the experience of the viewer. People may associate it with neo-Nazi violence, leather daddies, the first pair of Doc Martens they ever owned, the new pair of Alexander Wang boots they’ve been lusting over…I’m now working on what I’ve been calling “portraits” of friends using their own leather belongings as stand-ins for their physical selves, with the idea that you can tell a lot about a person and their lifestyle from these small collections. The BDSM objects are presented in a sexless way, not explicit or in use, to see what power they hold as symbols. People may be afraid of it, disgusted by it, titillated by it, but ultimately it’s their own knowledge and perception that shapes how they see it and react. It’s also very satisfying to paint these very lush and seductive textures.
You are clearly influenced by Chicano iconography and the tradition of black and grey tattooing. Although this style emerged on the West-coast, it has since permeated outwardly – even beyond the United States. How did you come to be exposed to this imagery and style of tattooing and how does it continue to influence your work?
I first started seeing it in tattoo shops, in pages of flash that weren’t seeing much use from what I could tell. The imagery immediately resonated with me from a cultural standpoint as a primarily Chicano tradition. Where I grew up in Georgia there was very little you could call a punk scene, let alone the type of multicultural Latino influenced punk scenes you see in places like California, Texas, or Chicago. In some ways immersing myself in punk as a young person felt like a move away from my Chicana identity, because I wasn’t seeing any strong models for the intersection of the two at the time. Getting tattooed was another thing that felt separate from the Mexican culture I had grown up with. When I saw this specifically Chicano tattoo art it really struck a chord, and felt like something I had been searching for. There’s simultaneously a very beautiful sadness and romance in the imagery as well as a striking toughness and militancy and that’s a combination I try to present in my own tattooing. The depiction of women is especially attractive to me- I find these tough mujeres wearing bandoliers much more fun and relatable to work with. It’s been comforting to continue to overlap classic punk and Chicano imagery and find more and more commonalities. I also just love the visual quality of soft black and grey tattooing. It’s very wearable and it ages beautifully.
Aside from the Chicano subculture, what other subcultures inform your work – be it in style, imagery, work ethic, etc., and why?
Punk and heavy metal have been an influence ever since I was young, both visually (seeing punk flyers, album covers, tattoos on people at shows and in bands) and in teaching me a do-it-yourself ethic. It’s something that has been an enormous benefit in the sense of feeling capable, that anything you might want to do or learn or make isn’t far out of reach, particularly living in a city like New York- there are so many resources and such a multifaceted community here that you can reach out to and work with and figure out new things alongside.
What other tattooers do you draw influence from and what about their work do you find so appealing?
Everyone I’ve been fortunate to work with this far at Three Kings (including a huge extended guest artist family) and now at Saved has left an impression on me and taught me something in one way or another. Some people I’m especially influenced by at the moment are Anderson Luna (his black and grey is so smooth and dimensional, and his drawings are elegant and have the perfect amount of ornament), Regino Gonzales (the man can do it all…his large scale work is astounding and to me his tattoos look like a blueprint for what a tattoo should look like), Chuco Moreno at American Graffiti (for true cholo black and grey), Valerie Vargas (I don’t know what I can say that hasn’t already been said, but phenomenal color, beautiful women, perfect black and grey), and Sarah Carter (her ladies have a ton of attitude and personality and I love the mysterious compositions and religious elements). Daniel Albrigo has also been a constant source of inspiration as a friend, tattooer, and artist.
You recently did a guest spot at Rock of Ages in Austin, Texas. What is your opinion on the relationship between traveling and tattooing and do you plan to do any more of it in the future be it at shops or conventions?
I haven’t traveled as much as a lot of tattooers so far, but I have done a handful of guest spots and am planning more in the coming year. I do appreciate it as valuable to continued growth, being inspired by seeing other shops, developing new clientele, and getting to know other tattooers. I tend to get a bit of social anxiety when it comes to being out of my comfort zone and meeting new people but I’m trying to break out of my shell more!
Describe for readers a day in the life of Tamara Santibanez.
I normally wake up around eight or so, make coffee and breakfast with my boyfriend. I’ll start doing things in my studio, which is in our house, and if I’m tattooing that day. I’ll usually draw till noon or so, then head to the shop. On days off I’ll try to spend as much time working on drawing for tattoos and painting as I can. On successful days that means most of the day with a little break here and there for coffee, food, and minor human interaction. I watch a lot of crime television dramas while I work so after eight hours straight you can start to feel loopy and paranoid.
What are your short and long term goals as an artist?
It’s difficult for me to say specifically. One of the things I appreciate most about living in New York is that opportunities present themselves unexpectedly all the time. I try to just produce work consistently and try to develop continuously, and take advantage of those opportunities as they arise. I do love working collaboratively with tattooers, artists, designers, musicians, anyone. I suppose my goals for the foreseeable future are to continue growing and working. I never want to be phoning anything in.