Tattoos in Latin American Culture

bird tattoo - Latinaish.com

Carlos’s second tattoo

I don’t have a single tattoo, and while I have nothing against them, it’s a good thing I never got one. Impulsive as I tend to be, and with passions that change over time, the tattoo I would have wanted at 18 years old is not one I would have been happy with today. At times I have drawn a design on myself with permanent marker (usually on my wrist) to see how it would look, and even if I love it, by the end of the day, I’m ready to wash it off. If I ever get one, maybe it would be something functional, like a “to do” list, or a Harry Potter reference, perhaps a favorite Lotería card, but for now I’m happy being ink-free.

Carlos on the other hand has two tattoos and has been planning on a third. The first one he got was my name on his back – his mother still doesn’t know about it, (unless she discovered this blog.) … She lived with us at the time Carlos got it and it was awkward to see him as a grown man, making sure he didn’t have his shirt off around his mother lest she find out. Apparently his older brother got a tattoo years ago and it earned him a good slap in the face when he showed her.

I’ve asked Carlos before, “Why do you get tattoos?” – because each individual has different reasons. Aside from liking the way they look, he’s realized that part of it is a sort of rebellion for him. His mother always had strict expectations for Carlos that dictated everything about how he live his life – some of those expectations being illogical, unfair, impossible, and burdensome. Getting tattoos is one way he began to claim his independence – more so an internal message to himself than an outward message to her, since, like I said, she still doesn’t even know about the tattoos.

The second tattoo Carlos got is of a pre-Columbian bird symbol, a reminder of his roots.

I love both his tattoos, and more importantly, he does too, but they haven’t been without problems.

When we traveled back to El Salvador, at one point Carlos wanted to renew his DUI, (which is a form of Salvadoran identification, not a “Driving Under the Influence.”) At DUI Centro (which is sort of like the Department of Motor Vehicles) you have to state whether you have tattoos as part of the process to get your ID. If they don’t believe you, they have you remove your shirt for inspection.

Having a tattoo in El Salvador can carry a heavy stigma and cause suspicion from law enforcement due to the history of gangs and their love of ink. Gang members themselves may also target you if they suspect you’re from a different gang.

Apparently, not only is there a stigma in Latin America because of gangs, but this has caused problems for Latino immigrants to the United States who have been denied visas, permanent residency and citizenship just because of their tattoos.

Here are some quotes from people on having tattoos in El Salvador:

“My friend’s first time going to El Salvador, he had tattoos on his arms and some gang members on the streets saw him and even followed him to his abuela’s house. Although the tattoos weren’t gang related, the gang members associated the tats with some other gang they didn’t know. They threatened him and said he had to pay “rent” and not to try and do anything funny. Every 20 minutes, the same red car came by and stop in front of the house which obviously meant someone was keeping an eye on him. He had to sneak out of the house that night and stay at another relatives house.”Amanda F., Trip Advisor

“If you’re of Salvadoran descent…you should definitely take care to cover them. There’s a huge difference between a white girl with tattoos and a Latino in ES. Many companies won’t even hire someone with even one tattoo here, that’s how deep the preconceived notion of tats are.”travel82bug, Trip Advisor

“I have one that I can conceal which I got when I was 18. When my mother saw it ten years later she stormed out and I had to chase after her to then hear a one hour lecture on how I have ruined my body, made my self look like a criminal, only gang members have tattoos in El Salvador, blah blah blah… She’s more accepting now that both her daughters have small hidden tattoos and both of her Australian son-in-laws have them too. As respect for her, and because of the stigma I would probably not get another one though. And when I took my husband to El Salvador last year I made him cover the tattoos on his arms and chest. Now I am a mother I think I might get upset too when/if my baby boy gets one, even if it is a beautiful one… I made him so perfectly beautiful. I understand my own mother now.”Lamden, Facebook

“My husband got his mother’s middle name instead of her first name on his arm because her first name has an ‘M’ in it. He won’t get our daughters name either because of the ‘M.’ The cantón where he’s from has a lot of 18 [18th street] gang members so to put an ‘M’ on himself would be a death wish.”Josie Iraheta, Facebook

“I have 3 tattoos that I got latter in my life, and when I went back to ES to visit my parents, my dad asked me to cover them, because his co-workers and friends would be put off by them. I got upset but honored his request out of respect. I wasn’t treated different by anyone else because of my ink, and I look like your normal average middle age woman when I cover them. But I want to get one by a Salvadorian artist if I go back to ES.”LadyAmalthea, Facebook

The good news is that in recent years, there has been a strong, organized movement to change perceptions of tattoos in El Salvador and in other parts of Latin America. At the time of this writing, almost a dozen tattoo parlors are listed for San Salvador in the Páginas Amarillas.

Do you have a tattoo? Have you experienced discrimination from strangers, friends or family in El Salvador or elsewhere? Share in comments!

Posted on February 3, 2014, in art, beliefs, Culture, Salvadoreños. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Interesting there’s no comments. I don’t have a tatuaje (one of my favorite words in spanish by the way)…and I don’t want one. I remember my mom got a tiny one but it’s been 14 years since she passed away and I can’t even remember what it was of. I remember her being excited she got it when it happened, but it must have been small and hidden somewhere because I don’t remember seeing it much after that.

    I have a cousin that was a tattoo artist…he is covered in tattoos, but now does something else and the last time I saw him, I remember him talking about wanting to remove some of them. That’s why I’m fine with the wet and stick kind the kids always bring home.

  2. In Honduras (neighbors!!!) it used to be the same way – tattoos used to be for gangs only. Now, at least in the cities, that’s not the case and a lot of young people get tattoos. Everyone knows what tattoos are gang related, so unless you’re *in* a gang, you don’t get those done. Also, mareros often have their own tattoo artists or have specific tattoo shops where they go, so non-gang members don’t even cross their paths while getting tattoos done. It should be noted that certain themes, like God, mothers, and flag tattoos are popular among everyone who gets tattoos (mareros included) so having one of those won’t get you mistaken for a gang member. And obviously, if some hipster teen has a tattoo of a rosary, everyone knows he’s not a marero, tattoo or not. However, if someone is *heavily* tattooed then it’s safe to assume that they’re in a gang.

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