Photographer: Jonathan David (@jonathandavidph)
Tattoos are a product of a progressive city, where the artist class thrives. When I first arrived in Barranquilla back in 2012, I saw a lot of bare arms, legs, and necks, and zero tattoos. It was fascinating to see so much beautiful virgin skin, but at the time, I was wondering how long the trend would take to get here because it had already reached Bogota and Medellin years ago. I have a visible tattoo on my arm and leg and people (at the time) would always ask, “where are you from?” as if the ink gave it away (which it did).
But that was four years ago and the tattoo culture in Barranquilla is growing faster than the new carreteras and high-rise buildings. Similar to our American neighbors up north, where every demographic between 18-65+ years is getting tattooed each year, Barranquilleros are also braving the needle and following the trend. Everyone from local athletes, artists, and celebrities seem to be expressing themselves on their arms, legs, chests, ribcages, hands, and necks.
I interviewed Gustavo one afternoon as he was tattoing a grayscale protrait of a crowned-Jesus. His tattoo shop is located in front of Universidad Metropolitano. I’m not sure if that was done on purpose, but he found a perfect home in front of hundreds of college students who walk by his shop on a daily basis. We were lucky to catch Gustavo a day before he left for an international event in Belgium.
When did you become a tattoo and body modification artist?
I’m a Barranquillero and have been tattooing for the last six years. I’ve always lived in this city and I’ve always liked the tattoo culture even if it’s really different than the regular culture of Barranquilla and La Costa. I’ve been in the same shop for the past three years and it’s been the best place.
I really like being a body modification artist. As you can see, my eyes are tattooed blue and my tongue is split. I don’t think we’ll ever see that here in Barranquilla, but it’s a process. In my personal experience, it’s been pretty good. I’m known in Barranquilla and have had some press, but there are people who are still scared to talk to me because of my eyes. People think that I’m either possessed or on drugs, but thankfully the majority are really nice to me. The culture is just different here in the city. I like to travel often and people outside the country are really open to me.
Just by looking at your studio, I see that you create many different designs. What do you like to tattoo and which styles do Barranquilleros request most often?
Barranquilleros in general like smaller tattoos, tribal designs, geometric shapes or letters, but they are starting to get bolder and the designs are getting bigger, and they are exposing more tattoos. My specialty is caligraphy/lettering and that is what people look for me to do, but I can pretty much tattoo every type of style, especially traditional tattoos. I also like to tattoo shadow realism but I don’t like to do portraits of people because they are plenty of tattoo artists who like to do them, and I’d rather focus on other designs.
What do you think about the culture of tattoos and body modification in Barranquilla?
It’s a culture that is just starting, but it’s a real closed-off culture for most Barranquilleros. You just never saw tattoos in the past. It’s changing for sure due to movies and music and technology. Enter Facebook and Instagram and you see that everyone is tattooed; soccer players, music bands, models; it’s starting to look normal.
It’s common to see Barranquilleros now with tattoos because they are starting to travel outside the country, which is another big trend, and they see the tattoo culture and like it. Many more people are starting to call and that’s pretty cool. The good tattoo artists are starting to fill up their appointments and some people are having to wait up to two months to get tattooed.
All the Colombian cities are different. Bogota is more American-style and various artists work together in a shop that stay open later. In Barranquilla, tattoo artists tend to work by themselves. It’s not like your home city of Dallas where stores are open late at night. The drunks here have other things on their mind, and it’s not getting tattooed.
What advice can you give to Barranquilleros who are interested in getting their first tattoo?
The most important thing is to choose the right artist. Study their portfolio and check out their social media accounts and read their comments. Most good tattoo artists are on social media. Find out how many people are following them. Find out if they are leaving good comments. Make sure that you verify the photos of their work because there are tattoo artists who download fake pictures. Be patient. Know what design you want, not something that you’re going to come back in two years to cover it up.
What do you see for yourself in five years as an artist in Barranquilla?
I have plans to eventually work internationally. I’ve been invited to work in Belgium, Istanbul, Madrid, France, and Austria. But in five years, I will be here in Barranquilla. I can make good money in the exterior, but the tattoo culture is growing here in Barranquilla and I want to be here for it. My main store will always be here in Barranquilla, this is my home. I want to support the culture here and eventually, people will start to familiarize themselves with tattoos and forget that it was once taboo. My hashtag campaign #lostuatadossomosmas is attracting all kinds people and we are using it to build unity.