No Longer Taboo, Tattoos Are Reclaimed by Hondurans to Express Love Not Hate
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Ruth Pineda stood with her back to the mirror, the strap of her tank top tucked under her arm, revealing a new tattoo: a heart. Inside were three dolphins jumping over the sea at sunset.“The big dolphin is me — the mom — and the two little ones are my sons,” she said.
With her tattoo complete after a three-hour session, Ms. Pineda studied the artwork etched into her skin with equal parts admiration and disbelief. The tattoo is her first, and a statement the 43-year-old schoolteacher has wanted to make for nearly 20 years, but never quite felt she could.
For decades, tattoos weren’t just unfashionable in religiously conservative Honduras. They were taboo, with a malevolent history as an identifying feature of deadly gangs like Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, and the 18th Street gang, or Barrio 18.
Those gangs are two of the primary sources of the pervasive violence in the country that has sent so many migrants fleeing north.
Various tattooed signs and symbols indicated a gang member’s rank within his organization or what crimes he had committed. Other gang-related tattoos included images of the Virgin of Guadalupe; spider webs; three dots; barbed wire; and yin-yang symbols.
In the early 2000s, amid rising lawlessness across the country, the government of then-president Ricardo Maduro passed legislation that came down hard on criminal activity, banning any “illicit association” to gangs. Tattoos became a major police target, interpreted as proof that someone belonged to the likes of MS-13 or 18th Street.
To evade official scrutiny and incarceration, members stopped getting tattoos. Any they did get were inked in inconspicuous places.
But in recent years, tattoos have become more commonplace, slowly migrating from the underbelly of society to the bellies of ordinary citizens (and their arms, legs and backs), aided by their ubiquitous exposure in global pop culture.
“Things are changing now,” said Ms. Pineda, the schoolteacher. “More and more people are getting tattoos.”
In the capital, Tegucigalpa, it is easy these days to spot people with benign body art, depicting characters from their favorite books, quotes in elaborate cursive or animals crawling slyly across their flesh.
“People started seeing tattoos as a fashion trend to follow,” said Mei Lan Quan, one of the first female tattoo artists in Tegucigalpa.
Public figures, like soccer players and singers, started appearing on TV and in magazines with visible tattoos, and foreign visitors brought the tattoo culture with them. The reality television show, “Miami Ink,” popular here, made a big impression.
“It opened up a lot of minds here,” Ms. Quan said, referring to the show.
By claiming tattoos for themselves, everyday citizens are helping to normalize this form of creative expression. And their appeal is growing, tattoo artists say.
When Ms. Quan, who is known by her artist name, Elephanta Tattoo, opened her first shop in 2011, she had only five or six customers per week. Now, she tattoos six or seven people on a busy Saturday.
Her male clients tend to get illustrations of wolves, tigers and eagles. Women prefer infinity symbols, arrows, flowers, quotes or dates.
Most first-timers used to start off small, said Juan Carlos Pulido, a tattoo artist known as Fonty. But recently he has noticed that people are bolder at the outset, requesting large tattoos in more visible locations — forearms, calves and hands.
“People are getting bigger pieces than they did in the past,” he said.
Mr. Pulido, a 38-year-old from Nicaragua, has been living in Honduras for two-and-a-half years. He has tattoos covering most of his arms. When he first arrived, he said he almost never left them exposed. He lived in a gang-controlled area and was aware he could be linked to criminal activity.
Now, he feels more confident walking around with his arms uncovered.
“People are starting to see the difference of the artistic tattoos and the gang-related tattoos,” Mr. Pulido said.
For some, tattoos are a connection to a family separated by migration.
Jesus Martinez, a 27-year-old cook working in a small pizzeria in the capital, has an illustration of his mother’s headshot from her days as a model tattooed on the inside of his right forearm, stretching from his wrist to his elbow.
“It’s a way of introducing my mom to people,” Mr. Martinez said. She left for the United States when he was 2, and he didn’t see her again until he was 12. Now, they message by text every day. She still lives in the United States, and called for a video chat when he was getting his tattoo.
People do stare at him, Mr. Martinez conceded, because the stigma of tattoos hasn’t entirely gone away. But that doesn’t stop him from wearing a shortsleeve shirt.
His co-worker, Allison Lagos, 21, said she no longer harbored a prejudice against tattooed people as dangerous.
“Before working here, I was a little afraid of people with tattoos,” she said.
Despite these changing views, flaunting tattoos can still be a problem in the eyes of law enforcement and private security in stores.
Mr. Pulido said he has been stopped by the police and questioned about his tattoos. Ms. Quan added that she knew many people who had experienced similar run-ins.
“Society still has a long way to go,” Ms. Quan said.
In 2016, a famous Honduran musician, Ramsés Barrientos, made local headlines when he described the “harassment and discrimination” he had faced while shopping in a supermarket, where he was followed around by security.
“We still live in a country where tattooed people are frowned upon and judged,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
In addition to the remaining social disapproval, some Christians, especially members of older generations, view tattoos as a sin.
“In the eyes of God, it’s not proper to get a tattoo,” said Glenda Suazo, 49, an evangelical Christian who works in the Ministry of Health.
And yet even she isn’t immune to the allure of tattoos.
“Right now I have been having an internal struggle,” Ms. Suazo admitted. She pulled out her phone and pulled up photos of her dog, Puky, a cocker spaniel who died last August at age 15. She started to cry.
“I had Puky since she was 45 days old,” she said. “I’ve thought that I’d like to get a tattoo of her paw print.”