Most of the needles humming in today’s tattoo shops are wielded by men. Still, as the scale between the number of men and women sporting tattoos tips towards female, artists like Michelle Santana are turning the male-dominated industry on its head. The New York City-based artist is the latest Latina, the likes of Kat Von D and Tata Baby, is shaking up the tattoo industry and giving the boys a run for their money.
Santana was 19 when she started slinging ink in her Colombian hometown.
Like plenty of Latinas, Santana was raised by a strict mother whose approval of tattoos didn’t go far. After getting her first ink job on her leg at the age of 16, Santana wore pants for two years to keep it hidden from her mother. “My mom asked me a few times why I never wore shorts but I have always dressed baggy with hip hop vibes so it was normal,” the artist told FIERCE. “When I turned 18 I told her I was going to get a tattoo… I showed [her] my leg and she was like ‘What is that, you got a diablo on your leg?!’ And stopped talking to me for two weeks. Even now she gets angry and makes sarcastic comments like ‘why don’t you get a tattoo on your ass?'”
Despite her mother’s reaction, Santana became hooked, and at 19 she got her hands on her own tattoo kit. Actually, it was her mother who fronted her with the cash. “I went to my mom and told her I wanted to buy it and she told me ‘no.’ I told her if she buys it, I’ll go to college and study whatever she wants me to. So, she bought me the kit and bought me a car haha. My mom would do anything to get me into college.”
Santana’s first tattoos were done for friends and locals in her own bedroom, until eventually she decided to travel the world and master her ink skills.
She’s since learned to balance the dichotomy of two clashing cultural tattoo styles. The urbane looks desired by her clientele in New York, and the bold ones of her home ground of Colombia.
“Because I started in Colombia and I traveled to other countries, I can see a difference in style,” Santana says of her ability to adapt to client demands. “In NYC, I always found it to be a good place to do tattoos. Since I started working here, its easier to get a person in the chair. They’ll get basically anything and have the craziest ideas. We’ll talk about it, and that’s it. New Yorkers/Americans in general are more flexible and don’t overthink it. It’s a good opportunity for me to develop other styles of tattooing and that’s how my style has changed. In Colombia people don’t ask for what’s out here, so I have to adapt. In Colombia, people want bigger designs and for them, the bigger, the better. To them color looks prettier too, and they like to add onto designs even if it isn’t needed.”
Santana’s desire to develop her talent has taken her across European countries like Spain and Amsterdam.
It’s also what ultimately brought her to New York, where she divides her time between a shop in Manhattan and the one she owns in Colombia. Despite the facilities she’s collected from her travels, Santana is no stranger to having her ability to brandish a needle questioned by the men she works with. Her skill of marking out the signature fine-macro lines of her pieces, which most artists struggle to master, has gained her quite a bit of attention in the past few years. Still, she finds that new male clients frequently hesitate to work with her.
“They want a masculine tattoo, and want a man to do it cause he can ‘relate.'”
For Santana, one of her biggest challenges comes when male clients take a seat in her chair for a consultation. “You can see the client not responding to what you’re saying. They’ll see another tattooer walk by and ask ‘is he a tattooer?’, then ignore me after that.” Santana says. “They just think I’m not able to do the design. They want a masculine tattoo, and want a man to do it cause he can “relate.'”
Still, Santana’s succes as a self-taught Latina tattoo artist makes the male skepticism easy to brush off.
“Having all those people that live near me and trust in me to practice on them means a lot to me. I’m proud of every tattoo I have done — tribal, butterflies, and every infinity symbol is what makes me.” Santana says. “If I focused only on small tattoos when I first started, I wouldn’t be where I am. I wouldn’t be able to do the small ones if I didn’t do other styles. I learned so much about placement, skin types, and dealing with people while in small shops, different cities and different cultures. I’m proud to be able to get an genuine thank you from a client. Its important to have a good connection with them – its an experience they won’t forget and I want to make it the best that I can.”
With more and more artists like Santana emerging from tattoo shops, there’s no doubt the future of the industry is coming up female.
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