Meet Leo Canosa, Founder of Cuba’s First (Sort of) Legal Tattoo Studio La Marca

Lead Photo: La Marca / Photo: Alejandro Ernesto for EFE
La Marca / Photo: Alejandro Ernesto for EFE
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As tattoo art has exploded in Cuba over the last few years, artists have grown accustomed to operating in a legal grey area known as “alegality” – a state of tacit permission that encompasses most anything not directly under the purview of the state. While this guarantees a constant level of insecurity for the country’s free-market pioneers – in which at any moment government officials can shut you down and seize your merchandise – it has allowed some of the country’s more innovative thinkers to lay the groundwork for the country’s future.

And that’s exactly what Leo Canosa and the crew at La Marca cultural center have done for the island’s booming body art scene. Conceived two years ago as an effort to position tattooing as a legitimate form of creative expression, La Marca’s designation as a cultural center was also a clever way to open the island’s first (somewhat) licensed tattoo studio. But Canosa’s relationship with body art actually extends back over two decades, and the art school graduate was responsible for the first official recognition of a body art event back in 1998 with the project “Lienzos vivientes.”

But these days, as growing familiarity with international celebrities revolutionizes the tastes of younger Cubans, Canosa saw the need to uplift the art form and offer a more aesthetic alternative to the proliferation of “tribal tattoos and panthers” that is sweeping his country. Through a series of concerts, workshops, and gallery exhibitions, Canosa and his collective of tattoo auteurs have sought to instill a cultural appreciation for the history and practice of body art. But while they’re clearly forging new ground, by no means is La Marca looking for a monopoly on artistic validation.

Photo: Will Coldwell
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“It would be great if we had competition,” Canosa told OnCuba in a recent interview. “That’s what this gallery is about: further developing the idea of tattoos in Cuba, so that others take us as an example.” But unfortunately, after a recent government crackdown on Havana’s informal tattoo parlors left La Marca untouched, simmering tensions with some of their counterparts exploded into accusations and jealousy. “They view us as a threat,” Canosa summarized bluntly.

But that won’t stop La Marca from spreading its message and creating an exciting synergy with artists working across disciplines. “Tattoo artists here in Cuba have been surprised because [La Marca] has opened worlds that we were unfamiliar with, like poster art, which was something we knew nothing about,” Canosa reflected. “That has enriched us, it’s given us the will to push forward, and do new things.”

But while La Marca has carved out a semi-legal niche that allows it’s tight-nit crew of artists to thrive, there are still more battles to be waged, starting on a very practical level with Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health. Indeed, Cuba’s alegal limbo has made it impossible for artists to consult with health officials to establish medical and sanitary best practices – a small detail that could mean the difference between a sweet tattoo and a nasty infection. Even so, with their network informal imports and robust exchange with counterparts in countries like Mexico, the crew at La Marca has managed to avoid infectious diseases while garnering an international reputation for their work. Now it’s just up to the Cuban government to catch up.