Tattoo Artist

Agustín came home late one night and found a taxi waiting outside the door of his apartment/tattoo studio. A woman got out of the taxi and said, "Diego wants you to do a tattoo for him." Agustín asked which Diego she was talking about. "Diego Armando Maradona," the woman said. Agustín thought it sounded like a joke, but he asked when the Argentine football legend might want an appointment. "Right now!" the woman said. "Get your things. He's waiting." This was in 2004 and Maradona was in Havana's La Pradera clinic recovering from the 20-year addiction to cocaine that had hurt his football career and ruined his health. And he wanted to be tattooed.

"His bodyguard came out and told me to start preparing everything," Agustín recalls. "And then in comes Maradona with a football, wham, wham, he starts playing with it, and I get goose bumps. Shit, I'm standing in front of the great Maradona! And then he says, `What have you got to show me?' And I ask him what kind of tattoo he wants. `No,' he says. `I want several.'

Maradona had already commemorated his love for Cuba, where he owns a house and had first come for rehab in 2000, with a tattoo of Fidel Castro on his left leg and another of Che Guevara on his right shoulder. Now he wanted something different. Agustín spent the next three days at the clinic tattooing the names of Maradona's daughters, Gianinna and Dalma, on each of the footballers forearms.

Tattoos used to be seen as unsavory and dangerous in Havana, no different from any other big city. You may be able to get tattooed in shopping malls and hair salons in Los Angeles or London, but 50 years ago you would have had to go to the red-light district, or to a sailor bar, or to prison. In Havana today, tattoo artists may not be as high-profile as they are in those other cities, but at least they can now call themselves "artist" and get away with it.

Agustín Tattoos is perhaps the most well-known address on the Havana tattoo landscape but the studio is surprisingly discreet, housed in an apartment building on Calle 60 in a quiet corner of the Buena Vista/Playa district.

Downstairs is the waiting room, featuring a miniature pool table, orange inflatable chairs, two guys playing solitaire on a computer, and a collection of ceramic statues of dogs, cats, pigs, Japanese monks and Roman emperors. Up a flight of stairs is the room where the tattooing happens, next to the bedroom where Agustín sleeps.

Agustín has just turned 30, which puts him at the upper end of the age bracket for established tattoo practitioners in Havana. He was 15 when he inked his first paying customer, who requested a tattoo of a Mortal Kombat dragon. "I started with a homemade stencil pen and Pelican ink," he says. "Then I learned about tattoo machines, from foreign tattoo magazines. My first machine came from my cousin who lives in Italy. She gave it to me as a gift, with a couple of jars of ink."

On the day of his interview with Havana Cultura, Agustín is inking a pair of wings on the back of a woman named Sara. "Young women often come here to get butterfiles or dragonflies," he says. "They like parrots and hummingbirds, too." And the men? "Tribal markings or Zodiac signs — lions, crabs. And they like devils, demons. Whatever turns you on, right?"