Guillermo “Memo” Villalobos opened the country’s first tattoo shop in 1993. In the beginning, there stood Alphavibra in Coronado, northeast of San José. No other legal tattoo shop existed in Costa Rica. But others wanted to be like Memo.
The teenagers practiced in the streets. Javier “Kella” Jiménez did needlework on his bravest friends. Hiram Cordero built his own tattooing equipment at 16. They skated and studied tattoo magazines. In the late 1990s, Memo finally saw competition. Alejandro Cole started Stattoos Tattoo Studio. Charlie Solórzano opened Arte Primitivo. The number of tattoo parlors in Costa Rica still could be counted on one hand in 1999. However, this group of tattooists took art seriously.
The artists honed their craft. They studied different techniques and traveled throughout Central America to do work. Costa Rica’s tattoo pioneers even worked with the Health Ministry to create laws to help make the practice more sanitary. And others wanted to be like them.
A decade later, more than 50 street-legal tattoo shops do business in Costa Rica. Those artists demonstrated their work last weekend at the country’s first-ever official tattoo convention on the fifth-floor of the Cariari Mall in northwest San José. Approximately 75 tattoo artists from 10 different countries set up booths at the three-day fair. Some came as far as Iceland and the United Kingdom. The tattooed vixen and reality TV star Ruth “Ruthless” Pineda courted fans to her booth. But neither she nor any of the other foreigners could compete with Costa Rica’s homegrown talent.
“It’s a good scene around here,” said Brandon McCullers, who organized the convention. “[Costa Rica] has some really good artists, a couple guys who’ve been doing it for a long time. And to be honest they have a good following. They’ve been the busiest ones here out of any of the artists. I thought some of the American ones may be the busier ones just because of the fact that people can’t see them, but it’s been busiest for the Ticos.”
In a corner booth, a lamp focused on the torso of Gustavo Echeverría. Hiram Cordero leaned into the light, and poked a needle into Echeverría’s skin. The tattooist wore stylish-black rimmed glasses, a striped tank top, white gloves and his many tattoos as he outlined onto Echeverría’s body the hideous maw of a Predator. The grotesque alien, who makes enemies with Arnold Schwarzenegger in a 1987 sci-fi classic, scoured from the Costa Rican’s barrel-chested physique. Echeverría is a large, bearded man who called himself a “comic book freak.” He presented his left arm to prove this point. Detailed portraits of comic superheroes like Batman, Wolverine and Spawn make appearances on his skin.
Echeverría sees his body as a canvas. For each work of art, he wanted a professional. The latest design was guided by the steady hand of Cordero for six hours last Saturday. The artist, who owns 506 Tattoo in downtown San José, has watched Costa Rica’s tattoo scene evolve with his own tattooing ability.
“Right now it’s the biggest scene in Central America,” Cordero, 35, said. “And it’s nice because it’s not gang related. It’s never been like that; it’s more open-minded.”
Costa Ricans’ receptiveness to varying tattooing styles can be seen in Cordero’s own work. Tico tattoos run the gamut with black-and-gray prints, realistic characters, colorful sleeves and Japanese symbols.
The tattoo scene here is so diverse that Costa Ricans appear to miss a cultural identity when it comes to body art. Jiménez, who has run Dermagráfica Tattoo Studio for 13 years, said he’s inked designs of orchids, indigenous Boruca masks and his country’s flag on Ticos. But unlike Mexico, Jiménez said, where tattoos of Aztec symbols or national heroes like Pancho Villa are common, Costa Ricans prefer to have a Japanese word stenciled into the inside of their bottom lip or an abstract drawing etched permanently into their body rather than a cultural image.
Several Costa Rican visitors to the fair did display one tattooing trend, the practice of honoring the name of a son or daughter by tattooing it on a tract of flesh. One woman cradled her 5-month-old son as an artist jabbed the little boy’s name, “Santiago,” into the mother’s arm.
With national symbols nearly absent, outrageous and inventive images defined the most elaborate Tico tattoos. Adriana Acuña, 21, rolled up her sleeve and revealed an entire circus on her upper arm. A big top stretched across her shoulder. Below the circus tent, a ringmaster commanded elephants and tigers. On Acuña’s bicep, chalk-faced clowns cavorted next to the Bearded Woman and a sword swallower.
Foreign tattoo enthusiasts take the most pride in Costa Rica’s own emblems and motifs.
Canadian Tyler Madill lifted his forearm to show off a tattoo that shouted “Pura Vida, Eh.” Above the Costa Rican catchphrase a jaguar lurked in a jungle also inhabited by vipers and other creatures.
“Every tattoo should mean something to you,” Madill, 32, said. “And that’s why this whole arm is Costa Rica.”
Madill came to the convention with a chef named Eyal Ben Menachem, 41. The Israeli restaurateur’s body is branded with intricate tattoos of Arenal Volcano and fish like the moray eel and mahi-mahi. Ben Menachem has owned a restaurant called Gingerbread for the last eight years, but the convention marked one of the few times he’s taken a full day off of work since opening. Ben Menachem learned his favorite Tico artist would be at the convention after leaving the country for six months.
After a slow start, Tico talent is abound in the country. Cordero complained that tattooing is gaining so much attention that the Health Ministry has tightened the regulations for getting a license. (Though, the rules are not that strict. Some of the U.S. artists laughed when asked if a tattoo convention like this one could ever take place in a similar venue – a parking garage – in the United States). Still, the Costa Rican artists will take it. Compared to the past, a grungy tattoo convention like this might even carry a trace of elegance.
“They’ve had a couple smaller ones – in bars,” McCullers said. “But nothing that was organized to this extent at least, and with this many artists.”