[Interview] Helena Ortega, tatuadora – Mexico City

By Frankey

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes 30 seconds

CIUDAD DE MÉXICO – Life in Mexico City for women is exponentially more difficult than it is here in Australia. It begins at such a disadvantaged base that genuine options for careers are inherently limited from the outset. They say that choosing what you want to do in life is the most difficult part, but Mexican society is so heavily dominated by men that making a break in any endeavour is met with hurdle after hurdle. It’s not just the saturation of men in positions of power that makes it hard, it’s the culture that such entrenchment cultivates and the resulting vulnerability that women face to sexual harassment and discrimination. In the tattoo world of Mexico City, this is particularly apparent; in a culture long curated and controlled by men, being a female tattooist (tatuadora) means being judged rarely by the quality of your work, but instead by the outfits you wear, the amount of skin you expose, the kind of makeup you use, and the size and shape of your body. Indeed, it’s all for you to be blamed.

For Helena Ortega, a successful and passionate tatuadora working out of a studio in the Escuadrón 201 district of Mexico City, about 30 minutes south of the city centre by Uber, this is her reality. The studio is discrete. It has to be, because of the stigma, the regulations associated with a proper studio, and the need to ensure her safety. The place is signless and it’s fronted by an imposing corrugated barrier that makes it impossible to see what’s inside, even during the day.

Inside, it’s clean, white, and appropriately minimalistic. A male friend greets me off the corner of his eye while he’s engaged intently on something on his iPhone 4 or 5. We saunter to the back wall of the studio, where Helena’s prepared some drawings based on some suggestions I’d given the night before. We eventually decide on a reinterpretation of one of her flash designs to incorporate more of my personality and style and she indicates she’s going to need about half an hour to prepare the sketch. So I leave her to her craft.

In the underground scene of tattooists in Mexico, there’s a strong philosophy that above everything, art comes first. Tattooing is simply the medium through which tatuadoras impart their art. Skin is the canvas. Drawing is the focus. Helena doesn’t use computers to design her tattoos. She doesn’t use a printer to prepare the stencil, either. She literally sits there, drawing the stencil over the purple imprint, in a slow artistic ritual. As she prepares the design, her husband arrives with a few friends and already the vibe is definitively Mexican.

In Mexico City, and I imagine across Mexico, strict regulations govern the operation of commercial tattoo studios. According to Helena, they involve heavy costs for equipment and excessive licenses. Ostentatious cleaning equipment for needles is required even though most artists use disposable needles for increased safety. But as with a lot of things in Mexico, laws that involve money don’t always make sense. It’s because of this that the underground tattoo scene is gradually eclipsing the incumbent commercial industry, according to Helena. Equipment is increasingly more cheap and tutorials on YouTube mean amateurs are flourishing and exploding based on the quality of their art, rather than whether they have the financial means to meet the government’s exorbitant demands. Helena practiced regularly on herself and her husband before becoming competent at her craft, and having YouTube University has meant that the game has changed.

Before we begin, adorned in black gloves, Helena shows me two sachets of equipment housing the needles and the machine she’ll use. She shows me the verification on the package as to when the equipment has been sanitised and until when they have been certified to be safe for use. They’re both good until about 2026. I’m satisfied, but it’s a little eerie considering this process doesn’t exist back in Melbourne, where we’re inclined to trust that if you’re getting a tattoo in a studio, everything’s going to be fine.

Helena is currently 7 months pregnant, due sometime in early March 2018. According to the ultrasound, it has the features of a girl. It scares me a little bit, she says. Because women are discriminated against in all industries, not just in tattoos. She’s quietly hopeful that the future of Mexico is changing. But if things don’t work out, we’ll try our best to move to the States, she says.

When Helena first started thinking about becoming a tattoo artist, her romantic disposition was narrowly focussed on the traditional pathway of walking into a studio and applying for an apprenticeship. But as a woman, it just wasn’t something she could do. It wasn’t something she’d realised immediately at first, but in studios saturated by men, she could never have been taken seriously. She would have been open to being groped and sexually harassed on a daily basis, and it wasn’t the kind of community she would have wanted to be a part of.

It’s not that Helena holds any resentment against the commercial tattoo scene, or that women can’t necessarily thrive in those environments. It’s just not for her. Commercial artists are more often than not inking designs clients have scrubbed off the internet, rather than anything original. For her, that’s a compromise of her artistic integrity that rubs wrongly against the fabric that defines her. She accepts and acknowledges that the studio life is a living and one must do what is essential to survive. In Mexico City, with a population of 22 million, this is yet another reality for literally tens of millions of people.

So she had to find her inspiration in other ways, and fortunately a fellow student of hers, and now owner of the studio in which we find ourselves, took a brave leap of faith and set the course for where she is now. It takes a lot of courage and bravery. You have to be very brave. Because for Helena, being brave is not only an essential part of being a tatuadora, it’s a crucial trait of being a woman.

With Violeta on the way, tattooing alone isn’t enough to sustain a family, especially at underground rates. It’s another nail in the coffin of disadvantage. So Helena also works for Cambio, a social change magazine led by the inspirational Elizabeth Palacios. It’s Helena’s first “real” job, and something her parents are finally proud of, which took a lot of time and reflection. When she first revealed her intentions of becoming a tatuadora, her parents would not speak to her at all, even at major family events like Christmas and New Years. It’s a reality that many women face from their parents, should they not succumb to their assigned gender roles – often as housewives. It’s the idea that women need to work honestly and have “respectable jobs”, supporting their husbands. Fortunately, Helena’s parents are slowly coming around (and being pregnant certainly helps – her mother’s probably more excited than she is). Now with Cambio, Helena designs a lot of the covers, and she’s given a decent amount of creative control. She’s able to produce unique designs that she can proudly say are distinctively her. Although it distracts her from her tattooing for three days every week, it’s a valid outlet for her art and it helps to pay more of the bills – because every single peso counts.

The minimum wage here is just a little over $4AUD. A day. It’s basically impossible to make a living no matter how many hours you work that day and shifts commonly exceed 12 hours in spite of whatever the government says. I met countless Uber drivers who admitted that they worked seven days a week, regardless of public holidays, and would regularly work 15-16 hour days, just so they could financially sustain the families they loved. One of them was a veterinarian, with a son who was a doctor, and they both drove through the week. For many, a single job just doesn’t cut it, even one that would traditionally be considered lucrative in a more developed country. Professionals struggle to find decent work because salaries are so incredibly low and their skills are simply underappreciated.

As Helena continues through the first half of my tattoo, we discuss the stigma against tattoos here, why many feel so uncomfortable around those with tattoos, and why they’re openly discriminated against. Consider being discriminated against for being a woman, and compounding it with having tattoos. It’s discrimination by association, according to Helena. The general Mexican population has historically associated tattoos with criminals and “narcos”. And the stigma against narcos is particularly strong. Drugs destroy lives, and the average Mexican wants nothing to do with it. Having tattoos therefore automatically associates you with that culture, and this fear naturally instills hatred and unease. But Mexicans often don’t know what the tattoos mean and find difficulty differentiating the culture from the art. Sí, there are tattoos that denote criminals, like tear drops, insignias and numbers, but Mexicans don’t know much about that, she says. Mexico City remains tragically abundant with stereotypes, it would seem.

So on top of being sexist, México is also incredibly classist and racist, especially when it comes to tattoos. Lighter skinned Mexicans aren’t judged as much for their tattoos as those with darker skin. When you see tattoos on lighter skinned Mexicans, most people are inclined to consider it art, she says. It’s almost considered cool. It’s just not the same for someone like me, she continues. Helena’s skin is a slight tan, but already, it’s enough to face additional discrimination from the upper lighter skinned classes of the country.

When Violeta arrives, all she wishes is that it’s born healthy, and that the world is a better place as she grows older. Helena and her husband plan to be in Cuba by November 2018 and they want nothing more than to be able bring their child with them as they paint murals throughout the country and spread their art.

After all is said and done, approximately five hours later, we get to the important topic of payment. Helena says she can’t be sure if her male counterparts are able to demand higher prices than her because of a taboo that exists in the community about what everyone charges. She can’t really even be sure how much her female friends are making. What she can say is that there are definitely more men in the industry, and that’s essentially the nature of what one can loosely describe as the “wage gap”. Men are simply more prevalent. Men are in higher positions of power. Men own studios. Men are more respected. And people in Mexico just don’t think twice about the art that comes from men, or about whether they “deserve” their success.

Once Violeta is born, she’ll have to spend more time away from tattooing, while her husband will continue to generate more experience. She’s hopeful they will share the raising of the baby equally, but at the end of the day, she acknowledges that it can never be equal. It’s my body that has had to carry the baby for 9 months, and it is my body that will have to recover after the baby is born. With an increased risk to perinatal mood disorder, she will face different mental challenges to her husband, and it will disadvantage her in that respect. She’ll be there breastfeeding the baby while her husband does “other” things. She will have to face the reality of having a completely new body after the birth, and the challenges that come with that, hormonally and psychologically.

She’s hopeful that as time goes on, she’ll be respected and admired for her work, without any judgement about whether or not she is not a man (we both acknowledge the misfortune of the metric). It’s important to remain focussed on the art, in spite of all the trials and tribulation. And as I leave the studio, I’m also hopeful that as a woman, Helena will be able to thrive in the underground tattoo scene and be respected for the amazing artist that she is. And I’ll be reminded of that hope every time I look in the mirror at the art she has skillfully graced onto my body.

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