In Spain, baby girls are distingushed from boys by their pierced lobes. Thailand’s Kayen females wear brass coils to elongate their necks as a sign of beauty. In The Netherlands, it is possible to have extraocular implants—eyeball jewellery--fixed into the conjunctiva of the eye. Breast implants, scrotal implants, silicone injections, hair-plugs, there are hundreds of ways to transform physical appearance. But of all the varieties of body modification, tattoos are perhaps the most expressive and personal.
Tattoo artist Joaquin Forero, or ‘Joako’ as he is known professionally, resides in Madrid but comes to Barcelona every two months to attend clients. He says there are more tattooed people here than in the Spanish capital. “I see Barcelona as a bit more alternative,” he says, and attributes the influence of foreigners to an increased interest in tattooing here. But local people are conservative compared to the rest of Europe. Germans, he says, will have extensive areas of themselves tattooed. In Poland, it is not uncommon to see someone with a tattoo on their face. Here people tend to gravitate towards patches, individual images rather than an entire theme covering a whole body part, often choosing to have the tattoo on a less visible area of skin.
I speak with Joako at Mao & Cathy tattoo studio in the Raval during one of his bi-monthly trips to the city. Jerry Lee Lewis plays over the steady hum of a needle at work in one of the rooms down the hall. I ask him how many needle pricks it takes to create a palm-sized tattoo, like the one he has on the back of his hand. “It’s impossible to calculate,” he says but reveals that what seems to be a continual hum represents rapid-fire individual punctures to the dermis, the skin’s second layer. What can be more or less calculated is the time. A palm size tattoo can take a couple of hours, depending on the detailing. To tattoo an entire arm, creating a ‘tattoo sleeve’, can take up to 40 hours. Joako’s arms are covered in this way, the work of fellow artists. “I consider myself a collector of tattoos,” he says.
Joako is self-taught. In his native Venezuela, he was studying medicine on his way to becoming a surgeon. He liked to draw and at that time was doing piercings. “I’ve always been good with my hands,” he says but decided he was more attracted to tattoo art than medicine. His sister volunteered to be his first canvas.“It isn’t an easy technique to learn and it’s important to have a good basis in drawing.” He goes on, “It’s a pretty long and frustrating road. It took years, working every day… some days the results were good and others they weren’t. After three or four years, the results were always good.” I ponder the weight of the statement, considering he was once a student of medicine.
We naturally get on to the subject of hygiene. Despite required theory classes and government regulations, in general, he feels many tattoo artists take little sanitary care. I ask him what to look for with respect to cleanliness. First and most obvious, the studio and the artist need to be immaculate. The entire work surface must be sanitised, no blood should touch tools, ink or surfaces that will be used on more than one client. “Everything that comes in contact with my hands while I’m tattooing must be covered in plastic,” he emphasises. He shows me a machine and opens two packs of fresh needles. The round one is for lining, the flat-tipped needle is to fill in. The points are larger than I expected.
Back on the street, I take more notice of the tattoo work on passersby. I approach a young woman on a bus, with three small tattoos of stars on her shoulder and a series of Roman numerals across the nape of her neck. “What do they represent?” I ask her. “The stars I saw on someone once, and I just liked them,” she replies. The numerals are her mother’s birthdate, a tribute both she and her sister wear to honour her.
XVI International Tattoo Expo Barcelona, October 4th to 6th, Fira de Barcelona. www.barcelonatattooexpo.com