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Getting inked is a tradition with Latinos

By John Rosales
Hispanic Link News Service

Hispanic Link

My tio Lalo was proud of the Jesus portrait tattooed across his chest. He also had the Virgen strategically scratched on his left arm, where her colored garments and rosary beads hid needle marks left from shooting heroin.

Another tio, Oscar, proudly wore the insignia of the U.S. Navy on his forearm. These tios were my introduction to the ancient art of tattooing. It was the 1960s. Though still in grade school, I knew tattoos were taboo.

The only tattoo parlor I knew in San Antonio was on the seedy side of town. It shared a rundown city block with a liquor store and strip club. When one of my tios told me the ink-scarring procedure “hurt like hell,” I decided tattoos were not for me.

While tattoo parlors are now located in pristine suburban malls and the body art business is booming, I am not swayed. Cool tattoo magazines, books, blogs and reality television shows such as “Miami Ink” do not make the procedure less painful. The many accountants, teachers and soccer moms who have joined outlaw bikers and prison inmates in marking their bodies does not soften in my mind the image of the menacing rotary tattoo machine. It spins and wails as ink-filled oscillating needles drill under two layers of fresh flesh. Blood spills. Skin swells.

The horror! “It felt as though someone was cutting my skin and burning it with a match at the same time,” a friend told me. He has several black lightening bolts inscribed across his left rib cage.

Like my tios, Latinos have never minded the pain or stigma of tattooing. We’ve adorned our bodies for centuries: from ancestors like the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans – who were also into scarring and piercing to more contemporary cultural tribes like zoot-suiters, pachucos, lowriders, military and law enforcement officials.

A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center found that a third of U.S. males age 18 to 25 have at least one tattoo, as do about 40 percent ages 26 to 40.


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