Tamara Santibañez got her first tattoo when she was 17, at a punk show in Athens, Georgia. Although the tattoo's long since faded, the embarrassment prevails.
"It said 'posi' on the inside of my lip," she laughs, "which is so 2004."
She recalls the story to me from her work stool at Brooklyn's Saved Tattoo, where she diligently etches a spider tattoo onto her last client of the day. Drawings of weepy Latina bombshells and sharply manicured hands wielding whips are taped to the desk behind her. "It was totally like that episode of Freaks & Geeks where Daniel goes punk," she continues. "'I'm a punker.' It's such a grimy story. My clients really like it."
Renowned for her gothic interpretations of West Coast Chicanx imagery, Santibañez has accumulated a diverse clientele, including her favorite leather designer Zana Bayne and Marvel writer Gabby Rivera. Her work also takes the form of hyperrealistic watercolors of her own fetish gear, which are mounted in galleries across the United States and Europe. She also runs an indie imprint called Discipline Press, through which she's working on a collection of artwork by incarcerated people.
But before she became one of the world's most sought-after tattoo artists, Santibañez was a young queer punk, born and raised in the South. The daughter of a Spanish language interpreter from Guadalajara, Mexico, and an American professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, Santibañez was a mixed-race girl genius, who skipped two grades in school and donned a mohawk.
"My parents got divorced when I was young," she says. "We lived in a suburban college town that was really segregated ... There were like, no Latinos. It was pretty easy to be punk and like, 'Fuck all this!'" When she wasn't working shifts as "big mom" to her two younger siblings, Santibañez would retreat into the night and rove Athens' many record stores and DIY venues. "This was before the internet was as polished as it is now," she says. "So I'd go to a record store and just buy whatever looked dark," she laughs.
"I would totally pick a record based on how extreme the name was. 'You don't understand mom, I'm going to the Dying Fetus show!' My mom liked to bust into my bedroom and fake seizures to the music." Santibañez revisited cultural artifacts from her youth in a recent solo installation in Manhattan's Castor Gallery. Titled Thinking About Everything, But Then Again, I Was Thinking About Nothing — nabbed from a line in Suicidal Tendencies' anthemic "Institutionalized" — Santibañez crafted a monochromatic time capsule from the bedroom of an anonymous, metal-inclined every-teen: an otherwise clinically white space, decked with band tees, records and posters from her own riotous youth, meticulously hand-drawn in ballpoint pen.
"Having mixed-race parents or being in an interracial couple in Georgia was unheard of," she says. "People thought my mom was the nanny. So while getting into punk was so significant for me, I had a lot of guilt about it, because I felt like it was a betrayal of like being Mexican or being Latina. It's like choosing to be more white ... basically. People would say, 'Why are you into all this white-people stuff?' "And that's part of why the [Thinking] show was the way that it was — all whitewashed," she continues. "In a way, it is a reference to my encounters in those spaces that were purely white spaces. But there was a lot of cultural conflict with my family too — as far as like being vegan, being straight edge — my family in Mexico really does not understand my sobriety," she laughs.
Despite the specificity of her Southern Chicana upbringing, Santibañez was intent on shaping a timeless space for viewers, where subcultural references and images alone would serve as their own unique language. "I wanted it to be semi-autobiographical," she says, "but also a space [that] people could read based on their own experiences." The artifacts include Iron Maiden and Ramones posters; a Skinny Puppy T-shirt; a Huggybear record for the riot grrrl set, and assorted studded cuffs and belts.
"I'm really fascinated by the fact that everyone has a different relationship to these objects and symbols, and seeing what they bring by looking at it," she says. "Inside the installation, people would come in like — 'Oh my god I have the same poster!' You know, they had [stories] to relate. People would read for clues as to the age of the person who was there, or the gender of the person who was there, any number of things. "But I had to be really insistent with the person writing the press release," she adds with an eye roll. "Like, 'Could you please not use the word 'angst?'"
After graduating high school, Santibañez decided to study fashion design at the Savannah College of Art and Design — but she received a strikingly different kind of education upon arrival. "Savannah was definitely more like the scene I'd always wanted," she says. "Kylesa, Baroness were a part of that. Municipal Waste would pass through a lot, so I got really into thrash and crust. There was Jucifer, from Athens — I'd see [Gazelle] Amber Valentine outside her practice space and think she was so cool. She was metal, but with a Sixties vibe. That was the first time I'd really felt like a part of a scene."
Still, her ambitions as a professional artist took her further to New York City in 2006, where she would study fashion at the Parsons School of Design, and later earn a BFA in printmaking at the Pratt Institute. "Moving to New York also coincided with me becoming a lot more political," she says. "I was going to school for fashion, and I instantly hated it. I thought, 'Oh, this is about consumerism. This is about mass marketing. This is about treating fashion as disposable and cyclical.'" As a result, Santibañez was committed to being what can only be described as a fashion school super-villain. "I became an ultra crust punk," she says.
"I didn't wear makeup, I only wore clothes that were from the free box." She joined an all-woman hardcore band called Zombie Dogs, spinning cautionary tales of creepy male gynecologists, ogling cops and nerds who pair Slayer shirts with calculator watches. "I played in my band," she says. "I lived with a bunch of people in Bushwick, with a mini [skate] ramp in the house. In those days I listened to a lot of Metal Church, King Diamond and Mercyful Fate."
Under an art school rubric that was heavily skewed by economic and cultural bias, Santibañez felt discouraged from incorporating her interests and experiences into her artwork. "A lot of the work I did when I was in college was kind of like a caricature of [punk] culture," she says, "like the Garbage Pail Kids illustrations. My thesis professors hated that I did punk art. They would always be like, 'Why are you doing this? Like what do you think you're gonna add to the dialogue? Like where do you see this taking you?'"
It was in 2010 that Santibañez finally turned her focus towards tattooing. It had less to do with her rocky relationship with the fine art world, and more with an intrinsic desire to expand the breadth of her skills as an artist. Skin, much like paper or canvas, is just another medium to work with — albeit one that carries a very different cultural context. "Every tattoo artist makes paintings," she said. "That's actually how I got really into watercolor. I was coming to tattooing from an art perspective, but I was also coming to it from a DIY perspective and a punk perspective. "There is some prejudice against people who are tattoo artists," she continues. "[People] say it's just a craft. Or maybe it's some kind of class prejudice — they think that tattooists aren't educated. People seem surprised if, like, you have an art degree sometimes. I don't think it's all fine art — my fine art practice remains very separate from my tattoo practice. But I think [tattooing] is still really culturally significant and carries a lot of weight."
In addition to her tattoo apprenticeship, Santibañez moonlighted as a studio assistant to famed Brooklyn street artist Swoon. Much like Santibañez, Swoon's large-scale wheatpaste portraits followed in a tradition long associated with an oft-criminalized, working-class element. "I think working for Swoon was a good example of being irreverent in art making," she says, "and creating processes where traditional methods aren't serving you. I remember putting on fresh white socks and walking and sliding all over massive linocut prints to adhere them before hand burnishing them." She adds that Swoon emphasized art as a vehicle for activism and "drawing from your own community as a source of inspiration.
In her tattoo work, Santibañez not only continues a tradition of Mexican-American illustrators living on the margins — à la Homies creator David Gonzales, or the Hernandez Brothers of Love & Rockets fame — but she wanted to pull from her own corner of the margins. Santibañez's characters emerge from a netherworld full of powerful Mexican women swathed in silk and leather, taming unruly lovers with whips, chains and pure sexual magnetism. (And lighting votive candles and praying to La Virgen when it blows up in their faces).
Bringing her leather fetish out into the open was a gamble at first — but ever since drawing out her own fiendish, indulgent side, Santibañez has artistically thrived, even in the fine art world. Set against stark white backgrounds, her slick leather "portraits" of boots, harnesses and other leather goods — curious in the absence of human forms to fill them — intimate something more sinister about desire.
A crowning moment for Santibañez was during the opening for Landscapes, her 2016 solo exhibition in Los Angeles, where she displayed a series of magnified leather paintings — each wrinkle rendered so painstakingly, it betrays the illusion of a tactile sensation. "One of my advisors just happened to be in California and he saw that I had a show. I said, 'Hey, remember how I would get hated on for making punk art? And now I have this whole show about my leather jacket?' And he was like, 'Yeah, that's cool.'"
"What I loved about being in New York, too, was just seeing so many Latinos all around in like Sepultura shirts, Cradle of Filth shirts," she reflects later on. "That's why it was so important for me to see bands with women and Latinas in them. I was like, 'OK there's a space for this and punk isn't just British people.'
"I think that's why, for me, it's important to be seen and to provide an example for younger people," she continues. "It's incredible how short collective memory is, especially here in the city. People come and go, and don't impart anything about the past — even the punk bands cycle through here like it's nothing. It's good to stay put and remember things for people, it's good to have that record for when the next generation comes." These days she's doubly invested in supporting the next generation of young women and queer people in the arts. This past summer she taught her first workshop at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in Brooklyn, where she led a screen-printing class for kids between the ages of 8 and 16. "I don't think I'm that good with kids," she laughs.
"But I had this one group that was like, 'Um, our band's called the Rainbow Skulls. We wanna be a punk band, but we also wanna be a country band.' One girl had made a flyer for their band [that showed] a skull and crossbones with a speech bubble coming out that said, 'You're gonna be dead meat.'" When asked about whether her mom has come around to her heavy metal persuasions, Santibañez smiles. "My mom is so cool," she says. "She recently told me, 'You know what? Your mohawk did look nice... It wasn't my favorite, but it was OK.'"