Colombia flaunts its lengthy historical association with bodily modification via silicone and collagen, but a visit to the Chapinero neighborhood in Bogotá confirms, that for some the trendiest way to add curves is with needles and ink.

Dozens of tattoo parlors dot the notably youthful neighborhood, famously open to alternative lifestyles, particularly as the epicenter of Bogotá’s considerable gay community, and dozens more shops can be found throughout the rest of the city, to the extent that Bogotá can in many ways be considered an up-and-coming tattoo Mecca.

Tattoo

A work in progress, larger tattoos can take several days to complete and cost up to millions of pesos.

“Every day, better tattooists keep coming to Bogotá. It’s really becoming a capital of tattoos in Latin America,” said Andrés Guevara, a tattoo artist at Big Brother Tattoo in Chapinero.

The popularity and acceptability of tattoo culture in Colombia today represents an impressive shift from the past. Just 20 years ago, tattoo parlors were much more difficult to come by and many considered body art to be synonymous with crime and gangs.

William Rodríguez, another artist at Big Brother, attributes the change to media influence, particularly imported shows like Miami Ink, a reality program following the daily lives of tattoo artists in the Florida city. Foreigners from Europe and North America, where tattoos are generally more accepted, influence tastes as well, flocking to Bogotá’s tattoo parlors for bargain prices, often less than half the rates in their home countries.

“Before, tattoos were for a little more ‘alternative’ people, but now doctors and lawyers want to get one,” he mentioned, while acknowledging that some wariness remains in Colombia’s still largely Catholic society. “The country is still a little conservative and getting a tattoo in the wrong place can mean they can’t get work.”

Nonetheless, Bogotá seems to be much more open to body art than much of the rest of the country. Alex Hersch, who owns Lex Tattoo and boasts 18 years of experience in the business, had to move to the capital from his native Barranquilla because the closed culture of the coast made it difficult to turn a profit.

Big city, big tattoos

Compared with Barranquilla, Bogotanos tend to prefer larger, more complex and more visible designs, a two-fold benefit for the artist, according to Hersch. Larger designs take more time to complete, meaning more money for artists charging by the hour, and visible, aesthetically intricate tattoos provide powerful advertising.

Advertising can be particularly important for newer artists, as entry into the field is often a nebulous task. Virtually no formal training options exist, though many tattooists study art or graphic design and almost all spend years apprenticing with experienced artists.

Hersch, for example, holds an undergraduate degree in plastic arts, but began training much earlier, skipping recess at school to give classmates tattoos with markers and pens. After graduating college, he knew he needed to “look for masters who could teach because there are no classes. They just give you a machine and say ‘go.’”

“Most artists in Bogotá are empirical– we learned by working,” confirmed Rodriguez, who knew he wanted to become an artist after receiving his first tattoo, and practiced on friends before starting working at a shop in the northern part of Bogotá.

Changing trends in permanent art

Although the training process remains largely unchanged over the past few decades, the quality and technique of tattooing has improved dramatically. Health standards in most parlors are world-class and aesthetics constantly evolve and change, with an emerging emphasis on realism and three-dimensional designs.

“People come in and say ‘I want this,’ but maybe it’s a design that’s not really in style, so we try to help them come up with something more modern,” said Rodríguez. “Old school tattoos are still popular too, though.”

Skin color and body shape also dictate design choices, as darker skin tends to muddle colors and tattoos need to flow with the natural curves of the body to avoid becoming distorted.

Of course, tattoos mean something different to each person and can be a form of self-expression, a way to stand out in a massive urban population like that of Colombia’s capital. “Personally, I like the graphic aspect particularly, but tattoos are definitely symbolic in some cases. One of my tattoos is a reminder for me of my sister and another of my grandfather,” said Guevara.

Whatever the motivations for adding a little body art, the proliferation of tattoo parlors, influx of talented artists and constantly evolving social mores suggest that the ink won’t be running dry any time soon in one of Latin America’s newest tattoo capitals.