I won’t lie. I’ve been kind of obsessed with Tamara Santibañez’s work for a minute now, so I was honored to do this Q&A with her, despite her insanely busy schedule.
For those of you who aren’t obsessed (yet), Tamara Santibañez is a Mexican-American multimedia artist living and working in New York. An outstanding and highly-sought tattoo artist in her own right, she’s also a painter, and the founding editor of the alternative publishing project Discipline Press.
Raised in the small college town of Athens, Georgia, Santibañez found an outlet early on within the small punk and metal scenes that existed on the periphery of her local southern society. Continuously drawn to subcultures and the taboo, she sought to integrate herself in subversive environments, be it punk, tattoo, fetish, or the BDSM world.
Her move to New York and subsequent visits to LA and Texas propelled her further into these alternative spaces, and eventually gave way to her unique artistic style and creative vision.
In one facet of this vision, she explores BDSM iconographies and invites her audience to deconstruct the meaning behind symbols and their signifiers. Juxtaposing chains, leather, and bondage gear with dainty roses, soft tears, and praying hands, Tamara challenges us to see beyond the objects’ subversive notoriety and explicitly sexual association. Her style reveals beauty and fragility in the ostensibly sordid images, pushing us to overcome our own ignorance and fear.
In another aspect of her art, Santibañez pays homage to her native Chicano culture. Pride emanates from each work, whether depicting tough women in bandoliers or impassioned Cholo/a in a lover’s embrace. Her admiration for Lowrider culture and the barrio life is tangible, as well as an overarching respect for Chicano nationalism. At their core, Tamara’s graphics aim to accurately represent a culture whose traditional motifs are all too often appropriated and denied proper credit. In her own words, her work is all about “pride, respect and nostalgia”, and it shows.
Her newest venture, Discipline Press, serves as a platform for artists, activists, radicals, and subculture personalities to share their work and narrative with the world. In a sense, the project is a lovingly constructed ode to the subcultures and artists that inspire and influence Santibañez’s work.
Powerful and authentic, Tamara’s illustrations on both traditional and human canvases continue to captivate me, and I hope you will soon join me in my appreciation for her art. Please continue reading to get to know this versatile artist a bit more.
Where were you born and raised?
I grew up in Athens, Georgia, but I was actually born in Eugene, Oregon.
What is your cultural background?
My mom is from Guadalajara, Mexico, and my dad is from the US. My parents met when my dad was teaching in Mexico and my mom came to the US after they were married.
How would you define your artistic style?
I’m more of a painter than anything else lately, though I have a background in printmaking. My work deals with the semiotics of subculture and using objects and materials as a form of portraiture and storytelling.
What artists were you inspired by when growing up?
When I was very young, I remember being inspired by muralist Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. As I got older my interest shifted towards the fashion world, which is what I originally focused on when I went to college.
How did the environment that you grew up in help shape your art and creative vision?
I got into punk at a young age, partially because I felt very alienated in the southern college town I grew up in. The scene at that point was very small and extremely white. I was into metal too, which was another very male dominated scene. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I was able to be around more diverse alternative spaces, and also when I started traveling to LA and Tejas that I was able to be in Chicanx-specific punk environments. I’ve always been a part of a subculture, be it punk, tattoos, the fetish world, etc. Despite any community being flawed, it’s where I’ve always felt most at home. I’m fascinated by the ways that common visual themes flow in and out of different subcultures; how they change meaning, what stays the same, how they interact with the mainstream and popular culture and how symbols trickle up and down. I think all of my work is self-portraiture in one way or another and reflects my own process of figuring out my gender identity, sexual identity, cultural identity, and often trying to reconcile identities that seem at odds.
How and when did you decide to become a tattoo artist?
I think it was once I started getting real professional tattoos done and seeing someone who was good at what they were doing. It looked like magic or alchemy to me and I wanted to learn how to do that. Homemade tattoos were always around in my friend groups and the spaces I was living in, so it wasn’t difficult to try it out in a very amateur DIY way.
How did your parents react?
My mom is definitely happy that I’m making a living doing something I love and being creative. I’m still not sure if my dad believes it’s a real job.
What’s it like being a female tattoo artist these days? Do you feel like there’s a double standard in your field? Is it a challenge you’ve struggled with at all?
I work at a shop called Saved Tattoo in New York that is very diverse and inclusive, so I don’t think about it much on a daily basis. When I got into tattooing, I was already familiar with operating in male dominated spaces, having been in the punk/metal/hardcore scene and all. Though there are double standards at play, I’ve always felt very respected by my coworkers and peers.
Although tattooing is viewed as counter-cultural or an alternative field, reality is that it’s just a microcosm of the world at large. There’s tons of talented, thoughtful and progressive people, and also a lot of folks who are close-minded and ignorant. I feel fortunate to be in a place where I don’t have to come across the latter much, and can feel good about the comfort level of my clients who are female, queer, trans, etc. That being said, I do still get the occasional ignorant remark about how people must only get tattooed by me because I’m “a cute girl” (barf)
Now that we’re on the topic of double standards, do you feel like there continues to be a negative stigma associated with women with tattoos? How have you combated this (or not) throughout the years?
I initially started getting tattoos because I embraced the negative stigma they have and wanted to look tough, confrontational, and scary. Now that tattoos as a whole have become more mainstream, they’ve also become another quality to fetishize. I like my tattoos a lot, but I didn’t realize when I started getting them how much attention they would draw on a daily basis. I wanted people to leave me alone instead of having daily conversations about my body. I would love people to be scared of them again.
As for women, they should be able to do what they want with their bodies without being concerned if it will be socially acceptable or not. The standard is ever changing.
I love the Chicano and Low Rider imagery that is so uniquely yours in your art. Why is it important for you to carve a space for your Latino roots, especially these days when the iconography has been so widely sampled and re-contextualized by fashion designers and celebrities and sold back to the mainstream?
Being a pretty white-passing mixed race Chicanx, I’ve always had to assert my identity and make an effort to be visible. A reaction I would often get was that Mexicans didn’t have tattoos like mine. There just wasn’t a visible Latinx community where I grew up in Georgia, so when I started coming across Chican@ tattooing, it was such a revelation because it was like, not only do Mexicans have tattoos, but there’s an entire style and world of imagery based on the pride and experiences of my gente. It really hit home since a lot of the images I started noticing were things I grew up seeing.
When I first started painting and drawing for tattoos, a lot of people in my area weren’t into it. It would get dismissed as “ghetto” or “hood” because of cultural concepts that people didn’t understand, like the images of Payasos and Payasas. It’s taken time, but people are starting to give this Chicanx imagery the broader validation it deserves, especially on the East Coast.
I do see a lot of casual racism at times though, like people who’ll get tattooed by me but will say that they would never get tattooed in LA because it’s “too sketchy”, which brings up the issue of ownership. I am happy to see people excited about Chicanx art, but it can be frustrating to see people lay claim to a culture that is new to them without second thought. It’s especially frustrating when you consider the immense prejudice leveled against brown folks in the US these days. You can turn on a TV at any given moment now and hear the rhetoric about building a wall to “keep them out” or calling undocumented immigrants murderers and rapists.
My sincere hope is that as people welcome the imagery and the style more, they also credit the people and culture who originated the art, and work to elevate them as much as they’ve elevated the aesthetic. Learn about the history, learn about it as it exists today, learn about the politics and intent behind it.
Your work is also refreshingly erotic and plays with fetishes and otherwise taboo imagery. How are you trying to challenge your audience and society at large? Is there a greater message?
When I started incorporating this style, it wasn’t meant as a challenge, but rather an impulse to make something I liked that I wasn’t seeing tatted. Tattooing is about distilling an idea or experience into an image you can wear. It’s just the same as dressing or accessorizing to communicate who you are. Isolating items in my artwork became an interesting experiment to see how people read them as symbols and what of their own knowledge they projected onto it. It’s amazing how much people will read into very little visual information in front of them. It’s the imagination that is activated, particularly since I don’t use any human figures in my work. A lot of the imagery I work with might be shocking to some people, but that’s not how I intend it at all. I hope that the tenderness and nuance can come through, and that viewers will read some of the larger ideas I’m grappling with. Most of it is very personally revealing in some way or another.
Let’s talk about your other equally impressive artistic endeavor, Discipline Press. How did it start, and what were some goals you set out to accomplish when initiating this platform?
I had self-published zines and books for years, and wanted to shift focus from publishing my own publications to facilitating work for folks I’m excited about. A big goal of mine is to share bits of history and background on the things I’m representing. The downfall of social media and the digital age is that there is so much information available to us that it’s hard to draw the connections and trace back narratives. With the press, my goal is to slowly do that and spotlight folks whose work I consider to be important. Discipline Press’ Instragram account is another place I like to share information I come across; artists new and old, lesser-known documentaries, video archives, and other accounts that I follow. I’m often asked for direction in learning about kink in particular, and I don’t have an easy answer for that because my journey into it was mostly “read a lot”, so I like to share books and videos about it when I can.
What is something most people wouldn’t guess about you?
I listen to Hot97 every day.
A piece of advice for any and all young aspiring artists:
Be authentic. Don’t make work because it’s cool, or because it’s what sells, make things about who you are and how you feel and what YOU are into. Work hard, and be nice.
Be sure to check out Tamara’s solo show “Landscapes” at Slow Culture in LA opening next Friday, September 30th until October 22nd.