Tamara Santibanez is an artist based in Brooklyn, NY. She uses a variety of media to explore notions of cultural iconography and deconstruct the meanings beneath their symbols and signifiers. I stopped by her studio last week for a quick chat about some of the things she’s been working on of late.
Interview and portrait by Reggie McCafferty
Can you start by telling me about some of the projects you’re working on now?
I’ve been working on paintings of roses combined with different things. Kind of exploring the idea of narrative symbolism. A rose is such a strong symbol of life, and of romance and of love. You see it used in so many images that are representative of that or representative of femininity. Sometimes you’ll see an image of a rose with like white lacy gloves and that immediately makes you think of a Victorian lady, a woman, something very sweet, maybe like a romance novel cover. So I was thinking about how the narrative would change, or how differently it would read if you made it leather gloves instead or latex gloves instead of white gloves. Kind of trying to play with the gender of it. All of a sudden you have this thing that’s a little bit violent with something that’s romantic looking.
Most recently I’ve been doing these paintings using different images of leather. I started because I’m interested in the iconography of subculture and how these things we wear become symbols for things that are greater than what they actually are. I’m interested in punk vests and pins or how putting studs on something immediately makes it into something that’s associated with something subcultural.
So I started making these leather paintings and started painting different objects that aren’t necessarily subcultural or sexual but in a certain context it can really look that way, especially because of the texture of the leather. I made a painting of a big combat boot and did others of leather jackets, leather vests, cuffs or hats. And then I started making paintings where I was putting different objects into the shapes of smiley faces. There are infinite combinations you can make that are really funny. They’re made of these scary objects or things that people have sinister associations with but they’re really goofy looking.
I have some photos that I’ve taken too… because I want to do a portrait series. I’ve kind of been calling them portraits but they’re not figurative. But I have this idea that people have these leather objects and they become really dear to them and they wear in a certain way, I think that you come to associate them with the people that wear them, or people define themselves by them in a certain way. So I want to make paintings of peoples’ belongings or their collections of leather objects that will serve as a stand in for their body. That’s something that I’m really interested in. Once you take away the body what is there?
Do you think that leather is particularly representative of those associations? Or do you think it just happened to be the material that you chose to work with?
No, I’ve thought about that a lot and I think that leather really does hold a unique place. If you think of other materials, different fabrics and different objects can have different representations. If you think of lace you might think of something sensual, or bridal or romantic, feminine. If you think about denim, you might think of work wear, Americana. But I think leather is probably the only thing I can think of that has this longstanding universally recognized subcultural connotation. If you think about James Dean, if you think about Elvis… It was always associated with something somewhat subversive, something a little bit dark, something mysterious.
Think about 80’s hair metal, 50’s and 60’s biker culture, the recycling of punk, goth fashion had a moment too and even through all of that, even through the inception and the reuse of those things as original symbols, they still hold the same weight. I think it has to do with the color black and I think it has to do with the materiality of it. It’s unlike anything else I think, in the way that it conforms to the body. It has kind of a protective quality but it also has that form that suggests the body underneath.
And it’s something that you can wear for years…
Yeah. There’s that physical longevity to it that I think allows for that same individualism within it. I’ve had the same jacket for years now, I’ve had the same pair of Doc Martens since I was 20. There’s a longevity that allows for an evolution and it’s kind of a constant but it ages with you. I think it’s also that the jacket and the vest in general are such blank canvases that allow for personal embellishment.
Yeah you just make it into your own thing…
Yeah exactly. It’s so cool. If I think about my friends… and I still have a bunch of my old punk vests… but think about when you used to be able to recognize who’s vest was who’s. Like if you just saw it not on their body. You would be like, “Oh that has a Tragedy patch and it has all black spikes on it, I know that that’s Reggie’s vest.”
Do you remember when we first met you told me that you were addicted to flair?
Yeah! I’m trying to be less addicted to flair. I still have a lot of flair but I’m trying to be more simple in the way that I present myself and maybe that comes with being older and also it comes with being more and more heavily tattooed as time goes on and realizing that I look crazy enough as it is. And I don’t want to look even more and more crazy necessarily. I guess I don’t wear as much flair as I used to. But I still have all the stuff and I’m addicted to the idea of it too.
Do you still do much printmaking?
I haven’t in a while just because I felt a little stuck drawing for a process. With tattooing and printmaking you have to draw in a very specific way and your drawing is not the end result, the print or the tattoo is the end result. So I wanted to take some time to just paint to make a painting or draw just to make a drawing. But I really want to make some prints soon because it’s a process that I like a lot and I miss doing it.
Does it seem like you use a lot of the same techniques as you move through different mediums?
Yeah, I think so. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that way but then I’ll have a moment where I realize what I’m learning. I think printmaking is really similar to tattooing. It depends on the medium that you’re using but I think relief printing, like linoleum and woodcutting, is really similar both in the technique and also in the energy that’s visible in the finished product. You can see the hand of the maker in a tattoo, in where they shaded it and where they outlined it, the way they drew. In a print you can see the carving marks, you can see where the person did what they did.
How many days do you spend at the studio versus the tattoo shop?
I’m at the tattoo shop four days a week usually and I try to do things at home pretty much as often as I can outside of that. Ideally I do at least one full day of being at home and drawing. Sometimes that’s a full day of drawing for tattoos and then maybe a whole other day of painting. Because I find that it’s hard to get a lot of visible progress done if I don’t spend a big chunk of time. I can get really easily distracted so it can take me all day to get a lot done.
Do you still watch a lot of Law and Order while you work?
Yeah I still watch a lot of it.
Haven’t you seen all the episodes by now?
Yeah I’ve seen them all, I’m re-watching them again for the millionth time.
Is it just SVU or do you watch everything?
I’ve watched all the Criminal Intent but I don’t like it very much because I don’t like Vincent D’Onofrio. But SVU is definitely the best.
Why did you decide to make the move to Saved?
Three Kings is such a remarkable shop, not only in that they took me in and got me started in tattooing when I basically had no clue what I was doing, but also that they’ve built this huge network where there are so many good tattooers all in one place and there are always great people guesting, it’s very much a hub of activity and being around that was hugely influential. But I’d just gotten to a point where I needed a change of environment and I felt like I was in a rut and I wasn’t sure what my style was going to be, like how I wanted to define myself as a tattooer in terms of style and content.
But working at Saved has been a good change of pace. Stephanie and Scott are really careful and really intentional about the crew that they put together to create a certain dynamic and it’s so positive. Everyone there is interested in trying new things and really encouraging each other to do a group art show together or put out a book together, to support each other as a shop and to push their art outside of tattooing and try new things. Which I feel like is something I needed right now. It feels right and people are definitely coming to me for a specific type of tattoo and it feels good that there is a place for me stylistically in tattooing at large.
It must be cool to work with Scott too because he’s so motivated with his own work.
Yeah it’s cool to see him working on just something different all the time. I really like seeing that. It’s a lot of fun to watch because you see a lot of different applications for the things that we do and I just have kind of a natural curiosity to be like, “Cool yeah, what if we printed that on fabric, or what if we did wallpaper, or what if we built it out of wood?” Just thinking about all the possibilities of different things. But at the same time everyone takes their tattooing very seriously. And that’s a good balance to have because that’s really the foundation of it, that craft and that discipline I think.
How did you get started doing Chicano black and grey work?
I was really struck by that stuff when I first started coming across it, there’s something in that that really resonated with me. There’s a beautiful sincerity and romance in it. Even though the images can be overly tough sometimes and sexualized, I think that they really have positive intention. And those images to me are familiar from the Mexican part of my family. Mexican culture has this history of machismo and this macho male role. There’s just this masculinity that is pretty pervasive and obviously the stereotype of Latina women is hypersexualized, you know “hot-tamale” or whatever kind of offensive term you want to use. But I think Latinos using those representations on their own terms, like if you look at the tradition of calendar art or sign painting, it can be put forth so beautifully, and there is a female counterpart to most of the male characters that exist. Charras and banditas and revolutionary women…
I think I was also really drawn to the images of these militant female figures, who are really sexy but also so scary at the same time. Because how could you not like that? Ultimately I think I was so drawn to it all because I was so into punk imagery and to me being Chicana and feeling confused about my own cultural identity, and traditional Chicano/a imagery as well as the more cholo Teen Angels type aesthetic felt familiar in that way, looking through an issue of Teen Angels felt like reading a fanzine or record insert and gave me a sense of belonging in the weird in-between space I was in at the time and still feel sometimes.
Do you find that same sort of hyper-masculinity is something that’s still a part of tattoo culture in general?
I think that that is the rep that tattooing has sometimes, but it’s changing very quickly. I mean, there are so many women in tattooing now. If you look at the shop where I work now I think it’s pretty evenly split between men and women. I mean yeah if you look at the history of tattooing it was a very male-heavy culture, but I think a lot more women feel empowered to get tattooed now and so many more women are in the industry. There are so many strong personalities in general that I don’t think it necessarily is a sign of ultra-machismo. Tattooing for so long was essentially an outlaw and subcultural lifestyle and to be attracted to that you had to be very tough. Even though today there are a lot more different types of people tattooing I think female tattooers tend to be very tough ladies in a great way.
But I can also say that getting into tattooing, I was pretty comfortable with it being largely male. It was pretty recently, when I was getting into tattooing there were already a lot of women in tattooing. It’s not like if you were to start 30 years ago and were the only one. At the shop I came into there was another woman who worked there. I guess also just being involved in punk and metal and hardcore, it didn’t feel foreign to be going into a place where women were the minority.
Who are your favorite contemporary artists right at the moment?
I’m actually really into Emma Kohlmann’s stuff. She just sent me a zine and I love her paintings. I want to try to figure out a way to do something with her because I think we deal with a lot of similar themes and I just love the way that she works. And I also really like Kelsey Henderson’s paintings. She’s someone else who I would love to do some work with. I just like the way that she deals with the body. The paintings she makes are really intimate and can be sensual in the way that they use the figure but there’s always something kind of off about them, like the surface of their skin is really bruised or bleeding or something like that. There’s kind of visceral factor that goes on in her work and it has the same sort of subcultural references.
I’ve been doing some stuff with David Alexander Flinn who is a friend of mine and is really talented. He makes these sculptures that I think are really cool. A lot of them are out of metal or concrete and they have this pretty serious literal and visual weight to them but he kind of does the same thing, he takes these symbols and creates sculptures out of them in ways that can tell stories. Like he’ll make a flag pole and a flag that’s waving and it’s all made out of sheet metal. He did these silicon roses that were all melted for his last show so we’ve been talking about doing something with roses, just dealing with the symbolism of them.
And there’s this photographer, this guy Harry Gould Harvey. His stuff is really cool. I saw some photos that he did that were dealing with skinhead and punk identity in a really simplified way where one of them was a photograph of the back of somebody’s head and their neck and their head is shaved and they have on a studded leather collar. I guess everyone that I’m interested in right now is kind of doing the stuff that I’m interested in which is pairing down these symbols and these identities into really simplified forms and sort of seeing what they mean.