HAVANA – The tattoo machine in Ana Lara’s hand buzzed as she tested it, adjusting the pink grip tape before leaning over my shoulder in concentration. I winced as she lowered the needle, and Alberto Ferrer, the shop manager at Zenit Tattoo studio, laughed. He lifted his shirt to reveal the unfinished outline of an owl on his chest. “I had to have a friend bring this in his luggage for me,” Albe told me in English, producing a small tube of numbing gel from a shelf lined with American-traditional flash art and classical history textbooks. Knowing that Cuban tattoo artists are forced to obtain all of their materials down to the ink from these outside sources, I opted for the grin-and-bear-it method.
Like many tattoo artists in Cuba, Ana and Alberto have grown accustomed to operating in the broad legal gray area that applies to nearly all activities not directly sanctioned by the state. However, as fears of the authorities confiscating equipment and shutting down businesses start to subside, a new generation of entrepreneurs, creatives and athletes have taken this unspoken permission as an opportunity to legitimize practices once seen as taboo. Today, the hip cafes and screen-printing shops that line the bustling streets of Old Havana bear little resemblance to John F. Kennedy’s ominous description of “that imprisoned island.”
Surfing — like tattooing — lacks a legal status and was a target for the police in the past due to fears that those entering the water with boards might attempt to emigrate to the United States. These concerns were eased slightly by the thawing of relationships between Washington and Havana following Obama’s historic visit, and the reversal of the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot,” policy — which allowed Cuban migrants to enter the U.S. without a visa.
Portraits of Fidel Castro still loom like phantoms of the Revolution in markets and street corners, but young people aren’t waiting on further political and economic reform to pursue increased social freedom. Though surfers in Havana no longer worry about getting picked up by the coast guard, they still struggle to find the resources necessary to repair and build boards. Materials like casting resin and catalyst are especially rare, exchanged in privacy behind closed doors and shuttered windows.
“The goal has always been to get in the water, by any means necessary… To have a place where we could meet, talk and relax,” says Yoan Pablo, a surfer from the small ex-military district of Micro-X.
For many young surfers braving the sharp coral reefs to catch their first waves, plywood offers a cheap, durable alternative to delicate fiberglass boards. A carpenter by trade, Yoan Pablo constructed his first makeshift board from dismantled furniture and polyurethane foam taken from the lining of an old refrigerator. Yoan collected broken pieces of plastic and other debris from the coast for the fins and fin-box; the finishing touches to a board that would have made Dr. Jekyll proud. Though Yoan’s creativity allowed him to achieve some personal benefit from the abundance of plastic pollution on Havana’s beaches, he said he’d prefer it if he had to look elsewhere for supplies.
While the Cuban government oversees the distribution and collection of waste receptacles, many of the blue bins that line the streets of Havana overflow with trash — a cocktail of plastic, glass and other waste that gets dragged into the ocean every time it rains. Athletes like Yoan and Yaya Guerrero, a prominent Cuban female surfer, often clean the beaches they frequent themselves with the hope that others will take notice.
Yaya expressed her concern with the condition of Cuba’s coastal waters, saying, “I think it’s something we still need to address in our culture, to increase our awareness regarding protecting the environment… And of course we [surfers] have to do it, because we’re the first people in the ocean. If we don’t, who else will?”
In an effort to foster the growth of surfing in Havana, Yaya and a tight-knit group of local surfers organized a youth surfing competition and beach cleanup in Santa Fe, the birthplace of surfing in Cuba according to Alberto. The participants arrived after school on the day of the event, proudly bearing their battered plywood boards like coats of arms. Each group had three ten-minute sessions to showcase their skills, swapping UV shirts with their peers in between rounds to prevent splinters. Eventually, Yaya waved the final round of competitors into shore, and the judges hopped into the water to catch a few waves of their own in the fading light before the awards ceremony.
Encouraged by the success of the competition, Yaya emphasized the importance of teaching the youth to reduce the use of straws and other non-essential plastics. As part of this effort, she hopes to create an art gallery about surfing from recycled plastics she has collected, saying “I want to create a huge wave, a full-size tube with a place to hold a surfboard, so people can get in and pose with all this trash… I hope they hold a piece, and recognize that this is a fraction of what’s thrown away.”
As the competition crowd dispersed I told the rest of my group I would meet them back at the house in Playa, and went over to greet Alberto and Ana. I followed the pair to a hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant where we ate 5.00 CUC pizzas and drank fresh mango juice as they recounted the history of surfing in Santa Fe. I was nervous as we prepared to head to their shop (due more to worries of finding a late-night cab than receiving the tattoo itself), but I also felt hopeful. Disconnected from the slew of fear-mongering and uncertainty that has polluted recent U.S. politics, I realized that no amount of presidential tweets can drown out the efforts of individuals and their communities.
If you would like to learn more about the efforts of these Cuban surfers, please check out this Change.org petition.