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Traveling Tattoo Artist in Mexico

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ZIPOLITE, Mexico- The buzzing sound of tattooist at work can be heard all up and down the beach of Zipolite. In this small town on the Oaxaca coast, which is basically just two streets laying parallel to each other and a 2 km beach, there are three formal tattoo studios, two artists tattooing on the beach, and one working out of a hotel room. In point, in places where skin is acceptably shown in public an additional emphasis is sometimes placed on tattooing — such inscriptions take on more meaning when they can be seen. This is perhaps nowhere more prevalent than on the nude beach of Zipolite, a place where tattooing is as much in evidence as sand, surf, and g-strings. An essential element to body adornment, fashion, adaption, beautification — regardless of style — lies in showing it off to others.

Japanese tattoo artist

The buzzing of a tattoo machine can be heard in the streets outside of the Brisa Marina hotel. The man wielding the needles is named Nao — a half Japanese, half Salvadorean conglomerat. I met Nao on the beach and immediately defaulted towards reading the tattooing which covers his neck, chest, stomach, arms, legs, and a little on his face. He told me that grew up between both countries of his birthright. Finding this out I quickly code shifted to speaking Japanese from Spanish, but soon found English inserted as a third language in our conversation when I revealed that I was from the USA. In three tongues we talked as Nao pulled out an early morning joint.

[adsense]”I don’t choose my travels, my travels choose me,” he explained as we sat on the beach watching the sun rise upon another Zipolite day.

I was then told of how he was run out of Japan by the Yakuza, then run out of El Salvador by the legal and political pressures of being a tattooist in a country where the art is seen as a tell tale sign of gang involvement, just to come to Mexico to have problems because of his Salvadorean origin combined with the tattoos on his face, neck, and hands. Many Mexicans have mistaken him for a Mara Salvatrucha, a Salvadoran gang member. He has been confronted multiple times about it, has even been run out of towns. Nao is a refugee of sorts, a traveler who did not choose the profession, going from place to place independently generating a living from his art: earning his keep from tattooing out of hotel rooms.

Though he was smiled as he told me his story on the beach. He jumped up with excitement as he demonstrated how a Japanese gangster once pulled a katana — a sword — on him in a restaurant. He laughed manically as he explained how he has had to show Mexicans that he does not have the marks of the Mara Salvatrucha tattooed anywhere on him.

But Nao does have “Crazy Minds Tattoo” written across the front of his neck. “It is because my mind is crazy!!!” he howled in the midst of crazy mind mania.

The sun was just rising over the beach to our left as the waves tumbled into the surf. Nao told me that he learned to tattoo in the old tradition in Japan, which happened to be a main focus of my university research in that country. We talked of horimono, of the old famous Japanese tattoo artists, he told me about his teacher, how he designed his own tattoo machines, how the old masters once experimented with house paint as tattooing ink, of how he use to have his own tattoo studio in the country of his mother.

Nao the Japanese tattoo artist

Nao and I were staying in the same hotel, and we would continue our conversation when we would pass each other. A prospective client does not need to ask him to see a portfolio of his work: he wears it all over his body. Nao tattoos himself. Being right handed, the tattoos that he has done on himself cover his left arm and hand, all the way up and down his legs, his chest and stomach, neck, and two little blue waves on his cheek. One day I asked him to do a piece on my leg. He accepted my request and we entered his room.

Nao’s hotel room was set up as a tattoo studio: disposable plastic wrap covered the bed, a side table turned into a tattooing station, Nao’s drawings of tattoo designs and flash covered the walls, a hot plate and small pot was used to boil the tubes which hold the needles to the machines. Nao’s “studio” was not comparable to a professional tattoo parlor, but it was evident that he did what he could given the circumstances. I have walked out of many tattoo studios around the world because they showed a lack of cleanliness or sanitation, but I was not explicitly turned off from recieving a tattoo from Nao in this setting.

“Lots of people come here and look around and are scared away,” Nao admitted with a laugh.

I had to admit that most people probably don’t think being tattooed in a hotel room in Mexico is a very good idea. But I must say that it is better than being tattooed on the beach. I had to acknowledge the fact that Nao was in a difficult position: living hand to mouth off of his trade without formal employment, in an interim position between leaving one place and finding another. And who would hire a Salvadoran in Mexico? Like so, Nao knew that he could not charge as much for his labor as he could if he worked out of a studio so his prices were fair and came out to be about half as much as what the other artists in Zipolite were charging — including the ones tattooing in a beach bar.

Tattooing on Zipolite beach

I suggested to Nao that he should make use of his Japanese passport and go to Canada or Europe for work.

“No money!” he roared.

[traveldeals]

One major deficiencies that I have noticied in many of the independent travel business strategies that I have reviewed during the previous months is that very skilled artists and craftsmen are living as paupers in Central America and Mexico precisely because they are trying to sell their wares and offer their services to people with very little money. If Dan the silversmith collected his materials in Mexico and then sold his jewelry in California he would probably make more money than he would care to carry. The same goes for Paulo the traveling masseuse.

There is a big divide in earnings between the travelers who run their micro-businesses for local clientele and those who offer their services to companies and individuals in wealthier countries. This point is obvious: the freelance writers and tech consultants that I have interview that offer their services to people in the USA and Europe bank money, while many of the musicians, artisans, and street vendors who sell to people in Mexico make very little when compared against the quality of their product.

This brings up an important question when evaluating the success potential for an independent travel business: do the people your product or service is meant for have money? Backpackers, even those who are from rich countries, should not necessarily be considered people willing to part with their money. I ask myself this question as I struggle making a living from a website whose niche reader are people looking for ways to save money and travel cheap.

But, ultimately, the traveling artisans of Latin America do get by: they make enough money to get from day to day, from place to place as they travel perpetually around the region. The independent travel business series is made up of people who live in some of the most beautiful places in the world, whose lifestyle is travel — an activity that most people banking cash only have liberty to do for a couple of weeks a year. Nao, too, is making it. He lives on the beach, surfs, smokes, has friends, and makes tattoos as he travels. Nao works for a fraction of what he could tattooing in a professional studio but a certain element of liberty would be lost in the transition.

Wade being tattooed by Nao

There is something essential to living a life where you only earn up to the amount of money that you spend, there is something inherently valuable in living in places that you enjoy, having time to cultivate your art and person, the foundations of contentment rests where the time of your life is placed in doing what you love. Money = time in the traveler’s mind, not wealth. There is a balance at the confluence of where a traveler needs a certain amount of money to buy themselves time abroad but not so much that they need to make excessive investments of time to get it.

An monetary investor invests money in hopes of making more money; the traveler invests time in hopes of freeing up more time in their lives to do exactly as they please.

Time is a traveler’s main commodity. Time is what we buy with our money, time is what we invest in the form work with the hopes of getting a return that allows us to buy exponentially more time playing. Some travelers may seem like louts, laying around on the beach smoking dope and swinging poi, but these are really people who made out on a good investment. In the commerce of life, travelers are some of the best business men there are.

Wade Shepard being tattooed in Zipolite

I had the privilege of watching Nao at work — a man who made a living on the road from his art, plying it in a place of great returns.

There is a value of living a life abroad that is not measurable in dollars and cents, but in time and freewill. The artisans, musicians, street vendors, and artists spinning their talents in exchange for time living in paradise are amongst the wealthiest people I have yet met in my 11 years of world travel.

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Filed under: Art and Music, Independent Travel Business, Mexico, Tattoo, Work

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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