Tamara Santibañez

Celebrating countercultures through music, tattoos, and art.

Tell us about your background and path to becoming a tattoo artist.

Well, I grew up in the South, listening to punk rock and heavy metal music. That’s what led me to start delving into different subcultures, which became my eventual intro to the tattoo world. I would go to shows and all of the band members had tattoos, so music and being tattooed became linked in my mind. I knew that I wanted to be tattooed too, so once I started getting them and seeing it done, witnessing the magic of the process is what made me want to learn how to do it myself.

In the beginning, did you create an initial portfolio of work that people could choose from?

No, definitely not. Tattooing these days is quite different because people seem like they primarily are seeking out more custom work with artists they like. That’s the direction the industry is moving in, from what I can tell. When I first started, it was very much about needing to be versatile and able to do all different kind of tattoos. That’s really what the focus was. Being able to do everything from script, to a portrait, to a traditional tattoo, to something like a religious black-and-grey tattoo. And sometimes it can be really nice to focus on the technical aspects of the tattoo. I think it’s underrated. Sometimes I like when clients send me exactly what they want to get done and it’s a drawing from their friend or lettering of their mom’s handwriting. Because, in a way, it gives my creative mind a break so I can just focus on the technical execution rather than worry about all aspects of it from concept to design to execution. But at the same time, it’s always fun to show someone what you like to do, giving them examples of that and seeing them relate to it.

What inspires your tattoo style?

What I draw from the most is just being true to yourself. It’s the old saying: go with what you know. What I’m most known for, style-wise, is a mix of punk and BDSM imagery with a traditional Chicanx black-and-grey imagery, which are both big parts of my culture. I try to draw from that stuff and things that are subcultural. Stuff that I have a personal relationship to, because it can give a different perspective. You know, trying to make a tattoo look like it came from you and only you could have done it is a really challenging thing.

Who inspired you?

Definitely all the people that I worked with at Three Kings Tattoo. They were my mentors in the beginning. Stylistically, a lot of the tattoos I was looking at were West Coast black-and-grey stuff, so people like Mister Cartoon, Freddy Negrete, Jack Rudy, Jose Lopez and all the Lowrider Tattoo guys.

How did you initially get involved with your studio, Saved Tattoo?

I was always an admirer of Saved Tattoo because I had been tattooed there by a few of their artists, mostly by Zac Scheinbaum and Anderson Luna. One of the people I worked with at Three Kings, John Sultana, also started working there, so from those relationships I ended up being offered the opportunity to come work there as well. I had been at my first shop for 4 years and was able to get so many hours of tattooing under my belt right out of the gate. The experience at Three Kings emphasized hard work and the traditional aspects of tattooing, so moving to Saved felt like a great opportunity to shift focus more towards my art and custom work. It allowed me to think about what my style would be and how I wanted to set that apart in my custom tattoos.

What was your first Tattoo?

The first tattoo that I got was inside my lip. It says “POSI”. I was very into straight-edge hardcore at the time, so it represented a positive mental attitude.
The first tattoo that I ever gave was a stick-and-poke on my best friend’s arm that said “Fun.”

We saw your announcement for your Artist Fellowship at Mad Museum. First off, congrats! Can you tell us more about the program?

The Fellowship will be a full-time residency for six months starting on February 5th. The studio will be open to the public, so museum visitors will have the opportunity to see me and the other artists working and talk to us about our process. Hopefully, they’ll be able to get some insight into how this art is created.

Beyond tattooing, you have a beautiful portfolio of mixed media artwork. What is the first medium that you worked with? What would you say is your favorite?

I have a background in printmaking, that’s what I went to school for. At my school, printmaking was like the punk major where everyone wanted to make their own t-shirts, show posters, zines, etc. So from there, tattooing felt like a natural extension because they have a lot in common, as far as the techniques and the way that their history functions and the way that the tradition is handed down. Tattooing felt like next step that made sense. And because of tattooing, I started painting with watercolor for flash and tattoo designs, which evolved into more watercolor realism and oil painting. That’s been my focus for the last couple years.