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Preserving Tattoo History and Culture: Interview with NotBueno.Club

Preserving Tattoo History and Culture: Interview with NotBueno.Club

Lifestyle8 min Read

Rafa, the creator behind the NotBueno.Club blog, talks more about the importance of documenting and preserving tattoo history and culture.

There is a monumental importance to documenting and preserving diverse aspects of tattoo culture, just as there is for all elements of civilization. The Smithsonian dates tattooing back to about 5,200 years which, in itself, almost proves how integral and natural tattooing is to humanity and society. Perhaps it’s the aspect of the deeply ingrained need for human expression, or the need for man to make his mark upon the world in the most permanent forms available.

Rafa, the creator of NotBueno.Club, is a collector and supporter of many documentarian photographers who delve into the depths of tattoo culture and communities that are often forgotten or overlooked. These are real people with real stories. Just like tattoo collectors, they want the means to visually express themselves through a less transient art form. And although they may not have the money to pull up to a well known tattoo studio and drop $600 on a piece, they still have the inclination to articulate the world within just like everyone else.

Photograph by Elvia Iannaccone Gezlev # ElviaIannacconeGezlev #Rafa #NotBuenoClub #documentary #tattoohistory #tattooculture

There is much to say about the availability and accessibility of art to underprivileged communities. The politics, however, behind classism, education, and attainable resources like art deserves tomes of its own. Suffice to say that art needs to be available to everyone. This includes tattoos. And although these pieces may not be from the talented hands of the most skilled tattooists, it's still an expression of humanity. It's part of the diverse and authentic nature of tattoo culture, and without that so much of what we love about the tattoo community would be lost.

The documentarian photographers that Rafa has included in the NotBueno.Club archives have had the opportunity to give a subject a moment of notice within a life of, perhaps, being completely ignored, repressed, or treated like less than. It's telling the subject, "I see you. Your voice is important."

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Perhaps your background, and when you became interested in tattoos? What is NotBueno.Club about? 

NotBueno.Club is where I’ve been showcasing and “archiving” the work of photographers who document, in one way or another, what I consider are real tattoos. What I do is research of street, documentary and fine art photography, both on and offline, and have been doing it for the past 3 or 4 years now.

Think about street looking or very old tattoos. Tattoos that you can find on everyday people like construction workers, bodega guys, people who served time, homeless men or women, even your dad or grandma’s tattoos. All of whom may or may not even be into tattoo culture necessarily but got their raw marks because of X or Y reasons. Some call them criminal tattoos? “Russian or French criminal tattoo” maybe? However, I hate this concept because the subjects of the photographers I show are definitely not all convicts and have nothing to do with these phrases. The tattoos I show may not be the most pretty or may not have been made under the best circumstances but I’m a firm advocate for them and believe that they also have, and have had, a place in tattoo culture and history since day one.
My tattoo fascination started as a kid in Puerto Rico looking at the tattoos of my dad. I thought he was so rad with his bike, piercings, long hair and tattoos...especially since all my friends dads were so square!

Another big influence was surfing, skateboarding and the Southern California punk scene. Growing up and looking in surfing mags at Christian Fletcher’s skull in the head tattoo, Matt Archbold’s ‘Built For Speed’ tat, and looking through the Epitaph Records catalogs and Punk-O-Rama stuff were my favorite things to do. I definitely knew tattoo culture was always going to play a big part in my life.
I used to surf and skate every single day. I thought I was going to become a pro and then in college I messed up my back so bad that my docs told me “Sorry man but no more extreme sports for you or you’ll be paraplegic”. That hit me like crazy so I decided to switch and started taking pictures of my friends surfing and skating. I took a bunch of photography classes here and there, made my own cameras with Coke cans or Kellogg's Frosted Flakes boxes, the usual for a photo student, but my main interest was learning about other photographers so I fell in love with photography history. I moved to NY in 2012 and started managing art galleries and one of them was a well known photo space that was in the Lower East Side. I learned tons more there but I guess I was too ‘edgy’ for them and got kicked out.

NotBueno was created to support, in particular, tattoo history, culture, and photography. Can you talk about why you were so drawn to those particular aspects of the tattoo community?

To be honest, at the very beginning of my project I was just doing it for myself. I’m also an avid tattoo collector so I wanted to archive tattoo designs I loved with the purpose of eventually using them as an influence for the tattoos I wanted for my own body. But then, after some time, and spending countless of hours researching established and unknown photographers, after showing my archive to friends and tattooers in New York, I realized that the tattoo photos I was putting online needed to be seen even more by others. My mentality changed so I started sharing more stuff on Instagram so others could also see and learn from all of the amazing designs I was uncovering. Another big thing of what I do is for other tattooers to get influenced too because all of the tattoo designs in the pictures I show truly came from the heart of whoever got them. The people in the photos I show didn’t necessarily decide to have a tattoo because there was a special need for something pretty to say or show, they just did it. All of them, in my eyes, are valuable and need to be archived because they tell us a lot about us as a society. We can learn so much about the psychological and social conditions of these people...

Why is tattoo history and culture so important to archive and remember? What do you think it says about culture and society at large?

Tattoos with terrible outlines, street looking, ponx, sometimes dirty, vintage and prison tattoos. Tattoos that were made in the streets of America by travelers. Tattoos made in heroin safe-houses rather than tattoo parlors. Tattoos that were made while being locked up in Argentina, Uruguay or Peru using a clever mind to build homemade machines with whatever materials they could find. Tattoos from immigrants that were made while still being a kid in Latin America, with their grandmas needles, to show their teenager friends how ‘tough’ they were at the time. All of them, in my eyes, are valuable and need to be archived because they tell us a lot about us as a society. We can learn so much about the psychological and social conditions of these people that it really has had an impact on me and has motivated me even more to continue finding and sharing the stories and photo reports of the photographers I find. I grew up caring about people, rich or poor, white or black or Indian or Latino, straight or not, it doesn’t matter because we are all here together. NotBueno.Club is 100% all about inclusivity and being authentic.

Mainstream tattoo culture can be very white washed, classist, and male oriented and I feel like your page really stems the tide against that in its inclusivity and authenticity. Did you take this into consideration when creating the NotBueno.Club IG?

Definitely, as the son of a social worker from poor communities in Puerto Rico, I grew up caring about people, rich or poor, white or black or Indian or Latino, straight or not, it doesn’t matter because we are all here together. NotBueno.Club is 100% all about inclusivity and being authentic. Many people out there get pissed off and think that what I show are not tattoos because of the rawness of their nature. I get plenty of negativity from “traditional tattooers”, of course mostly white male who think they are Gs! I just laugh and ignore it because I don’t care about ignorant, close minded people.
Even though all of this stuff that I show is what I consider real tattoos, it is also very important for me to note that I’m not doing it to offend traditional tattooers. I just think that there’s a lot more to tattoo culture than mainstream or celebrity tattooers. I have a big respect for tattoo history, the craft, the pioneers, and traditional tattooing as a whole. But what I mean with real tattoos is that I admire the true nature or the honest way the tattoos I show were made and their sociological aspect.

Traditionally, people are told to like pretty things, good looking, and clean tattoos for example. Tattoos that are so perfectly executed that look like a Michelangelo painting or a hyperrealist work from Chuck Close or something. For me, this type of tattooing feels inauthentic in a way, but I respect it. Similar to some tattoo publishers and conventions of today, almost everything in there is crap. I believe there’s a lot more we, all of us, can do to understand and appreciate non traditional paths, non traditional tattooing and the “not so bueno” images I show are my little contribution.

What are your hopes for the future of Not Bueno, the tattoo community at large, and documentarians who focus on this particular section of society?

All I know is that I will continue doing this because this is my life and what keeps me sane when I’m not thinking about my day job. I live and breath tattoo culture and photography since I was a kid and will continue doing so. I know my images and the people in them may not be as easy to digest or look at but my interest is in the story behind them, the why or what triggered these people’s actions to get tattooed, the designs and weird but amazing compositions they have achieved. I almost never have answers to these questions but I at least read and get informed about the photographers I show. I enjoy meeting and starting conversations with photographers who are from all over the world. I love going to photo shows all the time. We live in a digital era so it is pretty easy to look around online for new material but I find it better when I go out to the streets or museum shops to scan all the books I can, or when I go to the many weird book shops in NYC! I always find gems and this activity has become one of my biggest passions and the plan is to continue doing them.

One of the most important things of my project is discovering photographers who people may not know of or haven’t heard of yet. Either by me or via other amazing small publishers and then I reshare them. Spreading the word and giving them both a platform to share their work is key so the rest of the word can know about them. I’m happy to at least give my two cents and contribute to the very talented communities of tattooing and independent photography. My only hope is to not offend anybody along the way. If you have any questions or simply want to know more about NotBueno.Club give the project a follow and send me a DM.

Justine Morrow
Written byJustine Morrow

Social Producer, Journalist, Editor, and Curator for Tattoodo I am here to support you 🌻 IG: @lathe.of.heaven

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