The body of late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez may not have been embalmed and put on display for eternity, but on the arms, legs and breasts of devoted Venezuelans, El Comandante will live on forever.
As Venezuela prepares to elect Chavez’s successor today, the booming personality cult surrounding Chavez is best reflected in the roaring trade of the country’s tattoo parlors.
Tattoo artists throughout Caracas are reporting a surge in requests for Chavez-related body art, ranging from copies of the former president’s signature to more detailed portraits of his face.
One group of artists set up stalls throughout the Venezuelan capital shortly after Chavez’s death on March 5, offering free tattoos for those wanting a permanent reminder of El Comandante.
“We thought there would be a few people, but on the first day we got more than 200,” 39-year-old tattoo artist Uncas Montilla said.
Montilla’s group offers free tattoos of Chavez’s signature, a symbol that can be seen adorning the facades of public buildings throughout Caracas.
“The signature of El Comandante carries a symbolic value, because he used that to sign into law all of the programs which helped the poor,” Montilla said.
The offer of a free tattoo honoring the charismatic Venezuelan strongman was too good to pass up for one student.
Yusdeigris Mercado, a petite 21-year-old, opted to have Chavez’s autograph inked above her left breast, where it runs up to her shoulder.
“I think of Chavez as a father,” Mercado said.
“I wanted to see his signature on me,” she added, proudly showing off her inky memento.
Housewife Yereth Zunigo had never been tattooed before, but was similarly determined to opt for Chavez body art.
“The day Chavez died, I told myself I would get a tattoo,” Zunigo said, admitting she had surprised even herself by her decision.
“I never thought I’d get a tattoo of him. I remember the day when my husband came home with tattoos on his arms — I started to cry. But I’m extremely motivated — Chavez is not only on my skin but in my heart,” she said.
Zunigo’s husband, 26-year-old musician Kleyver Escobar, already had the names of his children stamped on his forearms and has now added Chavez.
“A tattoo should have great meaning because it is for life,” he said. “Chavez is a leader, a one-off.”
Would he consider getting a tattoo of Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s anointed successor, who is running against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, in today’s election?
“No,” Escobar laughed. “He still has a long way to go.”
The craze for Chavez tattoos has left veterans of the Venezuelan body art industry shaking their heads in disbelief.
John Etnico, 30, who works at the upmarket Mythos Tattoos shop in the commercial heart of Caracas, reported a surge in demand.
“Since the death of Chavez it’s been crazy,” he said.
Many potential customers are deterred by the higher prices of tattoos at shops like Mythos — averaging between 2,000 and 3,000 bolivars (US$317 and US$476) — and simply choose the cheaper option of a roadside tattoo artist, Etnico said.
However, Gabriela Tejo refused to be put off by the price tag. In the Mythos workshop, Tejo, a 31-year-old who works in advertising, proudly displayed a left thigh bearing a large picture of Chavez.
“His face will age and wrinkle at the same time as me. Chavez has left his mark on Latin America and I’m leaving his mark on my body,” said Tejo, the niece of a former Venezuelan guerrilla.