Sanya Youalli

Artists - Studios - Issue 23

Sanya Youalli, a pioneer of the revival of ancient tattoo in Mexico, spoke exclusively to HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine about her life in the jungle, her admiration and love for Mexican cultural heritage, the handmade tools she makes for her tattoos, the differences between electric and hand tattooing, the geometry she uses in her tattoos, as well as the "therapeutic" tattoos she has done from times to times. 

Photos & interview by Ino Mei.

How did you end up in the jungle? 

The place called out to me. Palenque is very powerful. I love the nature and I admire the ancient cultures. I live very close to the Mayan archeological area, the vegetation of the jungle as well as the fauna that surrounds me creates a good connection between me and the Earth. 

Did you go to Mexico after you decided to settle there for good? 

I ended up in Mexico, as a favour to a friend, I had agreed to accompany her on the trip. I wanted to see some of the places with great ancient civilizations, like the Mayan, the Olmec, the Aztec, the Totonaca, the Zapoteca, the Mixteca and then continue my trip to Peru; this was fifteen years ago and I am still in Mexico

How did tattooing came into the picture?

Studying and researching the old Mexican heritage, I found that the ancient practice of tattooing had disappeared for over a century in Mexico. Thanks to Muerto from Mexico City who taught me how to solder needles and calibrate the tattoo machine, I started to tattoo in 2003 with the conventional electro-magnetic tattoo machine. Shortly after, I got involved with the Ancient Tattoo Revival. I am self-taught and I spontaneously began to tattoo with the old tattoo practice, integrating the tattoo ceremony with the ancient elements, such as copal cleansing and traditional healing music. I also make my own tattoo tools, the oldest ones are from steel, and I also made lots from bamboo, some from wood, and the past few years from stones, mostly from jade, which according to the Mayans is the stone of life.

Apart from the technique, what are the main differences between hand and electric tattooing? 

Time is the major difference. Conventional machine tattooing has dates back to less than two centuries while Ancient tattoo has been practiced for millenniums. It is a very old tradition of our ancestors. There is also lots of evidence that proves this; from the mummies, to the sculptures, the paintings, and surviving tribes that are still preserving it. Hand tattoo is completely manual and it requires the feeling of the artist in the process of applying. It also makes more ceremonial an offering to the human temple.

What about the inks? Do you use the same inks with everyone else? 

Now I work only with black ink, and I use some of the inks that you can find in the tattoo commerce. Nowadays the tattoo industry grows so much that you can find quality stuff. I’ve been researching some recipes from different parts of the world, as at some point I want to make my own ink. 

Do you think that hand tattoo became kind of more “popular” the last years? 

Tattooing in general has become more popular these last years. This also happens, because people see it more in the media, and in our daily life. But still when they see the ancient techniques of tattooing for the first time, most of them are surprised and react to it.

In your opinion, what are the reasons why someone will decide to get a hand tattoo? 

People get tattooed because they want to express a certain need; it could be for protection or they simply wish to mark a certain thing for the rest of their life. For some people it has much more meaning when the tattoo is done with the old techniques. And when they are surrounded by nature, it helps them to open up and they are able to feel a better connection during the tattooing ceremonial process.

Do you also do “therapeutic tattoos”?

The most remarkable, visible physical experience that I had with therapeutic tattoo is on the back of a person. Most of his skin was covered with different scars. Some of them where without epidermis, and some of them were like bags with fat accumulation. So tattooing each scar required a different process. The result was amazing, with needle stimulation, most of the skin regenerated. But this was not everything; the tattoo literally changed this person’s life. When he arrived for the first time he was very shy and after it was done he was more self-confident. He told me that after many years, he was comfortable being without a shirt on the beach. It is very beautiful to see that by healing the body you can also heal the mind. I have also tattooed all kind of scars and did some tattoos to prevent the pain of rheumatism or arthritis.

Do you mainly use Mayan iconography in your tattoo work?

My inspiration mostly comes from the Mayan geometry, and symbol interpretation from all over the American continent. Geometry is very similar or identical all over the world. It is something that unites us all. Dressing the body, tattooing it with universal geometry, gives me freedom to work in harmony with bodylines!

Where is your clientele mainly form?

I have clients from all over the world. Most of the people who come are recommended to, or they are old clients of mine. They are really nice and interesting people, who appreciate the whole experience of the ceremonial tattoo practice. At the end of the tattoo process, most of them are very grateful, saying that they had one of the most amazing tattoo experiences, and this fills my heart.

How does it feel leaving the jungle to come to a tattoo convention (ed. we are at Barcelona Tattoo Expo)? 

I get psychologically prepared for the cities. I am almost all the time surrounded by the nature, hearing live jungle ‘music’. To change it for grey streets, noise from the traffic and big crowds of people, is quite extreme. But it is worth it, because I meet up with old friends and I also get to meet new people, I participate in different events, visit interesting places…

How do you see the future of tattooing? 

The tattoo movement is growing very fast and it is also more accepted. Every day more people are getting tattooed and more people are getting involved with it. Very soon the majority will have at least a little “mark” on their skin.

Is there a tattoo scene in Mexico? Are the ancient practices applied?

Mexico is a big country, with lots of people, and also a big tattoo movement. There are also styles of Mexican tattoo images. I am regarded as the first tattoo artist in terms of the revival of the ancient tattoo practice. It’s like this is one of my missions in Mexico. Today some other tattooers also practice hand tattooing.

What were you doing before tattooing, and what you enjoy to do beside tattoo?

I was performing in impro theatre and dancing with fire. Beside tattooing I love to play instruments, compose chants, sing. I am interested in tribal research, medicinal plants, natural methods of construction, designing and creating clothes, exploring the natural places… Living life creatively.

Tattoo work photographs courtesy of Sanya Youslli.