Editor’s Note: Run by Michael Smith, The Ithacast is a weekly (except last week, whoops!) podcast featuring interviews with interesting Ithacans. You can stream the full interview below, or subscribe on iTunes.
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Cesar Enciso – Medusa Tattoo Studio
Cesar Enciso originally hails from Colombia and lived in various cities in the US before finally settling in Ithaca. It’s here that Enciso co-founded Medusa Tattoo Studio, along with his wife and fellow artist Carol Oddy.
In this episode, we talk with Enciso a bit about his experiences emigrating from Colombia before jumping into the topic of tattoo artistry. He gives a bit of a history lesson on the art and culture of tattoos, talks about the process of becoming a tattoo artist, and shares his thoughts on the more emotional aspect of body art.
Below are 5 interesting snippets from the interview:
1 – What brought Enciso to the US? What was his experience acclimating?
Enciso remembers growing up in Colombia fondly, despite the country’s history of conflict – he still visits every year. As a young adult, however, he was struggling to find rewarding work and saw many of his friends struggling with drugs. He decided he needed a new environment, so he took up a long-standing offer from his father to come to the States.
Enciso says: “I had my preconceptions. Everyone has preconceptions about stuff – unless you’re Buddha, I suppose. It was interesting to come here with a set of preconceptions about ‘gringos’, basically. There’s a very skewed view of the US if you didn’t grow up there… you look at them as something abstract – these filthy rich people who are rolling other people’s money. It was a growing experience to come here and realize people here were just like my people, just spoke a different language, dressed a little differently… and didn’t like bubblegum as much as they say.”
2 – When did Enciso know he wanted to be a tattoo artist?
Enciso credits his mother with “everything good that’s ever happened” to him. She kept him on the straight-and-narrow when his peers were falling in with bad crowds, and she also nurtured his love of art as a child.
“She would always include in the shopping list a drawing pad. She was a seamstress, a single mother of 6 kids, so I know that at times a drawing pad wasn’t a priority, but she always made it happen,” Enciso remembers.
As for tattooing specifically, that didn’t come about until he came to the US and met the woman who would become his wife, Carol Oddy. Enciso was considering becoming a comic book artist at the time, but soon realized the great potential for artistry that exists on a human canvas, and quickly fell in love with the art form.
3 – How did Enciso train to become a tattoo artist?
Enciso considers himself lucky to have had a good mentor and proper apprenticeship. Like many tattoo artists, once he started practicing on actual human beings his first several tattoos were free. “They paid with blood,” he jokes. “It wasn’t about the money, it was about the concept of it.” As his skills and confidence grew, he began to charge – $5 here, $10 there, before finally graduating to a full-fledged artist.
Enciso considers the training process neverending, however. “Hopefully, by the time you’re 80 years old and you’ve been doing it for 50 years, you’re still learning. That’s probably one of the biggest things, probably with anything you do in life. … I don’t ever see myself ever being to the point where I know it all. If I do I’ll know I need psychiatric help.”
4 – What makes tattoos such an intimate experience for Enciso and his clients?
There’s the old stereotype of tough guy bikers and badass rock stars being the main clients of tattoo artists, but getting a tattoo is often a very intimate, sentimental experience.
Enciso believes that forging a connection with his clients is a key part of the process. He finds himself spending a lot of time in deep conversations, connecting with people that he might otherwise never interact with. In a way, that interaction becomes part of the final product.
“I’ve fallen in love with the interaction as much as the art,” Enciso says.
“There are some tattoos that have taken years to complete. And then I have my client in tears because we’re done. It’s a dual edge: they’re in tears because they’re so happy that it’s done, and they’re in tears because they’re not going to be doing this anymore… and it gets me crying too, which isn’t hard to do anyhow. But it’s definitely one of the reasons I’ve fallen in love with it.”
5 – And sometimes, you just want to look good on a motorcycle…
Enciso has found himself annoyed at the popular tattoo-based reality shows that treat every tattoo like it must have immense personal meaning to the client.
“Most of my tattoos mean something to me, even if it didn’t at the beginning, it means something to me now, like a scar would. But it doesn’t have to have this deep meaning. Sometimes it just looks damn good, and that’s that. Like, ‘Why do you want that?’ ‘Because it’s freaking cool! When I’m riding my motorcycle I’m gonna look so hot!’ And there’s nothing wrong with that.”