Tattooing Chávez: The Art of Suppressing the Individual


EspañolIt was late July 2013, when news media across Venezuela were shocked to learn that María Gabriela Chávez, the most public of Hugo Chávez’s daughters, had tattooed her body with the presidential signature of her father. The picture, uploaded to her Twitter account, showed María Gabriela’s ribs inked with the same notorious signature that once validated land appropriation decrees. It was now tattooed on the left side of her thorax, just below her heart.

Civil servant displaying his new tattoo.
Civil servant displaying his new tattoo. (MRC Blog)

This would later prove to foreshadow a trend that would grow to be a national phenomenon — a way for “revolutionaries” to prove their loyalty, and a sure sign for the democratic opposition of a nation gone insane.

Now, by mid-2014, conservative estimates calculate around 15,000 Venezuelans have tattooed either the signature or face of Hugo Chávez onto their bodies. People are being marked like cattle in one of the most chilling demonstrations of the absolute cult of personality that drives politics in this tropical, oil-rich paradise.

I Am Legion

The San Francisco municipality in Zulia, the heart of the food and beverage production industry for the entire state, was the first municipality to go full throttle with the tattooing signature trend. On April 1, 2013, the mayor of the city, with full support from the municipal councilors, launched the first Presidential Signature Tattoo Day (Jornada de Tatuaje de la Firma del Presidente).

It became a three-day street show filled with “revolutionary” poets, folk music, dancers, and, of course, the main attraction: paid tattoo artists. Throughout the event, these tattooists freely inked Chávez’s signature on anyone willing to suffer through the painful process. It was all done at no cost to the tattooed — or, at least, no apparent, direct cost. Work, however, always has a price, even in 21st-century socialism.

A full face Chávez tattoo. Red is the favorite color.
A full face Chávez tattoo. Red is the favorite color. (TN Corrientes)

The tattooists were paid for by municipal taxpayers — that is to say, with money from Chavistas and the opposition alike. This was clearly an illegal use of tax revenue, and yet no one could do anything about it. The activities were approved under the administrative tag of “cultural spectacles.”

Tattooing the presidential signature could be as expensive as 3,400 Bs., or roughly US$340 at the official exchange rate. It may not seem like much, but at the time, it was the equivalent of one month’s salary at the minimum wage for an average worker. If official figures are to be believed, this amount is then multiplied by at least 2,000 “participants” who were tattooed over the three days.

These numbers add to the many thousands of Venezuelans who now carry on with Chávez’s image forever on their bodies. They proudly display lasting proof of their political devotion to a man who, in death, has become a very profitable merchandising product, although he is an even better tool for population control, suppression of individuality, and the ultimate example of politics turned into something closer to religious fanaticism.

After San Francisco, the activity became increasingly popular among Chavista governors and mayors, who were eager to prove to the central government that they too were Chavista duros, or “hardcore Chavistas.” They too wanted to show that in their “domains” the population was so loyal that they would also tattoo their bodies with symbols of the revolution.

Hugo Chávez signature The Rabo e Cochino.
Chávez signature “The Rabo e Cochino.” (La Patilla)

Over the course of the last year, many other municipalities and states began to offer “free” tattooing street shows. Mérida, Táchira, Apure, Delta Amacuro, Guárico, Portuguesa, Monagas, Trujillo, Miranda, and Caracas are some of the states and municipalities that have been granted the “opportunity” to host one of these tattooing/political rallies.

In fact, this has become so common that it is now impossible to accurately determine how many people have been forever branded as Chavistas, marked by either the presidential “rabo de cochino,” Chávez’s face, or some other Chavista symbol.

We Belong to Chávez

Beyond the creepy factor that goes along with carrying another person’s name on your body — like slaves once did and cows still do — the tattooing of Chávez’s signature is more a political tool than a trendy “tropical curiosity.” It works to cross a psychological threshold, a mind barrier that once broken, turns the person who is receiving the tattoo into a lifetime follower.

Permanently printing anything on one’s own skin will undoubtedly have a strong psychological impact. The pressure that many of these “hardcore Chavistas” must feel to get this sort of tattoo is surely only compounded by the other “revolutionary” tattoos that have become a staple in the paramilitary organizations supporting the Bolivarian revolution: Unidades de Batalla, colectivos, Bolivarian Circles, and the Bolivarian Militia, among others.

Elderly man getting a Hugo Chávez signature tattoo at a street stand.
Elderly man getting a Chávez signature tattoo at a street stand. (Aporrea)

To have a Chavista tattoo is to belong forever to the “revolution.” To refuse one, no matter the circumstances, could easily be seen as a lack of commitment — or even treason. Remarkably, this is happening across the country and throughout the population — young and old, and men and women alike.

Uncas Montilla, one of the tattoo artists hired by the government for their street rallies, remembers the time he was given the opportunity to tattoo a 70-year-old man. The elderly man arrived early in the morning to one of the tattoo stands, requested the presidential signature to be inked across his forehead, close to his temple, and Montilla of course complied.

Another elderly citizen, Pilar Rodríguez, a woman of 78 years, requested the presidential signature on her left arm. She told Aporrea, a popular Chavista website, “The tattoo did not hurt me. What hurts me is not having Chávez alive anymore.”

A revolutionary woman showing off her Hugo Chávez tattoo.
A revolutionary woman showing off her tattoo. (La Patilla)

The youngsters, however, did not lag behind. On Twitter, following the hashtag #Tropa, one can see hundreds of profile pictures of young “revolutionary” women proudly displaying Chávez’s signature tattooed on their breasts or a lower back “tramp stamp.”

Speaking with the PanAm Post, Marcos Saavedra, a Chavista community leader in Petare, one of Venezuela’s largest barrios, explains: “To carry Chávez’s signature is to belong to him. We belong to Chávez. He sacrificed everything for us, for the poor. And now we are forever his soldiers. Chávez did not die. He became millions.”

Millions of Venezuelans may perhaps be more than willing to be forever “marked” across their foreheads as “Inglorious Chavistas,” but one cannot help but wonder: what will become of these branded Chavistas once the revolution ends? Will they hide their tattoos? Will it be a sign of pride, or a mark of shame?

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