The Art of Tattooing
Coco got his start with graffiti-style art, such as this image of a girl that he painted on a wall in his shop. Photo by Johanna Medlin Coco is serious about the connection between artist and customer, “You shed blood together. We say you're like blood brothers. Blood and tears.” Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum Coco integrates customer requests into original designs. Photo by Marianne Hill Coco has a wide variety of inks he utilizes for tattooing. Photo by Johanna Medlin

The Art of Tattooing

By Elizabeth Scullin, 2012 Katzenberger Art History Intern, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

This online exhibition profiles the works and life of tattoo artist Charles “Coco” Bayron, a participant in the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Citified: Arts and Creativity East of the Anacostia River program. Coco is the co-owner and primary artist at Nu Flava Ink in Congress Heights, Washington, D.C. The following photos and interview quotes are taken from a special visit to his studio, which took place shortly after the Festival.

Coco began his artistic career at a young age, utilizing various media. He says, “Art has always been in my life. People used to come up to me in school: ‘Can you draw a unicorn?’ and I would just draw it. But I thought everybody could do it.” He recalls drawing personalized designs on the notebooks of classmates, but failing to impress his art teachers in spite of winning the favor of his fellow students.

From pen drawings, Coco moved on to drawing graffiti in the South Bronx neighborhood where he spent his childhood. “Graffiti came up because we got tired of seeing abandoned buildings. We wanted to see some color,” he explains. “All my art teachers would say I wasn’t an artist.” He recalls one teacher who called him “a barbarian with the art, because she didn’t consider graffiti as art.” Coco spoke numerous times about the usefulness of art and its existence everywhere. “If you walk down the cereal aisle in the supermarket, that’s all graffiti. Every letter’s in a different form, everything has a flow, there’s cartoon characters!”

When he was eight, Coco saw a priest drawing an angel on the side of a church. Looking at the poorly drawn angel, he told the priest: “It looks like a zombie, like a crackhead. That angel don’t look like an angel.” Upon the request of the priest, Coco drew a new angel on the church wall. He later decorated the interiors of makeshift churches that people in the Bronx had built in their garages.

Coco took his natural skills and graffiti experience with him as he entered the world of tattooing, some twenty-one years ago. “I started tattooing when I started getting annoyed by the artwork that my friends had on them,” he elaborates, “So I went and got a tattoo machine, and I went and did it as a hobby. It was just repairing work.”

Coco remembers a time when people with tattoos were frightening to the public. “When I was growing up, it was the motorcycle guys. You can look at their tattoos, but don’t look them in the eyes.” Now, he says of people with tattoos: “They have their heart on their sleeves. They’re artists telling their story.”

The artist, Charles “Coco” Bayron, in his shop. Photo by Johanna Medlin