Found in Translation

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Tattoo artist and painter Ivan Estevez has the textbook qualities of an outlier; a shell of quiet, observant calm; a stalwart openness expressed by a soft-spoken and introspective demeanor; a decisive carriage with hidden depths. One has to listen twice. His words, though matter-of-fact and clear, are without the histrionics or fanfare expected to stick them to memory. To the average human imagination, which is designed to create stories – in some cases where there are none – one would be left wondering if he should say more; make it bigger, larger than life. In his case, the story, his story, is simply there for the right ears. In the country of the Dominican Republic, Santiago – Ivan’s native city – is regarded as the cultural epicenter of El Cibao, a fertile region that encompasses the central/northern portion of the country. How fitting that a seed from that prosperous land crossed an ocean and took root at the age of ten in another artistically fertile place – New York City?

“I don’t believe in talent,” Ivan asserts with understated clarity in his low voice. “(I believe) you are the pencil (a) higher power uses to express. All you have to do is keep being sharpened (sharpening yourself) so you can keep being used.” From that perspective, his artist moniker “Kamiartist” makes sense, given kami is the Japanese word for god. An artist of God, a vessel through which inspiration and creative expression flows. Perhaps this belief is what allowed him to transfer his painting skills – self-taught (digitally) as a foundation and later honed (in the oil medium) under the tutelage of a master – into the world of tattooing, something of a family business. A cousin of his, also a tattoo artist introduced him to the tattoo machine. After an adjustment period, Ivan became a floating resident around New York City’s tattoo parlors for a decade. We chatted in SixGunz Tattoo, his current residency, on Westchester Avenue in the South Bronx, where displayed above his chair was an abbreviated oeuvre that showcased his broad range. One glance at the pieces and it all clicked: there is no need for exuberant, forceful vernacular because his talent speaks for itself. His paintings tackle the parallel between phantasm and the concrete, and not only do they subtly magnify the realism of the subject but every crafted gesture, facial expression, and shade demands an audience to be heard. His tattooing examples are sublime recreations of the clients’ wishes and in many cases far exceed them.

The six train – one of the prevailing, though modernized hallmarks of the South Bronx – rumbled periodically on its elevated tracks just above the shop and marked the passage of time like a bell toll from a church steeple. It lent a stereotypically gritty, if not postmodern feel to the environment but belied the culture and talent within the shop; Ivan’s fellow contemporaries were also present and in different processes of creation, from tattooing clients to painting. Not a soul would be out of place in any art parlor. Citing Guy Aitchison, a tattooing legend and painter who also began his career with an apprenticeship, Ivan finely illustrates the close relationship between the painter and tattoo artist. The former’s presence, along with the wider platform of television (the tattoo parlor reality series Miami Ink) has lent the profession credibility as a “higher form” of art; a sarcastic, self-deprecating grin broke his stoic expression as he said this. No longer do tattoos represent the unsavory demographic of criminals or impulsive un-professionals. No longer do the myriad of symbols and beautiful images limited only by the imagination justify facile arguments that they broadcast a low-class, ne’er-do-well whimsy. Society has taken quite a while to catch up to the thousands of years of history that tattooing has under its belt. Ivan is a legatee of this tradition and plans to follow its course to the end.

A higher power is definitely at work, and as long as Ivan stays sharp, that power can be expected to keep using him to translate quality that could be easily found…here.

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