New York is the city of dreamers. Every year, thousands travel from around the world in the hopes of making it in The City That Never Sleeps. Michelle Santana was already established as a well-known artist in Colombia when she decided to move to NYC, because she knew that this city churns out big tattoo stars like no other. With plenty of talent, a little bit of luck and just $75 in her pocket, Santana became one of the most sought-out artists in the Big Apple.
Take us through your upbringing in Colombia and how you became interested in art as a kid.
Both of my parents are Colombians who were hustling on the streets of New York when they met. Before I was born, my dad ended up in jail. Shortly after I was born, my mom met the same fate. So they sent me to Colombia when I was 7 months old. I spent my early years going to school in Cali, Colombia, and traveling during any free time I had from school between New York and Amsterdam.
Since I can remember, I would find joy in the time I spent with a pen and a piece of paper. My brothers were really into music and art. When I turned 9, my family moved from Colombia to Spain, so we could be closer to my mom. I would say the way the schools in Madrid teach kids about art is what really got me to respect the fine arts. They would do school trips to every museum, it was a rich experience that I couldn’t get enough of.
How did your career as a tattooer begin and who were some of the first people you tattooed?
I got my first tattoo when I was 16, thanks to my older brother who was less responsible and who also got me into buying tattoo magazines. But I didn’t have enough courage to walk into a real tattoo shop [looking for a job] in Madrid or Amsterdam because I was afraid I’d be rejected for being so young. When I turned 18 in Amsterdam, my stepfather got out of jail and was deported to Colombia so my mom decided we all had to leave our lives in Europe and start over in Cali. There, I met a guy who did tattoos and is now a very well-known artist in Colombia. He was working at a shop that had tattoo kits available for everyone to purchase, so when I found out I asked my mom for money and bought one. As soon as I got home, I called my best friend from my neighborhood and he was the first person who got tattooed by me. He was also the first person who believed I was gonna make it in the tattoo world. That same day, my cousins came over and I tattooed the three of them.
What made you decide to move to New York?
When I was living in Colombia, I opened my own shop with my husband in 2014 and after working hard for over a year and a half, I felt it wasn’t enough to be able to make my dreams come true. I felt that I needed to leave and try my luck in another city. Somehow I believed New York would be that place, but no one from my family really believed in that idea. The only person who really supported me and gave me the opportunity to try was my grandmother. She literally pulled a million Colombian pesos ($350) from under her bed and handed them to me so I could buy a plane ticket. When I arrived, I only had $75 in my pocket.
How would you describe the style you do today?
After four years of doing simple tattoos, I consider myself a fine-line tattooer. I prefer to tattoo things that I consider beautiful, like flowers, lettering and any design that gives harmony and fluidity to the body. I love when I see a tattoo in the right spot and it fits so well with the person.
What’s the key to properly executing a tiny tattoo?
I think you’ve got to love and be excited to do that tiny tattoo and you have to have the right tools to do it. I think with patience and practice, you can do anything you want.