Caleb K. Bell

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Libre Rocha cuts a very striking figure at first glance. Black tattoos snake up both of his arms and show from under his tank top. He has a few piercings, plugs in both ears, and a wardrobe that consists primarily of black.

He wears his past on his sleeves—his right arm is covered in marine motifs, reminiscent of his time in the Navy; his left arm is covered in flowering branches and an idyllic scene of a tent set under a mountain range on the Appalachian Trail.

Add to that the black Triumph motorcycle he’s climbing off, or Riley, his two-year-old Boykin spaniel on the bike with him—and you’ll get a good look at Libre as a person.

He’s a queer tattoo artist making a space for himself in the tattoo industry in New York City, and he’s drawing on his queer identity and his past adventures to create tattoos that people are already coming back again and again for.

Every tattoo on his body he drew himself, starting with his first at 18 years old. Since then, Libre’s work has sharpened into its current minimalist style, with an emphasis on strong, clean, single-pass line work.

Tattoo work by Rocha.

“I think you can create strong statements without massive amounts of tiny, meticulous detail,” he said. “I think my style is bold and linear, and says a lot intentionally without having to be a lot.”

His linework skills lend themselves to custom sigil tattoos that he creates for some clients based on symbols, runes, and astrology, that he pulls together into a one-of-a-kind piece for each individual. Some of his other signature tattoos depict men in the nude, or engaging in various sex acts.

“For me, queer art and being a queer artist comes from an internal drive to move the needle on what is normal to a more inclusive world,” Libre explained. “Doing provocative, queer art that sometimes is sexual or on the fringes of what’s okay by society’s standards is actively pushing on what is normal in the world we all live in.”

But Rocha hasn’t always had the freedom to express his queerness openly. He joined the U.S. Navy straight out of high school while Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was still in effect. He recalls other LGBTQ+ crew on his ship being investigated during his four years of active duty, and remembers the Navy going from division to division dishonorably discharging anyone they found out was gay.

“It was like being forced out of my personal freedom and liberation because I was not allowed to be gay… It would be grounds for me to lose my ticket out of living in an impoverished, poor city, in the middle of nowhere, and back to no options,” he said.

Rocha at work in his studio. Photo by Adam Ross.

Rocha left the Navy in 2006 with an honorable discharge, before he came under much scrutiny for being gay. But his road to becoming a tattoo artist in New York City was still obscured.

He went to hair school in Miami, and worked for several years as a hair stylist and colorist in Virginia Beach and Atlanta. But after doing the same thing for 10 years, he was burnt out and wanted to reassess his life.

“I had invested in my future in a home in Atlanta, and I thought my future was more of the same,” he explained. “But the repetitive, monotonous nature of doing hair was killing the artist in me.”

So he did something drastic: in 2017, he sold most of his possessions and took off for Maine to hike all 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail, taking only his gear and his then 5-month-old dog Riley.

While four months on the trail afforded plenty of solitude, Libre didn’t come to a decision on what his next steps would be there. The next several months he would be pinballing around the world, looking for inspiration.

Tattoo work by Rocha.

He spent a few months in Mexico City and lived in a van in Maui. He then bought a motorcycle and went on a 10,000 mile road trip through the South and Midwest, taking only Riley and a hammock. And to cap it all off, he spent weeks traveling through Israel and Europe.

“I spent every day for over a year in a different place,” Libre said.

After his return to the States the day after his birthday, he moved to New York City. And he’s spent the past year honing his tattoo skills and furthering his style.

At the beginning of June, Libre began working out of a studio in Greenpoint with his mentor, Christian Lord, and has developed a dedicated client base. The road to where he is now hasn’t always been straightforward or easy, but for Libre, that’s what drives his art.

“For me, struggle has always been my motivation, to create something tangibly beautiful out of negative situations,” Libre said.

While he’s putting down roots in Bushwick and the city, Libre’s strong sense of queer identity and his pursuit of freedom and adventure will continue to drive his tattoo work. And his ever-faithful travel buddy Riley is always right there with him, ready to hop on the motorcycle and take off on their next adventure.

Rocha’s studio is an intimate shared space inside the Greenpoint Lofts just off the Nassau Avenue G train stop in Greenpoint. The studio is open by appointment only. If you’d like to schedule a consultation, check out his website. To see his work, follow his Instagram.

Cover image courtesy of author.

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