Beneath an orchestra of faint buzzing sounds and punk music, an artist sits intently by his canvas. This is Jason’s ideal creative environment. He has been a personal tattoo artist for seven years, and the human body is his Sistine Chapel. “Don’t be mistaken just because I like rock and roll and look like this,” he disclaims as he motions to his piercings and the permanent sleeve of ink on his left arm. “I still get funny looks sometimes.” What he is referring to, of course, is the underlying stigma against tattoos and the people who have them.
“You’d think by now that everyone in 2016 has become more accepting of it. But then again, we are in the Philippines,” Jason shares, implying local society’s deeply-embedded conservatism. “Even if it isn’t said out loud, a lot of people still associate tattoos with troublemakers or thugs.” This misconception has, at times, cost him his art. But it has also fueled it. “I remember my religious dad didn’t speak to me for days when I got my first tattoo because he thought I was satanic or into gangs,” he recalls. “He didn’t exactly jump for joy either when he found out I wanted to be a tattoo artist.”
People like Jason, whose versions of self-expression are grossly misinterpreted, aren’t needles in a haystack. Though more and more young people are choosing to get inked, that doesn’t stop the stares and raised eyebrows. “The stereotype only encourages me to keep doing what I’m doing. Maybe one day, everyone will appreciate it as a cultural, artistic thing that has been around for ages,” he beams. Which begs the question, what came first: the tattoo or the rebellious teenager going through a phase?
A brief history
Contrary to what your mom might tell you, tattoos did not originate from bad people who had an impulsive desire to lash out and spent the next fifty years in regret. These marks have been inked or carved into human skin since the Neolithic times. In that era, having tattoos meant that one was a person of rank and power, or had numerous accomplishments. Tattoos were also believed to have magical qualities during the Philippines’ pre-colonial days, and until now, indigenous groups in the country still sport these creative marks, such as the Bontoc Igorot, Kalinga, and Ifugao.
Today, tattoos get mixed reactions and opinions from various members of society. Older, more conservative generations continue to see tattoos as a sign of rebellion, emotional instability, or a general attitude of social deviance. However, there are also some from that previous generation who have moved along with the times, as with the case of Jupiter. “My folks never had a problem with me getting tattoos,” she recalls, “I’m really lucky to have been born into a very supportive and accepting family.”
Many will ask the million-dollar question: “Why?” Why would one subject oneself to hours of pain to permanently scar one’s skin? Jupiter answers, “My tattoos tell stories. They have a special meaning behind them; it’s kind of like taking little pieces of my past with me. Also, they serve as reminders of what I’ve been through and how beautiful life has been so far.” On the other hand, Alan says, “The symbol I have tattooed on me aligns with what I believe in, so I decided to have it done, permanently.”
Younger generations tend to be more open-minded and even curious about tattoos. “Children actually love coloring my tattoos,” Jupiter says. Alan agrees albeit with a disclaimer, adding that although today’s youth are accepting of people who have gotten themselves inked, “people still discriminate against it.”
And it’s a sad truth with surveys showing that 42 percent of people feel that visible tattoos are always inappropriate at work, and 39 percent believe that working people with visible tattoos reflect poorly on their employers. Furthermore, the older employers are, the less tolerant they are of employees—even potential ones—with tattoos. There have been instances of people looking for jobs not being called back for a second interview simply because their job interviewer spotted a tattoo on any part of their body.
This was the case for Lorenzo, who has a significantly-sized tattoo of a wolf—a symbol of loyalty and strength—on his arm. “I was fresh out of college, looking for a job. I had a few potential employers tell me straight that they could not hire anyone with tattoos,” he stated. “It was always the same spiel, ‘Oh you’re great and all, but we’re not sure you’re a match for this company.’ Felt like an ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ break-up!” Most of the time, it is corporate environments that discourage these forms of self-expression. “What does my ink have anything to do with my work performance?” he questions.
Although the numbers may seem discouraging, Jupiter advises not to worry too much about opportunities if considering having a tattoo done. “I think it all depends on who you’re dealing with,” she says, “but what always matters in the end is how you see yourself.” The key to continuing to make the most out of your life despite sporting tattoos may be feeling out the culture of your future company, or the crowd you will find yourself encountering at social gatherings. Meanwhile, it seems society as a whole still has a ways to go to seeing tattoos—and those who have them—as simply a form of art and self-expression, and nothing else.