Tattoos have come to take on different meanings throughout history, being one of society’s oldest art forms. Different cultural groups perceive tattoos in different ways. Some cultures didn’t look favorably on tattoos while for others, some tattoos carried deep cultural meanings. In Japan, many places ban entry if one has visible tattoos; some bath houses in particular strictly enforce this. While in other cultures, tattoos have a deep cultural significance such as with the Butbut people in Kalinga. In fact, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts recognized mambabatok Whang-od with the Dangal ng Haraya award in 2018 for her contribution to Philippine culture.

Today, the perception of tattoos is still constantly being redefined. Often used as a means for self-expression, they mean different things to different people, carrying an infinite combination of connotations.

The complexities of tattoos continue to challenge aspiring and current artists. Annie Concepcion, Maan Simbajon, and Mia Claravall-Reyes are all tattoo artists who have honed their craft and pursued their passions despite the numerous adversities laid before them. With more depth and color than than meets the eye, these three women have redefined not only themselves, but the art itself.


The road less traveled

For Concepcion, who works in 55 Tinta in Quezon City, it all started with a shaky falling-out with her significant other. She explains that her first ever tattoo was a by-product of heartbreak. This event established an appreciation for the subtle symbolisms that tattoos can have.  As her interest in tattoos continued to evolve, she became fascinated with the freedom that came with getting a tattoo.

When a friend started an apprenticeship in a tattoo parlor, Concepcion was immersed in the process of making tattoos. As she witnessed the beautiful tattoo designs created by her friend unfold before her eyes, she began to wonder if she could pursue the same passion. “I wanted to do the same…to be able to get your art inked on someone’s skin is a big honor for me,” Concepcion exclaims. Indeed, having one’s art inked permanently on another’s skin is intimate in a way that is hard to put into words.

For her, tattoos—and tattooing—are a personal statement. This sentiment brought about a way of establishing her true identity by pursuing the passions that make her who she is. Having made the choice of being a tattoo artist despite her family’s disapproval, she takes this idea of identity to heart. She describes tattooing as “a constant learning [experience], a journey of knowing who you are as a person and as an artist.”

And for Concepcion, becoming her true self by being an artist is the biggest statement of all.


Between the lines

Claravall-Reyes of Chronic Tattoo X Culture—a renowned tattoo shop in Pasig—has had the opportunity to tattoo people from all walks of life, from doctors, showbiz personalities, teachers, grandparents, and even pastors and priests. She believes tattoos are stories—that there’s nothing quite like the intimacy between artist and client that allows these stories to unfold. Claravall-Reyes honors the trust that clients have shared with her, not just in the act of marking their bodies, but also in understanding the different reasons that led them to her shop.

Situated in 55 Tinta and Afrokush Studio in Quezon City, memorial tattoos—tattoos commemorating the dead—are Simbajon’s favorite pieces to do. “These are tattoos that are very sacred to me and also for the client. Giving up a part of your skin so that your dearly departed one can be placed there forever [is] a very immeasurable and emotional experience,” she confesses.

Transcending the physical act of marking, memorial tattoos comes close to something more spiritual—the commemoration of love and things thought to be lost, the carving of permanence in an impermanent world, and the expression of soul without ever needing a word.


Roadblocks

However, despite being a profession rooted in freedom and unconventionality, the tattoo industry is not without its pitfalls. Claravall-Reyes recalls the time when she applied to join an organization of tattoo artists with a primarily male membership—it was a classic old boys’ club. From the second she walked in the door, she was subjected to “weird looks”,  subtle jokes about her gender, and apprehension toward her different drawing style. Now a decade later, with an illustrious career under her belt, she still gets underestimated. More often than not, when she is introduced as a tattoo artist to men, the usual response is “Talaga?”

(Really?)

To this, Claravall-Reyes says, “Why the hell not?”

Simbajon shares the same sentiment, describing how there is a wide disparity between how male and female tattoo artists are treated within the industry. From the get-go, some shops are less likely to hire women, and even in some local tattoo competitions, women are still separated from men, all based on the assumption that female tattoo artists are inferior to the male ones.


Etching acceptance

Concepcion is also no stranger to the stigma attached not just to female tattoo artists, but to women who are inked as well. She is used to getting all kinds of looks whenever she goes to public places or social events with her child. Something about the image of a young mother with tattoos often does not sit well with people, but Concepcion has learned not to care. “As long as you’re happy, you feel great about yourself, and you’re doing your part in society [or] in my case, as [a] parent, then you shouldn’t be troubled [about] what others think of you,” Concepcion asserts. 

But the tide is turning; more and more people are getting inked and the old stereotypes are  slowly slipping into the past. With more and more people discovering the wonder of tattoos, the three women hope to see a future where these stereotypes no longer have a hold on society anymore.

A key attribute that resides within these artists is the burning passion to fight for one’s art, despite the criticisms brought on by the world. There will always be trials and tribulations, yet an artist with a pure and diligent soul is empowered to overcome any obstacle. Fearless and unapologetic, the marks they leave are indelible.

By Glenielle Geraldo Nanglihan

By Ronald Manuel Laylo

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