Young Star

The taste of ink: Tales of tattoos

Regine Cabato - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The low hum of the gun buzzes over the crackle of the radio.  Paolo Espinosa points it toward his client’s back, runs its tip over his bare skin. A jolt in the rock and roll, and a thin trail of blood traces itself over his canvas. He wipes it off. The line he has drawn is darker, the most basic element in any work of art.

Espinosa says that it’s a lot less painful than the idea people have in mind. He runs Deus Ex Machina Skin Gallery, a tattoo parlor in Pasig. He tells me that the art itself is more challenging and does not allow for mistakes. This makes it more fulfilling, however: “If you’re a visual artist, you’d be really proud to see your work at a gallery, in an exhibit,” he explains in mixed English and Filipino. “Here, your canvas walks. The world is your exhibit.”

There are, he says, many kinds of tattoos and many kinds of people who get them. From the memorial to the milestone, from Angelina Jolie to Rihanna, Young STAR delivers some of the whys of getting inked.

Milestone marker

“It takes a piece of history for you to raise the stakes and take what was once an implicit memory into an explicit medium,” says Melissa Yu, a BS management senior at the Ateneo de Manila University. “I never waited for the right time to get inked. I waited for the right pieces to remember, then kept them on my skin.”

At the shoot, a goat skull from tattoo artist Miah Recto leers at us from her right side. On her left, “primitive” is scribbled in cursive. Roisin Murphy’s song of that title fleshes out what she believes she always was: primal. “2012 was probably the year I experienced the short end of that stick, and the tattoo serves as a reminder of all the weight brought by my simple-mindedness. I added the skull of the horned goat two months later, a reference to my zodiac Capricorn, to expose the unmasked face wrought by my experiences up to that point.”

Similarly, Camille Pilar draws from experience as well.  “Each tattoo brings me back to a specific time in my life, whether tumultuous or tender, and (is) always tinged with that internal search for truth,” says Pilar, English and communications instructor at Meridian International (MINT) College. She adds that they mark scenes that are all in accordance with a plot and its character’s growth. “In 2009, my entire family had to relocate to another country and I had to drop everything, quit my job, say my goodbyes in one week. The mindset you are in and the lessons you carry from an event like that mark you forever, and that was when I got my first tattoo.”

“Perhaps the central theme to my tattoos is displacement: to move and be moved,” she explains.  Her ink comes from Dyun Depasupil. There are words on her neck and sparrows on her arms, readying her for flight. There is also a sailor at her shoulder, a pirate and galleon at each thigh, and a compass at her wrist; by all means, Camille Pilar is mobile.

“I’ve stopped counting individual pieces,” says Pilar. “In a sense, all my tattoos make up just one story.” And these illustrations are from a novel that is only hers.

Risk taker

“I guess the reason why I finally (got a tattoo) is because I decided that I didn’t want to live my life with what-ifs,” says Alex Castro, incoming law student at the University of the Philippines. On her back is “Gurrier Gracieux,” French for ‘graceful warrior’ and the translation of her name; on the upper part of her left external oblique muscle is “servir al pueblo,” Spanish for ‘serve the people.’ On its right counterpart is a panther, a personification of the title on her back.

“I never regretted my decision,” she says.  “C’est la vie!” And life is a force that pushes you into a circumstance, into a moment. According to Castro, one can never be fully prepared for a tattoo. Her ink, courtesy of Sin City Tattoos, is both reminder and risk. “It’s the mark of a risk you once made, placed permanently on the surface of your main medium used to create your life.”

Art collectors

Espinosa explains that there are people who get tattoos because they love the art. A collector himself, he emphasizes that it’s important to allow the artist some freedom. This was precisely how he recruited entrepreneur Patrick Sulit to be the model for his back piece entry to Dutdutan 2012, the biggest tattoo exposition in the country.

The tattoo, entitled “Epiphany,” is a play on Michelangelo’s  “The Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Here, comedians Cheech and Chong pass a joint over a background of marijuana leaves. “I was somewhat amazed because it was something extremely different from the norm,” Sulit, who runs Club360 Gaming, recalls upon first seeing the design.  “Besides, how often would you see tattoos (like that)?”

Musician Bijan Gorospe similarly sports 25 to 35 tattoos; he has the phases of the moon by his collarbone and a wave akin to the Japanese woodblock painting circling his left arm.  Most prominent, however, are his marks on mortality. Like Sulit, Gorospe got into the scene after he lent his skin to a friend. “I have this one that says ‘We are all food for worms,’ and another that says ‘Death shall triumph,’” he shares. “It’s a reminder that we should make the most out of every single day we live in this world.”

Under the skin

For all the things that these tattoos do — remind, decorate, symbolize — they all do the same thing: manifest, in a picture or in words, the persona who carries the tattoo. “Your tattoo is a personal monument to memory, a tribute to an experience that no one else in the world has had the privilege of living out,” says Pilar.

Contrary to stereotype, it takes a brave one to etch this much on their skin — not because it hurts, but because of what it could stand for, now and in the future. “The problem with getting a tattoo because it’s a trend is that trends pass,” Espinosa reasons in Filipino. “What you have is permanent.”

Maybe this is what is respectable about this art: the acknowledgement of permanence in a fleeting, temporal world.

“I don’t know why I love tattoos,” Espinosa explains in a mix of English and Filipino. “That’s actually the same question as, ‘Why do you love someone?’ I’m in love with what I do — there’s no other reason apart from that.”








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