Rebel ink shifts Pinoy tattoo taboos

by Kristine Servando,

Posted at Sep 25 2009 11:55 PM | Updated as of Oct 02 2009 04:18 AM

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Ricky Sta. Ana and his son. Inset is a photo of his son's tattoo. Photo by Kristine Servando.

MANILA - It might be shocking to see a 9-year-old boy sporting a yellow pencil tattoo on his upper arm, but for his famous tattoo artist dad, it's just a testament to indelible love.

Ricky Sta. Ana, president of the Philippine Tattoo Artist Guild (PHILTAG), explained that the tattoo - a cartoonish pencil with a spider's web behind it - was a gift for his son when he ranked 2nd in his 4th grade class.

The tattoo symbolizes how one should never stop learning.

"Actually, that's not allowed, you have to be 18 to get a tattoo, but it was my gift for him. My son has been asking for it, and his sisters were jealous when they saw it. I always tell my kids to smarten up first before they get tattoos. They have to prove they deserve it," Sta. Ana said in Filipino during an interview at the 9th Dutdutan Tattoo Expo.

Breaking tattoo taboos and promoting a more "meaningful" view of the art is one of the aims of the "2009 Dutdutan" held last Sept. 18-19 at the A. Events Hall in Makati.

The expo, sponsored by Tribal Gear and headed by PHILTAG, also seeks to promote and develop the Filipino tattoo industry so that it can be recognized internationally.

Even with a steep P250 entrance fee, the event still drew hundreds of tattoo artists, musicians, their wives and girlfriends, troops of teenagers, and curious onlookers.

Now on its 9th year, the Dutdutan - a double meaning for both tattooing and sex - featured more international exhibitors from France, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

It had events like tattoo-of-the-day contests, a mixed martial arts fight, concerts, and a bikini contest.

Sta. Ana, who has been tattooing since 1990, said the "Dutdutan" has grown from a simple undergound Christmas party by PHILTAG to a mainstream corporate brand-powered event that clinches a more high-end market.


In previous years, tattoos became associated with criminals, drug addicts, and ruffians.

This may be partly due to the "undergound" nature of tattooing then, when tattoo artists worked with improvised tools and unsanitary conditions, and jealously guarded their techniques from younger artists.

Tattoos have also been considered to hinder a person from getting a job - an idea that British tattoo artist Lee Albon describes as "rubbish."

Albon is the only non-Filipino PHILTAG member and owner of the L.A. Ink tattoo shops in Taytay, Rizal that he manages with his Filipino wife Annabel.

"Well I had my first tattoo when I was 13," he said. "The tattoo culture in England is people don't care if you've got a tattoo. Here in the Philippines, unfortunately, whether it be religion or old-fashioned beliefs, people still think... it's going to stop you from doing your job."

Albon said he had a customer who was almost fired from his job at a hospital because his superiors found a fresh tattoo on his ankle, not knowing that he had been carrying a tattoo on his hip for 10 years already - the entire time he had been employed.

Status symbol

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Scenes from the 2-day Dutdutan Tattoo Expo. Photos by Kristine Servando and Maria Java-Cuizon.

Nowadays, Sta. Ana said, the tattoo has become a status symbol, partly because it is associated with art and self-expression, and partly because of the cost.

Tattoos done in legitimate tattoo parlors cost around P1,000 for a small 1-inch square black tattoo to as high as P20,000 for larger pieces.

Sta. Ana said tattoos cost a lot because the quality materials used are expensive and are mostly supplied from Malaysia and China.

The starting capital for aspiring tattoo artists is about P10,000 to P15,000.

"Kasi yung murang tattoo, mga isang buwan, dalawang buwan, luma na. Yung tattoo [na] mamahalin, umaabot ng sampung taon. (Cheap tattoos fade after 1 or 2 months. Expensive tattoos can last 10 years)," he said.

The economic crisis curbed tourist demand for tattoos somewhat, but Albon said this has not stopped people from getting tattoos.

The British expat said he gets all sorts of customers from doctors, lawyers, catwalk models, and a lot of seamen.

Primary markets for tattoos are tourists, followed by "balikbayans", and upper-class locals.

Tattoos have also taken on "cool" status, becoming a badge of honor or fashion statement.

"I noticed among youngsters - especially women - they do it for a slight rebellious kind of thing. Maybe the government, their family, religion. To me it doesn't matter," Albon said.

"And the men, I think it's going back to [the] Philippine tribal status thing like 'Look at me, I'm a man, I have a tattoo.' Very much like in England back in the 70s, it was very popular. You go out and have tattoos and it makes you feel more grown up," he added.

Health issue

PHILTAG has also championed health consciousness among tattoo artists, somehow changing the view that tattoos raise HIV and infection risks because of the unsanitary use of needles.

PHILTAG, which has about 152 registered members, conducts seminars and workshops on proper tattoo techniques and emphasizes health safety procedures.

The organization gives breaks to aspiring tattoo artists, especially out-of-school youth, and tries to raise health and art standards of the profession.

Sta. Ana and Albon, as well as many PHILTAG members, screen their customers and refuse those who appear drunk.

They are required by PHILTAG rules to show clients the sealed needles, sterilizing machines, and all equipment before starting work on the tattoo.

"We also need to learn their status in life, what they study, what if the tattoo hinders them? Take at your own risk, but you need to explain first to them that tattoos are permanent and hard to remove," Sta. Ana said in Filipino.

Currently, there is a bill pending in Congress (House Bill 5056 filed by Rep. Narciso Santiago III) that requires tattoo shops and their clients to first obtain health permits from the Department of Health.

Albon, however, said he wishes Philippine laws were stricter on tattoos and body piercing, as they are in his native country.

"In England, basically, they do health checks without warning. They will pretend to be a customer and if they see that there's anything wrong, they will close the shop down the same day. And they will conduct an investigation until they feel comfortable in reopening your shop," he said.

Sta. Ana encourages people who want to get tattoos to consider the risks and benefits first.

"Observe first, choose the right person to do your tattoo, don't get a tattoo for no reason, don't get a tattoo because you got scolded. Think first. Go to the right tattoo artist so they can be educated if they should or should not get tattoos," he said. Report by Kristine Servando,