0 Comments 04 November 2011


By Pepper Marcelo

Hundreds of years before tattoos and body artwork became acceptable and mainstream in the country, Filipinos were already adorning themselves with ink. When the Spanish arrived and subsequently colonized the Philippines, they documented and referred to the islands and its inhabitants as La Isla De Los Pintados, or “Island of the Painted Ones.”

Throughout the archipelago, various tribes and communities used tattoos to signify rank, age, accomplishment; some were even viewed as symbols of magic. Also regarded as a sign of beauty, women adorned themselves with tattoos, oftentimes marking them themselves. Inking methods during this early period were crude, consisting of smearing the skin with a mixture of soot and sugar cane juice.

In modern times, tattoos have entered popular culture. Celebrities, entertainers, athletes, ordinary folks and yes, the jailbirds – they all proudly sport tattoos. Planet Philippines recently sat down with two of the country’s leading tattoo artists – Ricky Sta. Ana of Skinworkz and Joe Saliendra of Tattoo at Joe’s – to discuss the local tattoo industry, its growing acceptance by mainstream society, and how Filipino artists compare with the rest of the world.

Ricky Sta. Ana

Ricky Sta. Ana is one of the more popular tattoo artists in the country. He has been prominently featured in magazines and newspapers, television programs and advertisements. He is the current head of the Philippine Tattoo Artist Guild (PHILTAG).

With no formal training, he opened his first tattoo parlor in 1990 at Cartimar Arcade in Pasay City, which has now sprouted to three in the Metro Manila area, with a staff of 10 artists. When he first started, he recalls, his clientele was mostly criminals and gangsters. “It was the mark of a bad boy or a rebel,” he says.

Nowadays, he caters to actors, rock stars, sports celebrities and even politicians. “They bring their girlfriends, or mistresses, and give them a tattoo as a gift.”

Skinworkz’s prices range from the minor (Php1,000) to premium (Php10,000 and above). Popular and traditional tattoos for most locals, he says, include flowers, stars and Filipino tribal art.

Sta. Ana says that he originally accepted walk-ins to his shop, but with business booming, he now chooses clients whose designs have the most meaning to them. While able to draw almost any style, he prefers to execute Oriental (harkening to his half-Chinese background), as well as elemental designs.

He explains that it’s more expensive to have an arm tattoo than a back tattoo, despite the size difference. “It’s more difficult with an arm, because you’re working on a round surface. You have to be sure it’s symmetrical. At least with a back you’re working on a flat surface.”

Sta. Ana advises first timers to start with something small and simple. “Try it first, then think and educate yourself about it. Later, you can get something more deep.”

Joe Saliendra

Another industry veteran, Joe Saliendra has been a tattoo artist for 27 years and one of the original founders of PHILTAG. It was only five years ago, however, that he opened his shop in BF Homes in Paranaque City. Also a self-taught tattoo artist, he originally worked as an animator, but gave that up when tattooing became more lucrative.

Many of his colleagues, including Sta. Ana, view Saliendra as a mentor figure and pioneer in the industry. But Saliendra shrugs the accolade off, saying that in the “underground” realm of tattoos, there’s no merit for labels or titles. “It’s not like a person studying to be a doctor,” he says. “There’s isn’t a degree you can get. To be a professional is self-proclaimed. Me, I’m just a tattoo artist.”

Over the years, he’s catered to all types of clients – men, women, celebrities, white-collar workers, tricycle and jeepney drivers. Even underage kids approach him, accompanied by their parents. “I once asked the mother if it was okay for her 17-year-old son to get a tattoo,” he recalls. “She told me, ‘It’s okay, so, what can I do?’ So I said okay.”

Saliendra’s tattoo methods are different than those of other shops. After a client sets an appointment with him, they go through an extensive orientation and interview process. Like Sta. Ana, he asks clients why they want a tattoo. “It has to be personal, justified and meaningful to them,” he says.

Unlike most artists, Saliendra doesn’t specialize in a specific image or design, because all types of people approach him. “I have to know what you like, then I’ll go with the flow. The influence of the tattoo doesn’t come from me, but from the person getting the tattoo. He or she will educate and motivate me.”

The process, depending on the size and design, can take anywhere from one hour to a simple tattoo (such as a butterfly) to a month, with the prices ranging from Php1,500 to more than a Php100,000. Saliendra says that the most expensive tattoo he has worked on was a back-placed Oriental design, which cost Php120,000.

Most people, he says, want to emulate designs and placements they see on celebrities, such as the angel with wings design on popular British soccer player David Beckham. He refuses such requests. “Resemblance is okay,” Saliendra says, “but I don’t want to do a carbon copy.”

Another common design for many locals are patriotic themes, such as the sun, rays and stars evoking the Philippine flag. “I’m sick of those,” he says.

Mainstream acceptance

Tattoos now are more popular and widely accepted, or at least tolerated, as they’ve ever been. “There’s more education, because of the internet, and the exposure in the media,” says Saliendra. “Before, it was like you were trapped in a small corner. Now, it’s spread everywhere.”

Despite the openness, he says there’s still some prejudice. “There’s the mentality that if you have a tattoo, you’re a bad guy.” He adds that it’s always the people without tattoos that pick on the people with, but never the other way around. “People ask, why do you have a tattoo? What’s wrong with you?’ But a tattooed person would never ask, ‘Why don’t you have a tattoo?’”

Sta. Ana agrees that there’s still some resistance to tattoos, but it’s natural. “Even in Europe and the US, they still have that problem,” he says. “It’s better to just educate people.”

Saliendra says that while the increasing commercialization of tattoos and proliferation of tattoo shops and artists, as well as events like Dutdutan, the biggest annual tattoo expo in the country, are positive for the industry, there’s a danger in over-commercialization. With so many shops, customers try to get the best price and make tattoo artists compete with another to bring the cost down. “There’s no standard set of prices,” he says. “Are you looking for artwork, or are you into getting the best deal?”

For his part, Sta. Ana is more concerned with advocating proper protocol and safety standards. “You see so many shops, they have modern equipment, but then they dispose needles improperly,” he says. “If a client gets infected, the whole industry will be affected.” PHILTAG, with approximately 152 registered members, conducts seminars on proper tattoo techniques and health safety procedures.

World-class talent

Being Pinoy, in both skill and culture, is what differentiates local artists, and is what ultimately makes them unique. “Job-wise, the Filipino at times is better,” says Saliendra. “We use the same equipment, pigments and all that. The people abroad charge more, and you can get that tattoo for cheaper here, and more personalized.”

Sta. Ana agrees, and wants to focus on helping burgeoning artists, especially wayward and out-of-school teens. “Their tattoo art is their only hope for a better life for them and their family,” he says. “Better to do this, than something negative.”

In his view, having a tattoo can be a form of catharsis and expression, or a chance to break free of the drudgery of life. “When you get home from work and take off your uniform, showing your tattoos, it’s the only time you can express another side of who you really are.”

Saliendra puts it more philosophically: “This is the ultimate soul of art, because this is the only art that divides the person’s soul from the reality. It is on this thin layer of skin – inside is your soul, outside is the reality. The art is the dividing wall, a reflection of your soul.”


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