My Tattoo Story
In the beginning, I never imagined myself as a tattoo artist. I was largely influenced by three people while growing up: my Mom (a pediatrician), my uncle Mon (an architect) and my Papa (a mathematician who loved visual art). I felt that going into fields where these adults could guide me was a safe bet, so in fourth year high school I narrowed down two career paths for college: either I enter the medical profession or pursue a course in art. I ultimately chose Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines Diliman and graduated cum laude. My specialty was watercolor painting and I had exhibits several times with my peers.
My activities as a painter opened the doors to other, similar work. One of my early stints was doing airbrush tattoos in Boracay, where I had a chance to meet some local tattoo artists. Among them was Joven Dichos, who became a good friend. I tagged along on some of his sessions, and drew up stencils when he did home service for foreigners visiting the Philippines. But the highlight of my two-month stay was being allowed to line a few simple scales of a koi fish on a Korean tourist. This was my very first tattooing experience.
That same year, the company sent me to Bali, Indonesia where again I met local tattoo artists. This time though, the trip got me excited enough to seriously give tattooing a try, so that when I got back home, I went all the way to Bicutan to be one of the first to purchase a tattoo starter kit from Don Baranda of Pinoy Body Arts.
I soon discovered that buying equipment was a lot easier than actually inking my first work on another human being. Since tattoos are permanent, the craft requires a high degree of precision, and I didn’t want to screw up or make embarrassing, irreversible mistakes as a novice. I spent months just researching and reading all about tattooing, but I got more intimidated and uncertain. A year passed and my kit remained stored away, untouched, as art exhibits kept me busy.
One summer, when I needed additional funds for art materials, I planned a garage sale and came across the kit. Seeing that it was still complete, I put it on display. My aunt Carmen Borja visited the sale and saw that I was giving up my kit. She proposed to buy it from me then, but only if I “keep” it for her and promise to use it. Until today, I am incredibly grateful to her because she helped me change my mind.
I finally fulfilled that promise when my neighbor, Mel Batoon, requested a tattoo. She didn’t care for my lack of experience, and volunteered to help me train. On a chilly January evening, I inked my first complete work – a Chinese zodiac sign. It turned out perfect and my neighbor was excited and happy with it. It was thrilling. Though I insisted that the tattoo was free (it was reward enough that the session was successful), she gifted me with a box of delicious, freshly-made empanadas (yum!). Another neighbor received my second tattoo. He bravely trusted me with a complicated design – a Polynesian sun with a Celtic knot.
I give credit to the awesome marketing skills of Jonas Eslao, a fellow painter and college batchmate, for several of my early clients. His referrals along with my Facebook posts kept clients coming almost every week. Though my usual price was “it’s free but please refer me to your friends”, I gained enough confidence to charge a minimum fee – just enough to replenish tattoo materials and cover my power usage.
There were a lot of trying times while I learned the ropes. Some nights never seemed to end as I did small tattoos that took me up to 9 hours to finish. I’ve made the mistake of booking 5 big tattoos in one day – it ended up giving me carpal tunnel and I couldn’t ink for two months. During one session with a friend, a power blackout forced me to finish the tattoo in another venue.
I’ve also been tested by clients. There were some sessions where I wound up waiting an entire day for someone who forgot, couldn’t be reached or wouldn’t confirm. I’ve lost a cellphone from a client with sticky fingers. And there were those who’ve made me create designs, only to bring these to other artists for inking. Remembering my hurdles as I learned a new craft, it seems such a long time ago now.
Whenever I had questions in need of answering, I watched internet videos of tattoo artists at work, scoured forums, and sought reliable references (such as the seven invaluable issues of Machinegun magazine). I’d also consult experienced tattoo artists and dedicated enthusiasts, and discover new things from them to this day. I learned to fix and tune tattoo machines, choose quality brands, protect my ideas, maintain the security of the work area, and ensure hygienic, sanitary safeguards for my clients. Even though there is an art to the process, a tattoo artist must never think that tattooing is only about his self-expression, because your client is not just the buyer of your work, he/she also happens to be your canvas. It’s of utmost importance to keep the client’s well-being and personal preference in mind.
People are occasionally surprised to learn that my family – particularly my mother, who is a doctor – has absolutely no objection to my career as a tattoo artist. This is because my parents placed great value in having an open mind as well as the determination to forge your own path in this life. I came to appreciate these aspects more as I got older.
I feel fortunate to be near a circle of people who’ve had more faith in me than I did myself during moments that matter. A gentle push, a show of support, can go a long way in making a person get better or aim higher.
Presently, I am part of the 55Tinta family. I work as a guest artist and spend two days of every week tattooing there. 55 Tinta has moved from their old location to a newer, bigger, and more awesome shop in 107 Maginhawa Street, Diliman. Visit their FB page here.
The rest of the week, I can be found in my studio Katz Tatz Tattoo. Check more of my works in the Gallery or on .