He inks to express his love of art, culture, and country
The art of tattooing has been part of our culture even before the Spaniards came to our land. More than fashion, our forefathers used their bodies as “living canvases” to express their ideals and beliefs as warriors. And that’s how they made intricate designs with ink blotted by thorns on their skins more meaningful.
Making tattoos meaningful is also what matters for hand-poke tattoo artist Roel Garcia. For him, other than what our ancestors did, one of the ways to make tattoos significant is being true to one’s identity. Thus, he inks our ancient writing system known as Baybayin and other themes that show patriotism.
Baybayin and other Filipino symbols
His interest in tattooing Baybayin started after he saw some Pinoys sporting foreign script tattoos that don’t even have an important connection with being Filipino. “Nagtaka ako kung bakit sila nagpapa-tattoo ng foreign script, eh meron naman tayong sariling atin. Kaya naisip ko na mag-tattoo ng Baybayin (I wondered why they have tattoos of foreign script when we have our own. So I thought of tattooing Baybayin),” Roel tells Manila Bulletin Lifestyle.
After that incident, the former telecommunications training supervisor started getting into the craft in 2017, but only during his spare time. It was only in 2020, when more people got interested in Baybayin tattoos, that he decided to do it full time.
The 28-year-old tattoo artist from San Jose Del Monte Bulacan also believes that having Baybayin as a design for tattoos is a way to connect to our deeper cultural roots. That, for Roel, leads someone to a better appreciation of what it means to be a Filipino citizen.
Apart from Baybayin, he inks images of nature and other things that represent our country. “Karamihan ng mga tina-tattoo ko ay mga puno na nakikita at marami sa atin. Puno, kasi nagsisimbulo ito ng buhay, katatagan, at paglago (Mostly, I ink trees that can be seen in our country. Trees, because they symbolize life, strength, and progress),” he says.
“Gumagawa din ako ng mga espada na meron tayo tulad ng kris, kampilan, at iba pa (I also do swords that are local like kris, kampilan, among others),” he continued. “Ito naman ay simbolo ng kagitingan at may kaakibat na paniniwala na nagtataboy ito ng masasamang espiritu o pagnanais (This symbolizes bravery and beliefs that it can get rid of bad spirits or evil desires).”
Roel is also working on images showcasing Philippine mythology. But of course, he also grants clients’ request on how they can show or interpret our beliefs and identity. He once created, for instance, a design based on a client’s interpretation of fertility. The tattoo was composed of a woman figure with feet formed in heart-shaped roots and hands extending like branches of trees with blossoming flowers.
The ancient method of hand-poke tattooing
Roel, who is also a poet, has liked drawing since he was young. But it was only in college when he learned to incorporate local history, traditions, and culture in his works. As a computer science student then, he tried to discover our roots through self-study. Then, he expresses it by painting using coffee before. But now, he shows it through applying an ancient method known as hand-poke tattooing, which is another thing that makes his passion for the said art more expressive.
Through researching and watching YouTube videos, particularly Thailand’s and Japan’s traditional hand-poke tattooing, he learned how to do manual rapid series of ink injections under the skin using a sterilized needle. This technique forms images through an accumulation of dots. At present, however, only red and black pigments are available for this kind of technique.
But why hand-poke tattooing?
“I chose hand-poking over other ways, even though it’s more difficult, because of the connection it gives between the artist and the receiver of the tattoo. Both sides are investing time, effort, patience, and willingness to finish a tedious procedure to create a masterpiece,” Roel explains in Filipino. “In this art, every dot proves that beautiful things in life can’t be achieved in an instant.”
Why these tattoos matter to him
The longest time he hand-poked a tattoo on a client was eight hours, says Roel. The design was of a large back piece that formed an image of a farmer-looking-warrior holding a karet (sickle) above his head and sporting a salakot hat with the word MANANABAS written in Baybayin. It was an image of a typical harvest day for a farmer.
On the other hand, Roel’s smallest tattoo could be his signature—the Baybayin KA. “I chose it to be my signature because it symbolizes connection, brotherhood, or relationship. That’s why its appearance has a vertical line in the center that connects the curved horizontal lines above and below. Creating the concept of the script shows how our ancestors are innately artistic,” beams Roel.
From his numerous works, his favorite is a simple yet meaningful tattoo: the word “BUHAY” in Baybayin, written inside a circle that is broken by a heart with an infinity sign. “The circle represents routine activities—eating, working, sleeping—that could define what life is. But the routine was broken by infinite love to have a different perspective of life and to experience its real meaning,” Roel said.
Indeed, love is what really keeps Roel from doing the strenuous art day by day. In fact, his Baybayin tattoo on his left arm, the words “PAGMAMAHAL SA GINAGAWA,” which he inked himself, always reminds him to stay positive.
Besides the traditional script, he also carries a tattoo of a tree, an ocean wave, and a mountain. “A tree because it always looks forward to growing. The waves because they can’t be stopped from flowing. And the mountains because they best symbolize stability in nature,” he expounds.
Why try his art of tattooing
Being a role model himself on how to show one’s love for country, the young artist is now gaining popularity in social media. But due to our current situation, he only accommodates a few clients in a day. He does his art session in an open-air venue while following health protocols. He even asked his clients to prepare and stay healthy before their schedule.
Roel shares that his mastery of the art, applying the right pressure in injecting ink, provides a less painful tattoo experience for his clients. Moreover, his love for the said art works like a magic spell that pushes him to do innumerable consistent pokes tirelessly.