Ari na ang manug-tattoo yan. Mhulat lng kmi sa imo dri. (The tattoo artist has just arrived, Yan. We’ll just wait for you here.)
It was a text message sent to me by my younger brother right after I finished with my class in Journalism that sent me hurrying to go back to the city. It was Friday, and I had to catch the last trip from Miagao to Iloilo City which usually takes an hour of jeepney ride. When I arrived in the apartment that my two brothers are renting near their university in Iloilo City, the tattoo artist and my younger brother were already finished preparing the things needed for the operation. Although I tried not to show any fear, my nervous smiles betrayed me.
Hadlok ka aw? (Are you scared?) He asked, which I replied with an assuring, Ako pa. (Don’t worry).
Despite second thoughts, I decided to go on with the procedure. The first few pricks of the needle were not as painful as I thought they would be. I chose an area that according to my research hurts the least–my right shoulder. When I saw how the artist traced with his improvised gadget the sketch he drew on my shoulder and droplets of blood oozing from the small wounds left by the needle, my vision started to dim and my breathing burdened.
Okay ka lang yan? (Are you okay, Yan?), my brother asked, which I replied with a nod. I could not open my eyes. I just wanted avoid the thought of pain and shut from my mind that I have an option to back out and leave my tattoo half-finished.
A tattoo means a lot in defying the status quo especially in the Philippines where the prevailing belief is that only convicts (and ex-convicts) have it. If you want to have a place in the squeaky clean corporate world of coat and tie, having a tattoo would be too strong a statement or even worse could jeopardize you rise in the corporate ladder. If you want to have a place in the academe, having one will not really be a good impression on the panel of professors who will interview you in your first class demonstration. If you want to be a nurse in the US or anywhere else and you have an eagle perching on the canopy of the forest on your back, better forget about that dream.
I’ve always wanted to have a tattoo. Having a foreign pigment embedded between your epidermis and the more delicate inner skin that is permanent and will be something that is quintessential in defining your person is more than just exciting; it is even spiritual in the sense you get to decorate the temple of your soul.
But more than that, this tattoo for me symbolizes my desire to know and understand my younger brother. He was the family’s black sheep (excuse the cliché). He was always reprimanded by my parents for going with the wrong group, not doing well in school, making a lot of girls cry, and things one would think a black sheep would always do. However, these were all capped when at the age of 14 he got his first tattoo. It was a voodoo mask in green and red pigment superimposed on a black Cross of King Arthur. My father’s reaction, as most Filipino fathers would do was to beat him. My mother cried and asked him what else did they lack as parents. It was not a big deal for me except that the choice of the design disturbed me. I felt it was hastily done by an amateur. For me it was just another naughty thing that my brother did, nothing different from the mischiefs he did before.
When we left our hometown for college and the sooner we left the security our home and our parents provided I started to feel responsible for him and to understand the reasons of his actions. Although it was not openly shown, he felt that he was always being compared against his other siblings, especially with me. I started to realize that he was seeking his own identity and at the same time looking for a brother who will recognize and support his uniqueness. I tried to listen to his stories, go to places where he usually hangs out with his friends, and sometimes even have few drinking sessions with him. I started to see the other side of my brother I used to ignore. He has flair for the arts which I never knew before. He can draw editorial cartoons with very strong political statements which he could not otherwise express with words. We became good friends aside from being good brothers. So just before the start of the summer vacation, I told him that I also wanted to have a tattoo.
My mother’s reaction was unusual; she was calm about it only that she never expected that her son who teaches in UP will have himself tattooed with a tribal design she said she “will never fully comprehend”. Some of my friends were worried that I might be barred from entering other countries in case I study for my master’s degree.
I just wanted to point out to people who doubt my brother that having a tattoo will never make you anyone less of a person. The markings left by that not-so-painful procedure, which by the way was not done in an aseptic environment with all the sterile needles, surgical gloves, imported pigment, and top of the line electric tattoo machine, is permanent. But more lasting than the tattoo is the bond we created as brothers and my appreciation of his individuality.