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Rambunctious Rebels: Histories of authentic expression in Filipinx tattoo cultures

(Left to right) Tattoo artists Tito Gavina and Jeff Quintano stand outside of Golden Star Tattoo Company in San Francisco Chinatown on May 12, 2022. Photo: Ekevara Kitpowsong

What is a Filipino tattoo?

In August 2020, I reached out to Filipino American tattoo artist Tito Gavina over Instagram, hoping he could work around an unfinished tattoo of my grandmother on my upper back. I asked if he might be able to tattoo a scene that would honor the intent of the existing piece: unbroken connections with my ancestors.

Gavina tattooed my entire back from shoulders to buttocks over the course of thirty hours between September 2020 and February 2022. He framed my grandmother’s portrait with a rooster, a skull, and a densely packed river background. We shared stories, told jokes, and became fast friends.

Some of our most animated conversations were about the history of Filipinx tattooers in the United States. I asked Gavina and Jeff Quintano, another Filipino tattoo artist and friend, if they would be willing to share their thoughts on how they challenge general assumptions about what Filipino tattoos could look like. They enthusiastically consented.

(Left to right) Bernard James Remollino and Tito Gavina flip through a Folk Art Tattoo flash book at Golden Star Tattoo Company in San Francisco's Chinatown on May 12, 2022. Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong.

Gavina works out of the historic Golden Star Tattoo Company in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. His artistic sensibilities were initially inspired by memories of growing up in Santa Clara surrounded by family members proudly displaying their tattoos – small, lighthearted designs of naked ladies and animals.

“It was drawn a certain way where if they flexed their muscles, the boobs would grow,” Gavina laughingly reminisced. “It was just like some perverted uncle stuff, but funny imagery.”

Inspired by these early memories of tattoos as an art of personal expression, Gavina began tattooing out of his home in 2010 before transitioning to Royalty Tattoo Collective in Burlingame in 2013. He initially tattooed in the American Traditional style of strong black lines, heavy black shading, and vibrant flashes of color.

But a six-month backpacking trip in 2017 inspired Gavina to channel his creative energies toward a different compositional style: elements of traditional Japanese tattoos with scenes from precolonial Philippine mythology. He bought a one-way ticket to Thailand, packed his bags, and began a journey across Southeast Asia alongside his partner.

“Traveling helps open your mind and gives you a different perspective of how you see the world. I was able to dive deep into different cultures, learn more about them and understand the connections between a lot of Filipino things and other parts of Asia,” Gavina said.

Gavina’s designs utilize the meticulously black-shaded clouds and waves of the Japanese style contrasted by vibrant red, green, and gold inks coloring Filipino headhunters, jewel-laden death masks, and the Bakunawa, a moon-eating water dragon of precolonial Cebuano creation stories. But while Gavina considers himself a creator of Filipino tattoos, these motifs are generally not accepted as Filipino designs — at least not in the traditional sense.

“Sometimes it feels like there are things that look the same,” Gavina asserted about the growing ubiquity of Filipino tribal patterns characterized as authentic Filipino tattoos. “I want to have a different perspective and a voice where you could tell it’s coming from me.”

Indeed, while Gavina’s style is rooted in diligent research into Philippine mythology, it deviates from the recognized definitions of traditional Filipino tattooing. They are not traditional. This does not necessarily mean that they are not Filipino tattoos.

Traditional Filipino tattoos use diverse tribal designs, which were widespread for millennia before the Spanish and U.S. colonial occupations of what is now considered the Philippines. Simplified representations of dogs, scorpions, and people accompany extensive geometric patterns. Oil and soot compose the black ink that is tapped into skin using thorn needles.

Filipino Americans in the 1990s concentrated efforts to reclaim and revive precolonial Filipino tattooing. This coincided with widespread interest in neo-tribal Filipino motifs — which fused generalized Pacific Islander black geometric patterns — alongside a demand for tattoos with a precolonial Filipino script called Baybayin. Philippine cultural experts and contemporary Filipino tribes based in the United States represent one perspective concerning how best to honor ancestral Filipino traditions: strict adherence to accuracy in reproducing the form, structure, and nuance of these precolonial practices.

Jeff Quintano poses with his self-published workbook, Baybayin: A Primer on Reading and Writing Baybayin, on May 12, 2022. The workbook includes Quintano’s tattoo designs. Photo: Ekevara Kitpowsong

Quintano, a neo-tribal and Baybayin tattooer born and raised in Albay, Bicol, Philippines, offers another perspective.

“Yung traditional, yung purpose noon, para sa pag-represent ng community or tribe” (Traditional [tattoos] were originally used to represent your community or tribe), Quintano said as he cited a fundamental difference between precolonial tattoo practices and the neo-tribal style.

While earning a degree in design at Manila’s University of Santo Tomas, Quintano worked at tattoo conventions before fully committing to tattooing in 2013. A self-styled nomad, Quintano immigrated to California permanently in 2020. At Humble Beginnings Tattoo in San Jose, he mobilizes his immigrant experience to connect with a new clientele of Filipino Americans.

“Sino ba ang gusto kong i-serve na community?” (Which community do I want to serve?) Quintano said. “Mas nag-eenjoy na akong i-drawing ng mga gantong bagay kasi yun na din ako” (I enjoy drawing these designs because that is who I am now).

Quintano’s new immigrant positionality energizes his work, which regularly incorporates modern images and phrases reflecting his Filipinx clientele’s experiences. His designs evoke nostalgic connections to the Philippines — jeepneys and traysikels, parols and bahay kubos, nurses and Filipino revolutionaries — accented with Baybayin script. He argues that the realities of migration from the Philippines have necessitated a shift in the subject matter of Filipino tattoos.

“Yung neo-tribal din naging para sa pagiging individual… to still honor yung past, pero more on pang-sarili na ang kwento” (Neo-tribal is still used to honor the past, but through stories centering personal identities), he said.

Tattoo artist Tito Gavina and his client Gilbert Gammad at Golden Star Tattoo Company in San Francisco's Chinatown on May 12, 2022. Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong.

The perspectives of Quintano, Gavina, and others oscillate around a crucial question concerning notions of traditional and modern Filipino tattooing: Is art tattooed apart from the traditional methods of Philippine tattooing disrespectful to Filipino ancestors?

The answer, like cultural identity and expression, is nuanced and fluid. It requires a reckoning with the process of historical change over time; it requires an acknowledgment that the ranks of Filipino tattooing’s ancestors are continually expanding.

“Would your ancestors want you to only be doing these designs?” Gavina posited about precolonial Filipino tattoo motifs. “There’s one point where you’re going to be the ancestor, so are you going to be changing, or will there be no progression?”

Indeed, the historical traditions of Filipino tattooing are not confined to the Philippines. Precolonial Pacific tattoo cultures grew from migrations and cultural exchanges. These traditions extended into the twentieth century when Filipino tattooers in Hawaii and California became bona fide masters of the practice — but not of tribal work.

Between the 1910s and 1950s, Filipino migrant tattoo artists most prominently contributed to a nascent American Traditional style. Pinays and Pinoys like Domingo Galang, Tino “Rosie” Camanga, and Martina Yagyagan tattooed nautical images, pin-up girls, and popular cultural icons like Mickey Mouse.

Like those of Rosie Camanga, some of these designs infused Filipino immigrant humor into American Traditional designs. Lips eating ripe cherries oozed with sexual innuendo; carabaos and scorpions, distinctly Filipino images, filled the sheets of pre-made designs adorning Camanga’s shop walls.

When these Pinay and Pinoy immigrant tattoo artists passed away, they joined their ancestors whose struggles for survival under the genocidal pressures of Spanish and U.S. colonialism left lasting legacies in tattoo culture. Those legacies — distinct but not disconnected from precolonial tribal struggles — also need to be recognized; the ongoing process of revitalizing Filipino tattoo cultures must be rooted in respect for these ancestral tattooers. There is spiritual fulfillment in an acknowledgment of both.

So, the issue stands: What should be considered a proper Filipino tattoo? The ranks of ancestors grow over time. Restricting definitions of ancestral traditions solely to the precolonial context renders invisible the labor of immigrant Pinay and Pinoy ancestors whose contributions to tattooing culture — a culture defined by its modifiability — resonate with power equal to the contributions of ancestors from precolonial traditions.

This does not mean throwing caution, or intent, to the wind and recklessly marking bodies to capitalize on trends. But it does mean looking more closely at intent — both of artists and clients.

(Left to right) Bernard James Remollino, Jeff Quintano, and Tito Gavina in San Francisco Chinatown on May 12 2022. Photo: Ekevara Kitpowsong

“Kung yung purpose ng piece is to connect to your roots or mag-pakita ng pagiging Pilipino… kung yung tao na yon gusto niya i-honor yung connection niya sa Philippines, para sa akin, considered yan as Filipino tattoo” (If the purpose of the piece is to connect to your roots, to represent, or to show your identity as a Filipino – if people really want to honor their connections to the Philippines – then I consider those [tattoos] as Filipino tattoos), Quintano said.

“If you are a Filipino doing tattoos, then you are a Filipino tattooer,” Gavina asserted at the end of our conversation.

As I sit with Gavina at his shop and wait to be tattooed again, I think deeply about how I might answer that question.

A proper Filipino tattoo is one that breathes with the intent to honor experiences that are both personal and rooted in collective historical memories. A proper Filipino tattoo, as traditions dictate, tells an authentic story about where we are, where we’ve been, and where we hope to be.

In this context, far removed from the material conditions of the past but intimately aware of a long history connected by radical imaginations, a proper Filipino tattoo today tells the story of a self that stands on the shoulders of rambunctious ancestors intent on upholding ever-expanding traditions to meet the needs of an ever-changing present.

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