People often wonder what it’s like to be tattooed, but what’s it like to be the one tattooing? These were my thoughts as someone from the inkless side of the fence. I wanted to find out the perspective of a different kind of artist—one whose canvas is skin.
I met up with Philippe Joseph Sarmiento just outside Needlepoint Cebu Tattoo Studio, located at 124 Gorordo Ave. Brgy. Kamputhaw, Cebu City.
I started by giving him a statement about people’s bodies being blank canvases which become art after getting inked.
Phil: Very special canvases. You can never start the process half-assed or without at least checking the design first. You also have to research the design and make sure that it’s how it should be. You have to know that you are capable to pulling it off before you even start holding the tattoo machine. Also making sure that you don’t have a weak design and it’s where it’s supposed to be on the client’s body. It’s going to be there for a very long time, unless you cover it up or get laser removal .The whole process is not easy at all.
But every once in a while, a client comes in wanting a bad looking design saying, “Exactly as it is and where I want it.” It is our job to educate them. Tell them, “It’s a very bad design and it won’t look any better on that part of your body.” So I offer a better design or placement, but for one reason or another, some want it exactly as it is, so all we can do is tell them what we think about it and start from there.
Have you ever had a customer not like a finished design despite doing everything they said and even after your warnings?
Yeah, I’m sure I have. I guess that’s something that’s bound to happen in a tattoo studio. When the person getting ink done is not 100% sure about getting the tattoo or they’re really nervous about getting one that they don’t think straight while deciding what to get. Sometimes they end up over-thinking things and panic, that’s why we make it a point to make sure our clients are calm before we start the whole process.
I see. Let’s back up some. What did you want to be as a kid?
A lot of things actually, maybe I just thought I could do everything hahaha… I’ve always wanted to be a paleontologist. Because of Discovery Channel, you know all those dinosaur documentaries—I wanted to dig up bones and ancient relics and stuff. It looked so cool on TV. But the older I got, I started realizing, that I can never be one of those guys, and you know how kids shift their interests every now and then. HAHAHAHA
Second to being a paleontologist, what did you want to be?
I wanted to be a painter, a cartoonist, or someone who draws as a profession, heheheh. When I was young, it’s not like I was inspired by the masters. All my uncles and my dad, they were like really good at drawing stuff, being engineers and architects. My dad was really good at drawing airplanes. He was an aeronautics engineer. He was really good at calculating everything really straight and perfect and life-like…. And I was so inspired by that and by everybody around me.
Everyone’s an engineer?
Yeah the pressure was on me since I was the first grandchild, and the only boy…back then…I was like, ”Aw sh** I gotta live up to what they want me to be.” My grandparents were always saying, “Get your grades up so you become an engineer like your dad and uncles.”
I strayed from “the path” because I wanted to do art. I felt like the black sheep the whole time, only my mom and friends were supporters. But they all ended up supporting me with what I am doing right now and appreciating the art I create and I am very thankful for that.
In the midst of being an artist, when did you realize that you wanted to be a tattoo artist, specifically?
I think it was in first year college. One of my close friends from highschool who’s older than me, “Yads” Arnejo—he did tattoos for some people I know back in school. When you’re in highschool, back in my time, tattoos were either – you’re scared of it or very interested in it. One day he offered, “You just turned 18, so you want to get a tattoo?” And I think I said something like, “That’d be cool, let’s do it.” I remember asking him to give me an hour to draw something. While I was getting my first ink done, I was so fascinated by the whole process and started asking questions about it and the rest was history.
What are the price ranges for the tattoos you do?
For smaller tattoos, like script tattoos or font style tattoos, it’s 1500 for anything that fits inside 3by3 inches. But if it’s an image, the prices go a little bit higher depending on the details of the design and actual size when it’s on skin.
What do you mean by water color? In your page you mentioned ‘watercolor style design’?
A few years back, I don’t know who started it… most international tattoo artists started doing “painterly feels” on tattoos. It’s no longer just, “BOOM! It’s an eagle tattoo!” Nowadays everybody experiments on making tattoo art look like other forms of artworks. Though the process is way different from an actual brush, we can now start to imitate the style visually. Somebody was like, “If we can imitate oil paintings at least as close as we can to make it have that natural feel to it, why can’t we do watercolors in modern/contemporary watercolor styles?” One day I researched and found some pictures of watercolor style tattoos from the internet and it’s like, “Ooh, this is cool, it really looks like a watercolor painting—looked like watercolor on skin.” So I studied how watercolor works on paper and imitated it on skin.
That’s amazing! By the way, how did your family feel about your first tattoo, and you becoming a tattoo artist?
You know it’s funny. For my first tattoo, I actually asked permission from my dad before he died. I asked him, “Would it be okay if I get a tattoo when I am old enough?”
And my dad was like, “Yeah sure, when you are old enough as long as you don’t put it somewhere too flashy.”
They were all expecting me to be like an engineer or something, “Yeah cool.”
And then I, I told my mom, “Mom, I’m eighteen now, so I want to get a tattoo.” She said ok.
In the morning, my mom woke up and saw me lying on my face with the tattoo on my back. I could hear my mom say, “Look at your kuya. He looks like somebody who just got out of prison.” I could hear them but I didn’t bother. After a few years, after a few more tattoos, I woke up one day, hearing my mom say something like, “Look at your kuya, your kuya’s tattoo doesn’t have color. Why doesn’t it have color? He should get something with nice colors.”
Now both my younger sisters have tattoos too.
You did it?
Yes. We have matching tattoos. Paper airplanes. To commemorate my dad. This one… my old apprentice did this on me. My sisters got the paper airplanes I did with different add-ons on the design. We all got it on my dad’s birthday on different years.
What’s the fastest one that you did and the longest one that you did?
I don’t know. It’s like I wouldn’t be able to remember specifically, but I’m pretty sure I did like a dot.
It took like a second. Yeah people get the craziest stuff.
“I want a dot.”
“Okay, thank you.”
Yeah! The weirdest tattoo I did was on a Danish girl. That was the dot. I guess she wanted to try it or maybe it was for fun, I don’t know. But I’m sure she really wanted it. The longest one I did…
Does it take how many layers, or seconds, or what?
Yeah. Especially the design and the technique you need for a specific design. I don’t know, maybe eight hours. That’s the longest I can do I know for sure. But I just can’t remember who I did it to through all those years.
Do you ever get used to doing the same body position for eight hours?
Yeah, that’s the hard part. It’s like, I’ll be sitting down with my back arched for eight hours and it’s gonna ache after the session. So of course there’s gonna be breaks in between. Can’t really force yourself to do something that long. Not on a specific hour or after a specific number of strokes, but if I feel like I need to take a break, then I take a break so I don’t get stressed out.
How many people did you tattoo before you were like, “I got this. I can do anything now.”?
I did it on a lot of my friends… it was on one of my friends when I was like, “Yeah, I got this.” It takes like, so long. In some countries, when they take apprenticeship, sometimes it takes 4-5 years or until your mentor tells you you’re ready.
Let’s say I want to learn how to do tattoos. There’s no school open for it. I just go to someone and go like, “Hey… Hey Phil!”
“Can I take up apprenticeship?”
Do the ones who want to be an apprentice pay the possible mentor something?
It depends on the mentor and shop you pick. I started my apprenticeship with Ralph San Ramon in 2006, I think. It was because I kept going to the old Needlepoint Studio, to get my tattoo supplies and every time he was doing a tattoo I’d be breathing on his back and bombard him with questions hahaha. He noticed what I was up to and asked if I wanted to be an apprentice.
What are the stereotypes you hear about tattoo artists or people who sport tattoos?
Ah… of course.
Always like, “Oh, that guy is a delinquent, a drug addict.”
Especially here with our culture, you either belong in a band or did drugs or you’ve been to prison—that’s what people always think. When I started getting my sleeve up, people would look at me weird when I went to church. I even remember there were like 4 or 5 of us that had sleeves on and just wanted to go somewhere so we took a jeepney. Five minutes after sitting down, everybody else in there just wanted to get out.
We just laughed and said to each other, “They’re scared of you!” “No, they’re scared of YOU! You do look like a snatcher.” “No! You do!” Funny.
Even today, people still have that stereotype about people with sleeves on and long hair.
Is there any way to lessen or dispel that stereotype?
Yeah, I guess there’s a lot of ways. Try to talk nice and treat the people around you nice. I’m pretty sure they’ll realize that things like having tattoos do not really matter. It doesn’t really affect your personality at all. And it’s one of the stuff that people should really try to take in. I actually know people who don’t have tattoos that are …
Yeah, let’s put it that way. People that have their bodies covered in piercings and tattoos, they’re the nicest people that I’ve met in my whole life.
I notice that you have a lot of foreigner clients. How did that start?
When I started my tattoo shop (“HoSA”—House of Shredding Art) a few years ago in Mabolo, my shop was right next to a bar and lucky enough, somebody from Denmark brought his friend to drink there and saw the tattoo shop.
“Hey can I see your work?”
He loved it and started talking to his friends about it, and one after another, they started coming in.
What’s the weirdest place on the body that you did a tattoo on?
There was this Korean guy.
No wait. It was… somewhere deeper.
It was awkward—he had like tattoos from the knees going up to the waist so it was like cycling shorts when you look at it. It was… all on the leg to the ass, so I had to move some parts over to the side.
Aside from refusing to do, say, a one-inch Mona Lisa? Would you refuse to tattoo on the privates? Or you don’t care?
I wouldn’t care. As long as I know I’m capable of doing the design properly, I’m willing to do that. As long as I know I can do it. But if it is a one-inch Mona Lisa, at the tip of somewhere on the client, that would be crazy, man.
Have you done a tattoo on the forehead?
Not yet. Nobody has come up to me for the forehead. But on the head, yes. On the face, yes.
Is it impossible to have a tattoo on the tongue or inside your mouth?
It’s possible but, it won’t stay readable for too long. Because it moves a lot, the pigment through the skin is gonna blot out. So example, you draw a star, in a couple of months it’s gonna blot out if you do it on the tongue or lips.
Freedom section! Anything you want to shout out to readers at zerothreetwo.com?
I wanna give a shout out to all the people that inspired and continue to inspire me to do my art. To Zerothreetwo and Lorraine, thank you. To Ralph San Ramon, Mards Aleman and Jay R Escalona of Needlepoint Tattoo Studio and all my artist friends—yes you know who are—you inspire me! Sarmiento Family, Razo Family and my parents and sisters who supported me from the start. Everybody in N’door F & B Lounge where most of my paintings are displayed. ilabyo! My brothers in Dao Tribe. My band mates from Megan SSR and Chugagkag. And to everybody I know. Because of you, I move! Thank you so much!
Needlepoint Cebu Tattoo Studio is owned by tattoo artist Ralph San Ramon. You can find other tattoo artists like Mards Irvine Aleman, Jay Ar Escalona, and Phil himself inking magic. To contact Needlepoint Cebu Tattoo Studio’s talented ink masters Ralph, Mards, Jay Ar, and Phil, check ‘em out at the Needlepoint Cebu Tattoo Studio page. Albums featuring some of their clients’ tattoos are available. Aside from that, another way to reach Phil for tattoo or art service inquiries is through his page.
*Photos c /o Needlepoint Cebu Tattoo Studio and Philippe Joseph Sarmiento