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Chronic Ink: This hidden tattoo shop offers a healing experience

By Nessa Valdellon Published Nov 08, 2022 7:05 pm

At first there seems to be no entrance to Chronic Ink’s tattoo studio. Instead, there’s Black Lameza Bar on the ground floor of the pinned location in Pasig. You enter the bar and ask the waiter how to get to the tattoo place. Unexpectedly, he leads you to a wall and knocks outside a hidden door.

Black Lameza Bar, Pasig.

An apprentice opens it and leads you up a short flight of stairs into a moody (aka really dark) psychedelic green den filled with toys and tattoo drawings and, yes, a bunch of carnivorous plants. It's altogether reminiscent of the Little Shop of Horrors.

Mia emerges from the darkness. She says hello, in a musical lilting voice with a tinge of the colegiala accent from her Miriam College days. In a flash, you feel safe. Mia has short blonde hair and kind eyes behind black rimmed glasses, arms full of kooky and colorful tats that can be seen under her military jacket. She asks about your day then articulately explains her plans for your design. You know for sure that you’re in the hands of a pro. 

Mia Claravall Reyes - Tattoo Artist, Homeschooling Mom.

Mia Claravall Reyes is one of the top tattoo artists in the country today. She’s tattooed rock stars and a long list of celebrities, including Drew Arellano and Maine Mendoza. Lifestyle company The Rail has even asked her to hand paint Vans sneakers with tat designs as art pieces for their skating events. 

People come to her for her freehand tattoos, usually in black and gray, executed in dots and lines to bring depth to the piece. Her recent works range from statements on mental health, to family and pet portraits, illustrations of astronauts, dainty flowers and tribal symbols. She’s also known for creating intricate white ink tattoos. 

A client once told me that the pain reminded him of being human amidst the overwhelming situation he was in. Letting them just speak or express whatever is in their mind or heart while experiencing physical pain cancels or releases something hidden inside.

“My favorite tattoos are the ones where my clients let me do what I want. They just give me an idea or concept and let me do my thing. It takes a lot of trust for a person to say that and it gets me more inspired,” Mia explains.

Mia’s latest favorite tattoo is the self-care design she tattooed on one of her regular clients. She’s noticed more and more clients ask for designs relating to mental health.

It was a almost a decade ago when Mia took the leap and gave up her corporate job to set up Chronic Ink—along with tattoo artist and hubby Shellby Reyes.

But it was during her teen years, when she first got interested in tattoos after seeing them on members of her favorite bands in high school such as Incubus and Rage Against The Machine. “It was so interesting that a person would be willing to feel pain and mark himself permanently. It was mystical to me,” she says. She got her first tat—a star with a galaxy around it at the age of 17, in the late Ricky Sta. Ana’s tat studio in Cartimar. 

As a self-described angsty 90s kid who grew up in a conservative environment, Mia wanted to break free. She started hanging out at Ricky’s studio every chance she got and eventually became his apprentice. (Ricky was longtime President of the Phil. Tattoo Artists’ Guild and is considered one of the founders of the modern tattoo industry). The apprenticeship continued even into her work years as a creative in a broadcast network. 

“Being Ricky’s apprentice, there was never a dull moment,” says Mia. She tagged along with him and his crew to events, concerts and the annual Dutdutan Festival, where she met members of the tattoo community from all over the country. With his help, she learned to tattoo in an unconventional way.

“Ricky would call on tricycle drivers hanging out around his studio for me to practice on. They’d agree even if I was still learning. Thank you mga Kuya, haha!” she laughs, while pointing out skin and paper or canvas are very different and that you can only really learn to tattoo if you practice on human skin.

Mia has since passed on the tattoo tradition to her own apprentices. The youngest, Zoei, started at the age of 16 and gained tattooing skills by practicing on Mia and her team. Zoei now has her own home studio while also doing side work at Chronic.   

There’s a big difference though between tattoos today and those from Mia’s apprentice days. The former noisy machines, akin to dental drills, have been replaced by quiet, more precise—albeit, more expensive ones. To the clients, this translates to a lot less pain, even for designs positioned near the bone. It’s also why Mia gets to have deep conversations with her clients…there’s no deafening sound from the tat machine.  

Mia says talking to clients is her way of distracting them. She knows how vulnerable and open they have to be during the process and she honors this. 

“A client once told me that the pain reminded him of being human amidst the overwhelming situation he was in. I’ve had clients who just came from bad break ups or the loss of a loved one, who are going through depression and anxiety or celebrating a milestone. I feel a connection to them and I value this connection. Letting them just speak or express whatever is in their mind or heart while experiencing physical pain cancels or releases something hidden inside.”

After her sessions, Mia receives a lot of hugs from clients expressing their gratitude for mysteriously feeling lighter, more at peace. Some even describe getting a tattoo from Mia as a healing experience, which isn't surprising as Mia took up Reiki to heal herself from past traumas. Reiki is a Japanese form of energy healing that involves meditation and the laying of hands.

“I feel that through the combination of listening, conversing, and tattooing I somewhat infuse what I learned and help heal what the client wants to heal, without the laying of hands. The intention to help and heal is always there when I tattoo,” she says.  

The decision to leave her corporate job and pursue the life of a tattoo artist is something Mia has never regretted—she has time to homeschool her daughters in the day and pursue the work she loves at night. A total of six artists now work from their studio.

Like other tattoo studios, Chronic Ink helps people tell their personal stories through skin art and physical pain, continuing a centuries old Philippine tradition. With Mia there, however, the place has, strangely and wonderfully, also become a little shop of healing.