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Tat’s all, folks!

By RICARDO PAMINTUAN Published Mar 31, 2024 5:00 am

Mukha kang sanggano,” said my mom when she saw the Fire Horse tattoo on my arm. I certainly do not resemble a thug, nor did I aspire to be one by simply getting inked. My only reservation at the time was not being able to donate blood for the next few months.

The notion that tattoos are exclusive to criminals and seedy characters has long gone the same way as dyeing hair—into history’s dustbin. Yet, even in mankind’s logbook, tattoos have been etched onto the canvases of our bodies, leaving indelible marks that transcend mere ink and pigment. From the ancient Polynesians to the hipsters of Manhattan or BGC, tattoos have symbolized inclusion, beauty, uniqueness, honor, and rebellion. Whether you’re a warrior who carries tattoos as badges of courage and skill or a rock star who communicates with body art as much as with gyrating hips, gruffness, and rebellious lyrics, tattoos are never whimsical or purposeless.

Thinking of inking? It’s not just for thugs and seedy characters anymore.

Among the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Islands, for example, tattoos were deemed sacred, every painful image representing one’s lineage, achievements, and connection to the divine. They weren’t simply scored onto skin using pointy sticks or thorns; they embodied a communal ethos that revered tradition and honored ancestors. Spanish conquistadors who saw native Filipinos with tattoos called them “Los Pintados” (the Painted Ones). They weren’t painted, ignoramuses. Just ask Whang-od Oggay, the 107-year-old celebrity tattoo artist who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit last Valentine’s Day for her contributions to Philippine culture by maintaining her craft as a mambabatok. Gone are the days when tattoos were deemed sheer symbols of toughness and manliness. You go, girl!

As the human race evolved, so did their art. Tattoos have metamorphosed, tribal totems emerging as ubiquitous forms of self-expression. One doesn’t have to be an outlaw, sailor, or member of the military to have a semi-permanent ID. Anyone with money and tolerance for pain— including a great number of women—even those in careers that previously restricted tattoos because they were considered unsightly or improper, are now free to rock one.

Before yelping out in pain or fainting at the first sign of blood, keep in mind that it is a ritual, a form of passage from the safe and humdrum to the exciting new world of the unknown and forbidden.

In my world, it was my wife who set the trend with a rose on her nape. No, we don’t have a child named Rose, like Scarlett Johansson with her long-stemmed roses on her back. Since then, my wife has grown a garden on both arms the likes of which ScarJo couldn’t have imagined.

Ben Affleck's phoenix tattoo: A symbol of rebirth and resilience.

For every person, especially one with virgin skin, a tattoo is a symbol of individuality in an increasingly homogenized world. More than ever, there is an inextricable link between tattoos and celebrity. In this TikTok era where fame is as fleeting as a tweet, celebrities turn to tattoos as children cry for attention. Ben Affleck, for instance, opted for a phoenix tattoo, perhaps hoping it would resurrect his career post-Batman. Meanwhile, Christina Ricci, contrary to her Wednesday persona, must have been traumatized by the bite of her lion tattoo, as she gave up on the witch and the wardrobe that comprised her Narnia inspiration.

Speaking of lions, they seem to be a roaring trend among stars like Ed Sheeran, Cara Delevingne, and Demi Lovato. And let’s not forget other feline enthusiasts, like Ke$ha with her tiger and Katy Perry with Hello Kitty. If I were a celeb, I’d also be on this list with the lion head-Leo sign combo on my hand.

Angelina Jolie's coordinate tattoos represent a heartfelt tribute, pinpointing the birthplaces of her cherished children.

Some celebrities ink themselves in honor of loved ones, like Angelina Jolie with the coordinates of her children’s birthplaces and Johnny Depp, whose “Jack” tattoo pays tribute to both his son and his swashbuckling alter ego in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Even boxer/singer/actor/politician Manny Pacquiao has the names of Jinkee and their children on his arm.

Among musicians, rock stars do not have a monopoly on ink. Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus have a mix of tats as eclectic as their personalities, while Christina Aguilera had “Xtina” tattooed on her neck. Remember that Fire Horse tattoo I mentioned at the outset? I wanted to add the Chinese character for “horse,” but desisted when my wife said it would make my arm resemble a flashcard. Reflect on that, Xtina.

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Harry Styles has a large butterfly on his torso, and 1D bandmate Zayn Malik went for a comic “Zap!” on his forearm. Maybe that’s one reason they parted ways. While Adam Levine shows off his numerous tattoos on stage for supermodels, some artists do the religious, like Justin Bieber, who has a tattoo of Jesus on his leg. This might be taking footprints in the sand a little too literally. And the National Anthem Girl herself, Mandy Moore, has a tattoo of a heart on her toe. She said, “That's my attempt at being a rebellious rock star. It didn't really work.” She could have been making that plaint to Christina Ricci.

And, like rock stars, athletes also love to show off their obligatory ink. Former Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman, famous not only for his defensive skills, bad behavior, and his BFF for life, Kim Jong Un, has disappointingly unoriginal snorting bulls tattooed on his chest. Boxer-turned-comedian Mike Tyson has a large tribal tattoo on his face, which should have been an ear instead, as tribute to one-eared Evander Holyfield.

Professional wrestlers supposedly get inked to intimidate opponents, but Dave Bautista mainly wanted to honor his Greek and Filipino roots, and Dwayne Johnson his Samoan beginnings. The Rock also covered up an old bull tattoo with a larger one, which he said represented “f***** pain” during the 22 hours he was under the needle. My own sleeve remake took two days to finish.

Even some world leaders have dared the unth-ink-able. Winston Churchill supposedly had an anchor tattoo (similar perhaps to my daughter’s first), while Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, opted for a dragon while in Japan. US President Andrew Jackson, he of the infamous Indian Removal Act, had the audacity to have a large tomahawk tattooed on his inner thigh.

In a world where tattoos shout rebellion, they also whisper philosophical questions about purity and perfection, challenging age-old beliefs with bold strokes of ink. Despite religious debates over their acceptance, tattoos remain an arena for self-expression, turning bodies into temples of creativity and defiance. So, next time you meet someone with tattoos, remember: beneath the ink lies a colorful tapestry of stories, reflecting our shared humanity in all its quirky gory—I mean, glory.