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Papa's Tattoos

A friend and I had decided to jump the gun and get our first tattoos together. As most firsts go, this one went with a lot of thinking, over-thinking, and a bit of freaking out. Before I knew it, I was calling up my dad up for some pre-inking wisdom.

“Hi, Pa. Why'd you decide to get a tattoo in your early 30s? Why that time?”

“Well, when your mom and I got married, it was either a tattoo or a motorcycle. I figured a motorcycle would be more practical. Remember me picking you up on it from kindergarten? You'd sit tight in front and yell 'Charge!' whenever we went very fast.”

“Yeah,” I chuckled, “from the Care Bears. Pero, Pa, what kept you in that chair through the pain with the needles on your skin?”

“What else? I'm here, I want this, this is a kind of art I believe in. It's not art you can hang on a wall, but it's art that you carry with you and lives with you, it's art that tells a story of a certain part of your life. It's a visual part of your story na.”

“Did you worry that it might not be original or super-unique?”

“Tsch, no!” he scoffed. “The authenticity has to come from you. It's you who gives the tattoo context, not the other way around. You know, some people get tattoos kasi wala lang, trip lang nila, and that's fine too, kasi decision nila yan, eh. You give context to your tattoo.”

“Okay, last question.You're 50, right?”

“Next year, yeah.”

“Okay. So... how do you feel about your tattoo now? Any pride? Regrets?”

“How do I feel now? Wala lang.”

“Huh? What do you mean, 'wala lang'?”

“Wala lang, like it's a part of me na. Like my hand, or my foot. My art. It's part of me.”

* * *

I remember being nine and waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of footsteps.

My dad had just gotten home and he was unusually quiet.

I looked up and I saw him, the bulk of him tiptoeing in his socks against the inevitability of a creaky old wooden floor, raising a conspirational finger to his lips.

The fresh ink on his forearms glistened wet in the low floor lamp's light.

Was it… diamonds? Scales? My sleepy 9-year-old brain settled on a pattern of coconut ice slices I'd seen somewhere in my grandmother's cookbook, latched the idea of sweets onto my father's ink, and promptly decided they weren't so bad.

Unfortunately, my mother was awake too. She grabbed my father's wrist, and with all the vitriol that could be contained in a whisper, she hissed, “Joey! Ano yan?!”

To which he, as he would respond to most confrontational and unnecessary hang-ups in life, simply shrugged and smiled.

My mother didn't speak to him for the next three days.

Papa had never really told my mom and me when he was planning to get inked. He would joke about getting inked and make up a ridiculous tough-guy caricature of him growling, bashing beer bottles on his head, harassing the local toughs for silly things (“I'll grab him by the scruff of his neck, and I'll growl: 'Pengeng... babol gam!').

Papa’s joking would put my deeply traditional-minded mother on edge, and she'd pretend not to hear it. “Tattoos are for drug addicts and taong-preso; you don't want to associate with either of those,” she would admonish.

The joke would make me squeal with laughter, and I loved him for that. And that was that. Just a story.

Until, like most crazy, unbelievable things in his life, he went ahead and actually did it.

 Papa in his thirties, his arms finally tattooed.

Papa in his thirties, his arms finally tattooed.

* * *

I decided on getting a line from Kurt Vonnegut inked on my lower back: “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.” It was rendered in a curling script that felt haha-stabby-funny on the fleshier part of my loins. The commitment soon made itself felt as the needle travelled circuitously across my spine. God, all those nerves. I kinda forgot about that.

After a fortnight of careful washing and ointment, my tattoo had completely healed. I ran up to my dad in the middle of a square, turned around, bent over, and rolled the top of my pants down just enough to show it off.


“Well?” I craned over to look at him.

He nodded. “Eh di, good.”

“Eh di good, what?”

“Eh di, good. Are you happy with it?”

“Well, yes!”

“Then the artists did a good job on you. Eh di, good.” He thrust his hands into his pockets, and grinned.

I rolled my eyes, fixed my pants, and took him by the arm into the nearest Subway branch.

These guerilla midnight food dates at Eastwood were few and far between. I longed for them as it was my chance to stuff him with as much good food as would make him happy. Besides, it was payday.

“Wow!” He exclaimed, his mouth crammed with a big bite from his veggie footlong sandwich. His sallow cheeks began to glow pink again. “This is the real deal! Sarap!”

He'd been complaining on the phone recently that he'd been losing his appetite. Food seemed to lose its appeal to him, which sincerely worried him. It worried me too. But seeing him like thishis eyes had lit up, with the fresh crunch and flavor of vegetables and hearty bread—he was happy, he was eating well, and that was that was all that mattered.

“Jonette, can I get another one?” he mumbled.

“Ate! Pwedeng isa pa po, please?” I flashed the biggest grin at the lady behind the counter, and she smiled back at me as she piled the crisp lettuce and the tomatoes and the olives to high heaven on a cradle of hot, fragrant bread. She was keen to keep my dad's smile right where it belonged. God, I loved her for that.

* * *

Years ago, at work, a number of my big, burly male colleagues gawped when they found out about my dad.

“Tatay mo si Sir Joey?!”

Apparently, it warranted a full-on freak-out from one of the men in the pantry during our break.  

“Er... yes,” I answered. “Why?”

“Those tattoos,” my colleague, Esdi, grunted. “What's the real deal with those tattoos?”

“Oh, those? Er...” I was already silently gauging just how safe the direction of this conversation was going for my own health. I told him the plain truth.

“His arms? Just on his arms?!” The contained fury in that phrase made me think it was enough to make Esdi tear up the entire pantry.  “Do you have any idea exactly what kind of story has been going around Ateneo about those tattoos?!” The phrase sounded like it was strangled out of him.

I shook my head.

Esdi took long deep breaths, a long swig of water, and a seat.

* * *

In 2001, aside from teaching an Art Studies course in UP, Papa also landed a job teaching Music to high schoolers in Ateneo. Since the administration frowned on tattoos in public, he wore long-sleeved polos as part of his work wardrobe.

Unfortunately, he also sweated heavily.  On punishing hot days, if undoing his top button wasn't enough, he'd resort to rolling his sleeves up, just for a bit of reliefand just enough for his tattoos to peek out.

The first time his students caught on, they'd straightened up, exchanging wide-eyed WTF glances. When class was dismissed, a passel of them would approach him, lean in, and whisper, “Sir, what does your tattoo signify?”

He'd stop erasing the board, lean in closer, and in the same secretive tone, reply, “What do you think?”

This is what Papa’s Ateneo students knew about his ink: Sir Joey had trekked to the furthest, deepest corners of the Philippines, seeking out each elusive ethnic group to learn their secret techniques and their secret ways and their secret music. Lo, they were astonished with his own mastery and technique, and so bestowed their own secret symbol and colors upon his flesh to mark him as one of theirs. These symbols were said to cover his entire body: from his chest, to his back, to the tops of his thighs and his shins. That's why he's always had to wear long-sleeved shirts, and was never seen in anything shorter than pants.

I sincerely can’t make this up, even if I tried.

“Whaaaat?!” Papa roared in laughter in the car after one of our guerrilla dates.

I peered at him, crossing my arms over my chest. “Did you actually do this? Like, tell them all that? Or sila lang ba yun?”

Papa just tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, and grinned.

* * *

I remember seeing Papa being interviewed about his tattoos sometime back in the early '90s on a TV docu-show. The interviewer wanted to know when exactly he started wanting to get his tattoos.

“College!” he chuckled.

He talked about how, at the time, he had gotten fascinated by the concept of permanent wearable art. He had thought to himself, whennot ifhe was finally getting himself one, he'd get one that that was really all his own, with its own context, one that told an alternative narrative to general representation of body art at the time.

He used to tell me that back during his UP days in the '70s, tough-guy motifscobras, tigers, guns n' roses, naked girlswere the norm for tattoos. Tattoos were the realm of the macho, the manly-man, because hot damn, any average Joe could take the pain, but having something on your skin forever? That kind of commitment took balls.

* * *

I wish I didn't have to tell you how Papa slowly spiralled into depression. How his loss of appetite worsened. How two spoonfuls were too much to eat for him, and how rice began to taste like sandpaper to him. Or how his eternal patience sometimes wore thin at the most unexpected times.

I wish I didn't have to tell you how he toyed with suicidal thoughts. How he mused smoking himself with an exhaust pipe inside the car would be so easy, or how the thought of catching a bus to nowhere and just getting lost would be so tidy and neat. “Less hassle for everyone,” he'd say.

But maybe I can at least tell you how I'd joke, “Hey, let me know, okay? At least let me throw a party for you before that happens. You deserve to have happy memories and  go out with a bang.” And he'd laugh. That, at least, made him laugh.

I wish I didn’t have to tell you how one day, after panting and breathless at a short pedestrian crossing, he noticed his fingers were turning blue, and he was rushed to the emergency room.

The tests came back, and they pointed to something called TTP.  Thrombotic Thrombocytopenic Purpura. His disease hit one person out of eleven million people every yearthat kind of rare. His blood was staging a coup on itself and the doctors, quite frankly, had no idea what to do to cure it.

I can tell you about the many times he got hooked up to a large machine to filter his blood, and how the nurses would wonder about his tattoos, and how these started great conversations between them and my dad. How we and the nursing crew of Ward 3B grew the tightest friendships. How a snapshot of his ink kicked off an avalanche of miracles and help from so many people, we could be nothing but grateful. Immensely, overwhelmingly, and unapologetically grateful.

  The call for help on Instagram : "Joey Valenciano is undergoing Plasma Pheresis, a form of filtration where he is hooked up to a machine that filters out the rowdy plasma, returns the rest of the blood's components, and introduces new, healthy plasma from donors. This process uses eighteen units of plasma per cycle, and he may need to go through five cycles. Papa is in need of around a hundred units of blood from a hundred donors."

The call for help on Instagram: "Joey Valenciano is undergoing Plasma Pheresis, a form of filtration where he is hooked up to a machine that filters out the rowdy plasma, returns the rest of the blood's components, and introduces new, healthy plasma from donors. This process uses eighteen units of plasma per cycle, and he may need to go through five cycles. Papa is in need of around a hundred units of blood from a hundred donors."

He got a bit better. And then he relapsed. And a few months after... he was gone.

All that's left is ash in a marble jar in the family crypt. His instruments. His glasses. Memories.  Mostly good ones.  Lots of good ones.

I can tell you one more thing:

Those tattoos of his, the Kalinga diamonds on his arms, he was as much a part of them as they were of him. Those tattoos made people wonder, made people question. They made people uneasy, curious, or amazed. And they certainly made people pay attention and take in the bigger picture and think. I think that what good art does.

His tattoos, and the way he lived his life were as much a part of his art as his music was.

I think he would have liked to know that. Maybe he did. He just didn’t tell me stuff sometimes. Cheeky dad.