The concept of tattoos have changed over the years. Compared to decades ago when they were seen as offensive or a symbol of rebelliousness, tattoos now have become a stylish accessory, a personal expression, or a form of body art.
Still, there’s a long way to go.
Women are still subjected to criticism for being inked. Others think that women who taint their beautiful skin with ink is a “turn off,” while some believe it’s inappropriate for them to even have a tattoo.
Despite the stereotypes behind tattoos, they are, for many women, empowering. Tattoos are a representation of confidence and courage—that they could do whatever they want with their bodies.
Among the Pinays proving just that are Annie Concepcion, Sarah Spooner, and Camsy Valencia.
In their interviews with PhilSTAR L!fe, these women share the personal experiences and hardships they've faced being a heavily-inked woman, how they battled them head-on, and how they're redefining beauty.
"Ang ganda mo, pero ang dami mong tattoo."
That's just one of the many negative comments Annie Cocepcion heard about her body that's fully covered with tattoos.
Annie is working as a full-time tattoo artist for over a decade now and has, in fact, inked a number of local celebrities, such as Heart Evangelista, Michelle Dee, and Leila Alcasid, among others. When she's not in Crimson River Tattoo, as well as her own shop MoonShark, the 30-year-old is taking care of her daughter Luna.
Annie believes she's "a good person" who does her best in being a mom and tattoo aritst. Still and all, there were people who judged her character based on her tattoos.
"Yung stigma, it will always be there, hindi ‘yon mawawala. Women will always be judged lalo na sa Pilipinas," she continued, noting that people like her "can function normally with or without [tattoos]."
"They shouldn't be judged because of how they look or represent themselves," she added.
I’m more confident that it’s okay to be me, it’s okay to do me and not care about what people think. Because even though I have a lot of tattoos, I’m a good person. — Annie
Annie got her first tattoo when she was 18 years old as a way to cope with her first heartbreak. She opted for the phrase, "This too shall pass," written in cursive font on her right wrist.
"It’s a funny story because I got it because my first boyfriend broke up with me and I just wanted something to help me get through the pain," she recounted to L!fe.
Enduring the discomfort of getting inked additionally showed Annie her ability to overcome pain—both physically and emotionally. "I was really proud of it. ‘cause it was my first," she said. "I knew the process is going to be painful so getting through with it was quite an achievement."
"Tattoos [are] very therapeutic, actually, ‘cause the pain, it’s always there, and you get something out of that pain that will stay with you forever. And it depends on what tattoo, but some tattoos would mean something to you while you were getting it during that period. So, I think it’s a good way to commemorate something to help you through the way of life."
Her bold move initially worried her parents who are both doctors and, at that time, were doubtful about the hygiene in tattoo shops. Through time, they have become supportive of their daughter, in a way that's similar to how society eventually became more accepting of women with tattoos.
Annie recalled feeling weird about people staring at her from head to toe during her early years as a tattooed woman. She said that this changed in recent years, with some looking at her and would instead say, "Uy, and daming tattoo, ang cool for a girl ah!"
Among all her tattoos, which she "couldn't count anymore," Annie's favorite is the portrait of her child on her left arm. "I just want her to be with me all the time," she said.
The mom of one also has several moon tattoos that encapsulate her love for her daughter Luna, like the ones on her left forearm and right hand. This is in addition to her daughter's name inscribed on her right fingers.
Looking back now, Annie can attest to the fact that tattoos empower women to be more confident of their own skin.
She explained, "I’m more confident that it’s okay to be me, it’s okay to do me and not care about what people think. Because even though I have a lot of tattoos, I’m a good person, I think. I do my job [and] as a mom, I work and whatsoever. So yeah, I think having tattoos can give you a boost of confidence."
Inked women, according to Annie, have been changing beauty standards to become more inclusive of people with varying ways of expressing their individuality.
"I think tattooed women are redefining beauty by diversity. Like me, I have different designs from other women who are tattooed," she said. "You show your personal style through the tattoos you wear, or your very own story, you show it with your tattoos. So I think it’s a good way of showing who you are to other people without saying a word."
Some people get inked as a form of self-expression, some do so to mark an event in their lives. For fashion influencer Sarah Spooner, her tattoos were means to cope with her skin condition.
Sarah was six years old when she was diagnosed with eczema, an inflammatory skin condition, which she had to live with for the next 19 years.
"Originally what inspired me to get especially on my arms was I wanted to use it as cover-up on my skin because I used to have very, very intense eczema, and it would leave my skin really discolored and blotchy so it was a big insecurity of mine. So my thought process back then was if I get inked, it’ll cover it up so people won’t really see it and constantly ask me, ‘What’s wrong with you?’" she revealed to L!fe.
The 29-year-old content creator fully recovered when she was 25 and still has her eyes set on getting more tattoos "cause I just fell in love with it," she said.
Sarah got the first of her 14 tattoos when she was 18 years old. It's an illustration of "half-Canadian maple leaf, half-Philippine sun" on her right ankle "to represent me since I'm half-Canadian," she said.
Apart from making her feel "like a badass," he first ink helps her create "instant connections" with strangers who would chance on her in random places and tell her that they also lived or grew up in Canada. At the same time, Sarah's first tattoo, as well as the rest of her collection, enables her to identify who is worth building strong connections with for the long haul.
The kind of brands I want to work with, are the ones that are open-minded. So a lot of them are smaller local brands and it makes me happy to support more of them. — Sarah
She explained, "My tattoos have become a tool for me to see what kind of people I want in my life and I say that because, do I want someone to judge me by my choices, my appearance? Obviously not, So if someone approaches me and treats me poorly based on how I look, then immediately, I don’t need that kind of person in my life."
"So my tattoos take away a few stuff in trying to figure out what kind of people they are," she continued. "Of course, I only want very accepting people in my life."
One of the reasons Sarah loves being heavily tattooed is that it makes her stand out, allowing people to remember her more. While it equips her with the spunk to influence the purchase behavior of her 3 million followers on TikTok, it does not exempt her from the limitations set by certain brands in the country.
"It has opened some doors but closed a lot because the Philippine society is quite behind and not as willing and open-minded to see tattooed people in the limelight," she said. "There are some brands who don’t want to work with me and it’s completely understandable. I know I’m a very particular look and most of these brands don’t want me to represent them."
This has, in turn, made Sarah be more mindful of the clients to partner with. She continued, "But the kind of brands I want to work with, are the ones that are open-minded. So a lot of them are smaller local brands and it makes me happy to support more of them."
The lack of representation in the local fashion industry is merely a reflection of how many Filipinos still "living a life of judgment or the rules of other people" when it comes to getting inked.
She elaborated, "Usually I’m the most tattooed girl in the room and then I’ll go to this event and I’m surrounded by these amazing women, very capable, very smart, funny, and maybe I’ll bump into them in the bathroom, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I love your tattoos so much. You look great.’ And then I’ll ask them, ‘Do you have any?’ And then they’ll say, ‘I wish, but my boyfriend won’t let me,’ or ‘I wish but my parents won’t let me.'"
Sarah then finds it's disheartening that people are "still letting others dictate what they can or cannot do" when it pertains to "something they want so badly."
That is why for Sarah, tattooed women are redefining beauty, first and foremost, by "being brave because despite what you expect to be treated as, you are still willing to do it for your own self."
"It's about self acceptance and wanting to do the things that you want and doing that regardless of what you may be perceived," she continued. "Just putting yourself forward and presenting yourself honestly is one of the most beautiful things you can do cause it’s living a life of authenticity."
Multimedia artist Camsy Valencia is a self-professed late bloomer in the world of tattoos. She decided to go under the pen at the age of 27 and went for a design that reflects her attitude toward her career as an artist and life in general.
"It’s a girl, and a tiger, and an eagle. So it symbolizes my system in growing as an artist. So parang maglalakad ka muna as the human, then you run, and then you fly. So lakad, takbo, lipad," she revealed to L!fe.
Getting her first ink a while later than many tattooed women was like delayed gratification for the 40-year-old artist—it gave more value to each of her experiences getting inked, so much so that she decided to become a tattoo artist herself.
"What inspired me to get more [tattoos] is basically the feeling lang talaga after getting it. It just feels so good," she said, adding that she believes tattoos release endorphins, or hormones that produce feelings of euphoria, "especially if you really wanna get it done and after so many years, you finally get it."
It just made me happier as a person. You just feel free na you can actually be a functioning part of this society, na maayos naman ang buhay mo kahit na ang dami mong tattoo. What I love about is obviously the feeling of freedom. — Camsy
In the same year that Camsy got her first tattoo, she left her job doing 3D art to set up her own shop and become a full-time tattoo artist. The shift, she said, was quite easy as she instantly "fell in love" with the art of slinging ink.
Yet as much as she finds beauty in tattoos, there are still those who consider it a taboo. Camsy said she has always known that "tattoos are not gonna be 100% acceptable in normal society," with people referring to tattooed women as "skanky or slutty."
One of these instances happened ten years ago when Camsy was in line at a laundry shop and two ladies expressed their skepticism about her tattoos—one on her face and the other, behind her back.
"I remember the story like it was yesterday. It was so clear," she began. "I went to a laundry shop to drop off my stuff and there was this lady na nakatingin sa mga tat ko 'tapos sabi niya, ‘Hindi na mae-erase ‘yan?’ Sabi ko, ‘Hindi na. po.’ Tapos sabi niya, ‘May trabaho ka ba, iha?’ Sabi ko, ‘Opo.'"
Camsy kept her answers short as she didn't want to "get into the conversation." But it did not stop even when she was about to leave.
"The person behind me... narinig niya yung sinabi about me. Then sinabi niya, ‘Galing kayang preso ‘yung babaeng ‘yun?’"
To further prove that discrimination against tattooed women is rampant in society, another woman questioned Camsy's character when she chanced upon her at the airport.
She recalled, "There was an old lady who came up to me at an airport before and then sabi niya lang sa akin, 'Iha, ang dami mong tattoo.' Sabi ko, 'Ay oho.' Tapos sabi niya, 'Naku, you have to accept Jesus as your Lord and savior kasi satanista ka ba?'"
While being called an ex-convict and a satanist are moments she still remembers to this day, Camsy said they didn't go as far as demoralizing her. "Actually, these are things, I guess, enter on one ear and go out the other so I really don’t dwell on those so much," she noted.
To date, Camsy has 16 tattoos on her body. many of which come with a mandala design that she also features in her mixed media paintings and other commissioned projects that she shares on her Facebook page. Some of her tattoos were also done by Camsy herself, like the one on her lower arm, her left wrist, left leg, and belly.
She still has plans of adding more to her collection, especially because getting tattooed is a "liberating" and life-changing experience that continues to inspire Camsy to express herself "a lot more."
She said that since she got her first ink, she've had thoughts like, "Ah, I went against the system or the norm so kaya ko pala ituloy na be myself and not be like what society tells me to be."
She added, "It just made me happier as a person. You just feel free na you can actually be a functioning part of this society, na maayos naman ang buhay mo kahit na ang dami mong tattoo. What I love about is obviously the feeling of freedom."
Asked for her advice to women who would like to get their own tattoos but are apprehensive because of society's perception, Camsy has this to say: "If you’re not 100 percent sure, then don’t get it done. But if you’re 100 percent sure that you want it, and you know what you want, and the only thing stopping you from getting it is what other people will say, then ang advice ko is… I think you should just go for it and listen to what you really want, what [your] heart is telling [you] without caring kung ano ang sasabihin ng iba."