Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

If you cock your head at a certain angle, they sound just like the incessant buzz of cicadas, and if you close your eyes you could almost imagine that you were on the lower Pantaron on that balmy Friday evening with just the right amount of humidity and drizzle.

But the buzz isn’t those of nocturnal insects but of the dozens of tattoo artists in the act of creating their art for the December 18 “Patik Para sa Lumad” tattoo competition at the Matina Town Square.  The competition’s theme revolved around the struggle of indigenous peoples.  I was invited by the organizers to give a talk about the traditional Manobo tattoo called the pangotoeb, and it was unfortunate that the organizers weren’t able to secure a projector for a talk on such a visual topic.  But one must ford on, and I was happy that I did, for some of the enthusiasts (those who weren’t in the middle of getting a tattoo, of course) approached me afterwards to express interest and ask more questions.

If it had been the best of circumstances I would have begun my talk that evening with the story of Ubonay, the Manobo woman who had been taken against her will and forced to act as a guide by intruding military personnel at the start of the Manobo bakwit crisis in early 2014.  After she escaped and rejoined her fellow Pantaron Manobos in the massive bakwit at the UCCP Haran (which lasted the whole month of April of that year), we were able to interview her about her traumatic experience.  Though she spoke only Manobo (we used an interpreter), she was clearly able to convey what she went through and how she felt during those days.  Of all the details she narrated, it was the role her tattoos played in her experience that stood out.

Like many Manobo women her age, Ubonay has tattoos on both her forearms and her abdomen.  These became the object of surprise and mockery when, in the middle of her captivity, the soldiers gave her an old army jacket to put on because the blouse that she had had on for days was constantly wet because of the intermittent mountain rain.  Her forearm tattoos are not as stark, for her arms are of a darker tone from being exposed more to sunlight.  But the thick band of her abdomen tattoos (which are partly visible if she wears the traditional blouse that ends at the midriff) are in higher contrast because of the lighter hue of the skin at that location.  This must have caused the exclamation of the soldiers around her who took in the sight of her tattooed body as she was made to change her clothes in front of them.

When she took off her blouse, she said that the soldiers had pointed at her and said that she was a “karaan nu otow”, literally, an ancient person or a person belonging to olden times.  During our interview, Ubonay was fuming and incredulous.  She said, would you look at that, and yet they said that I was an NPA rebel?  They called me a “karaan nu otow”, yes, unschooled and unlearned, so why did they abduct me?

At that moment, Ubonay became aware of her tattoos in a way that she had never been before:  it was no longer a mark of pride or identity, but a mark of “otherness”, of belonging to a marginalized way of life that was doomed to extinction with the onslaught of the dominant culture, which, at that moment, was represented by the soldiers who kidnapped her.

But nevertheless, Ubonay was still able to deliver her discursive punch by, unexpectedly enough, describing herself as unschooled and illiterate (in Bisaya) (“waru ama naka-eskwela… waru aman makasabot to kinahiyan now”).  Admitting her own “ignorance” goes against the grain of conventional recognitions of “indigenous” ways of life that allow them to be celebrated (for example, in mass media, museum exhibitions, various appropriations, and yes, even body art) while minimizing, or even negating, the corrosion that are ultimately rooted in structure (for example, militarization and the class and imperialist interests that this protects).  Ubonay and her tattoos therefore stand as a crucial reflection point for questions that all cultural workers must face.

After my talk and as I made my way down the stage I noticed that there was gap in the organizers’ cordon where a group of young men had converged, craning their necks to see better in the venue at the various works being done.  These young men weren’t part of the typical MTS weekend crowd, but they were construction workers, presumably from the building that was being put up just beside the event venue, and presumably again their workday had already ended, but they eagerly took the time to check out the event anyway, even if only through the fencing.

I observed that none of those young men had a tattoo (none that were visible anyway), and I remembered a conversation I had with one of the hired hands at an archaeological excavation in a far-flung province many years ago.  The young man had politely paid a compliment to my tattoos, so I, in turn, also inquired if he had one.  Oh no, Ma’am, he replied, though he would have wanted to get one.  Why not then, I asked, was it because he thought it was painful?  It’s not that either, he said.  If I get a tattoo, I would seriously jeopardize my chances of employment, he explained.  Many of the jobs that were open to him – “low-skilled” or “unskilled” jobs given his limited credentials, such as decent construction work or waiting at tables or counters in food outlets – wouldn’t hire someone with tattoos.  Some companies even conducted tattoo checks, he claimed, even at areas of the body that weren’t visible anyway if all you did was hand out burgers.

Previously knowing about absurd and exploitative requirements some “unskilled” employees have to undergo (including humiliating body checks for female workers, ostensibly to prevent shop-lifting, for example), I wasn’t the least bit surprised.   But what did strike me was that there was this whole other aspect to tattoo discrimination, in this case, the discrimination that prevented one from getting a tattoo at all.

Let me just say that getting a tattoo is a wonderful experience – it introduces you to new sensations (not just pain) that makes you attuned to your body in ways that may not be possible through other means.  It makes you get to know yourself, physically and mentally, and helps you appreciate more to be a (pace Heidegger) a body of a being in the world.  (No wonder almost all cultures, civilizations, even religions, developed some similar form of body modification.)  I think then that if one, after examining his or her heart of hearts, wholly decides to get a tattoo, then he or she must be allowed to do so.

One thing that may prevent this, of course, is the prevailing negative regard for tattoos, the discrimination that tattoo artists and visibly tattooed persons are campaigning against in their own ways.  Of course, this is simpler in some circumstances than others.  Reflecting upon my own experience, it’s easier if one has a white-collar job, came from a rather unconventional discipline (anthropology), and taught in a secular, public university known for fostering open minds.  It may also be easier if one came from a relatively liberal background such as the middle class, where a young man or woman may actually have a choice to become a singer, or a band member, or an artiste, or a writer, or whatever creative ambitions he/she may have.  It is simpler, further, if one has the claim to have graduated from aforementioned secular, public university, then enters and becomes enclothed in a respectable profession where body art does not automatically mean having gone to Muntinlupa (and may even be considered “cool”).

This was what I thought during that conversation a long time ago, and which I remembered again at the “Patik Para sa Lumad” event.  Having a tattoo (awe-inspiring as it is) has become a privilege – not in the esoteric sense but in the wholly political economic one.

There is an indubitable class dimension to tattoo discrimination, and I don’t mean the kind that someone like me goes through (I am already lucky enough to have my tattoos).  What I mean is the denial of autonomy over one’s body to modify it as one sees fit, a denial which, unsurprisingly, goes hand-in-hand with other oppressions of the body in the name of profit and capital:  body searches, demeaning and harmful uniforms and body movements (like a mall making all the employees dance in unison, with the women in heels), hours and conditions that are detrimental to body and health, absence of services to respond to these risks, the list goes on.

And these are the lessons from a tale of two tattoos, or, more accurately, a tale of one tattoo, and a tale of none-tattoo.

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