Blood and ink at Dutdutan XII

Karl R. de Mesa
Two days and thousands strong, the annual Philippine Tattoo Expo presented by Tribal Gear is a feast of fringe culture

RICKY STA. ANA OF Skinworkz and PhilTAG does magic on a client. All photos by Shaira Luna

MANILA, Philippines – The scent of blood in the air was real. 

There was a high end of 5,000 people packed inside the World Trade Center at Pasay City and most of them were pierced, inked or marked in some way — adherents all, of the huge umbrella known as the body modification movement.  

BODY ART AND MODIFICATION is a growing sub-culture in the Philippines

Every year, Tribal Gear Philippines and its host of partners (this year, it was Colt45 and the tattoo organizations PhilTAG and Skinworkz) put up an Expo of tats, music, bikini-clad babes and mixed martail arts (MMA) fights called Dutdutan. 

A tall, model-racked blonde in a corset shared this space with shirtless men wearing fully-inked sleeves and torsos. A bald woman with half her face and head covered in a Japanese motif drank beer with her friend, a rake thin dude with piercings through his ears, brows and nipples.  

A TATTOO MAY HAVE  a deeper meaning; it's not always for show 

12 years ago, Dutdutan’s only aim was to legitimize tattooing and its practitioners as artists; now it has become the biggest and grandest annual tattoo exposition of the country. Held last September 28 and 29, it was a two-day Lollapalooza of inter-collegial peer review that fostered camaraderie and friendly competition. 

“When we started this, we really aimed for it to grow,” explained Ricky Sta. Ana of Skinworkz Tattoos, one of the founders of Dutdutan and the chief mover behind the formation of the Philippine Tattoo Artists Guild (PhilTAG). “We knew it was going to get bigger and that the world would appreciate and support it, because this art is never-ending.

“We’ve only just begun.”

'THIS ART IS NEVER-ending' - Ricky Sta. Ana

Just with the diversity of things on display, the Expo had obviously grown by leaps and bounds. There were vintage cars on one corner; Russian pole dancers wowed with their dexterity and limberness; The Go Girls walked into cages and performed booty shaking numbers.

On day two, Tribal Bikini Girls Linda Jean, Berna Kano and other hotties strutted their stuff to a contest co-sponsored by FHM Magazine. Later, percussionists took the spotlight as they engaged in the “Bang Up!” drum duel.  

A VINTAGE CAR ON display at Dutdutan 2012

“There’s a thrill to getting tattooed… It doesn’t kill you, but it puts you through something — when you walk out of that place, you are different from when you went in. You earned it,” goes a quote from the hulking and heavily inked Henry Rollins, vocalist for hardcore punk icons Black Flag and his own Rollins Band. 

Having some ink myself, it’s a feeling am familiar with. I can understand the relish, the addiction of having someone voluntarily carve you with a sharp object.

The experience sets you apart from the un-inked.  

A TAT CAN BE a statement of faith

It’s that shared link of ecstatic pain that has enabled Dutdutan to become a giant by reaching far back to antiquity. Back when the naturalist Joseph Banks on board Captain Cook’s ship HMS Endeavour noted that the sailors were tattooed “by their humor or disposition.”

Inking people was previously influenced by scrimshaw, or the art of whalebone engraving. Somewhere down the line, crewmen found that they could also mark themselves. From then on, inserting indelible ink into the dermis layer of the skin to change the pigment had become not only an enjoyable way to pass the time, but fashionable.  

Today, what was once the purview of sailors and convicts is now a common sight on any counterculture aficionado. 


Back at Dutdutan, though big bands like Wolfgang, General Luna and even icons like Maria Cafra took the stage, the main attractions were still the hundreds of tattoo exhibitors hawking their services and displaying their skills for the various contest divisions; like “Best Small Piece,” “Best Rib Cage” or the painfully impressive “Best Face Tattoo.” 

I spotted schools of art noveau and even some surrealism fused with what looked like de stijl (“The Style” or neoplasticism, a Dutch artistic movement founded in 1917).

Heck, there was even a moving 3D tattoo made possible by looking at the tat at an angle or donning 3D glasses!


All the while, the needles were buzzing and spinning. The plum prize had always been the “Tattoo of the Day” that has two sub-divisions: Portrait and Regular. The artists were putting the finishing touches for this coveted award, because they needed to complete their entries in this category on the day itself. 

There were shops from all over the Philippines, including some as far away as Cebu and Vigan. There were also international invitees like 68Tattoo from Hong Kong, Triple Stars from France, Jaw Breaker Tattoo from Guam and Monkey Tattoo Studio from Borneo who mainly showcased the trends and art popular in their market. 

Or, like Asia Tattoo Supply from Singapore, they came to vend the latest in ink and equipment to the new blood. 

TATTOO ARTISTS FROM AROUND the Philippines come together and 'bond' in Dutdutan

“After every Dutdutan event, your clientele really grows,” said Wax Rafael of Quezon City’s 55Tinta, who’ve been exhibitors since 2008. “The nice thing about it is you see your friends from other tattoo studios and you get to hang out for two days.

“And the best thing about it is that the tatoo artists’ works are showcased while having a friendly competition.”

YOU MAY OR MAY not understand other people's choices, but don't judge

Two of the highlights of this year’s Expo were the MMA fights under the local fight league Universal Reality Combat Championships (URCC) and the performance by 90s American hip-hop icons Cypress Hill. Though only Sen Dog and Bobo of the latter’s original trio were in attendance, they did give an incendiary set on day one, at a little past midnight. 

Previous to the hip-hop gurus, it was the URCC fights that stole the night, eliciting shouts of excitement as the combat ring was being set up. The URCC has been showcasing local MMA fights at the Expo for the past 4 years, and it swiftly became one of the most exhilarating things about the event. 

AT DUTDUTAN, PEOPLE ARE relaxed and free to enjoy the art, the music and each other's company

“There’s always a new crowd to be performing in front of and it’s always fun to be in Dutdutan,” said URCC president and owner Alvin Aguilar, shouting to be heard above the din. ”A lot of MMA fighters have tattoos. The culture itself fits URCC. Everybody has tattoos of their team names, their mottos, what they want in life. I’m probably the only one without a tattoo in the MMA world!” 

Aguilar grinned, pulled up his shirt and gleefully showed us a nasty operation scar running from below his belly button up to his lower chest. He then turned and showed us a perfectly circular, indented scar on his lower back near his liver; the same circumference of a bullet. “I might have my scars tattooed, but with my gunshot wound, what tattoo will I place over it?” 


True to form, the URCC fielded some great knock outs that night. Striker Francis Rod Romero so viciously TKO’d his opponent with an overhand right that the poor man was still out cold 5 minutes later, when the stretcher had to be brought to take him out. Straight to the emergency room, no doubt.  

As the fights raged on and more tats were awarded to various body parts, the thousands of body modification enthusiasts at Dutdutan enriched and strengthened their community just by their presence.


And Dutdutan’s logo of a raised fist gripping an electric needle continues to be the flag that evolves local body art through blood, sweat and ink. –

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