A look into the career of tattooist and Dutdutan co-founder who helped revamped the image of local tattoos after coming out of rehab.
B efore he became one of the most respected tattoo artists in the Philippines, Ricky Sta. Ana was a 20-year-old fresh out of rehab.
“The year was 1990,” he said and at that time, he was recovering from a drug problem that culminated near the end of his teen years. To reduce his chances of lapsing, he needed a distraction, “something to focus my eyes on,” he shared. And, ironically, he found this in tattooing—the art form once widely associated with rebellion, violence and drug use.
Before the 90s, people who wanted to get tattoos mostly went to Olongapo. “That’s where the Americans were,” he shared. “They brought and popularized modern tattooing here. To them, it was normal.” To some Filipinos, however, tattoos had a less than stellar reputation. Misconceptions about them were rampant but this changed when Sta. Ana and his contemporaries entered the picture.
Since the man became a tattoo artist, Sta. Ana has become something of a champion for his industry. For starters, he opened up Skinworkz Tattoo and Body Piercing which had a hand in making tattoos more accessible in Metro Manila. He then got involved with the Philippine Tattoo Artist Guild, a group he is now the president of. Through this, he took part in professionalizing and legitimizing tattooing in the country, making it a safe and viable profession. By the mid-2000s, the tattoo industry reached a new high when he and his colleagues founded what is now known as the Dutdutan Philippine Tattoo Expo, one of the largest yearly gatherings of its kind in Asia. It is an event that brings together artist and enthusiasts who all share their love for tattooing.
Now that Dutdutan is back this year, Sta. Ana has done enough to earn him the status of a living legend. And while garnering accolades left and right, he has managed to successfully combat vices and stereotypes often associated with his field. Nearly 30 years since he got out of rehab, he has become the counter-argument for those who think less of people with tattoos. His, indeed, is a story of redemption and it was one that began in Cartimar, Pasay where his shop continues to operate to this day.
W hen Sta. Ana opened Skinworkz in Cartimar, it was a gamble that paid off. He didn’t have much to work with but he worked, nonetheless, with whatever he had at that time.
“The first tattoo machine I ever used was a makeshift one,” he shared. “I had to experiment with all sorts of ink as there were no tattoo suppliers anywhere and to buy abroad was too costly.”
He did, however, have a few advantages. Chiefest of which is the fact that there were few, if any, concretely established tattoo shops in Metro Manila in 1990. Because of this, Skinworkz quickly made its name as the go-to shop for curious ‘art collectors’. As mentioned above, there was prejudice against tattoos at that time but despite this, he said that it wasn’t difficult for Skinworkz to sell its new services.
“People just wandered into the shop out of curiosity,” he said. “Many came in because they had no other place to go.”
“I think,” he added, “Filipinos have always had an inclination towards tattoos.” Sta. Ana also recounted how, in those days, it was more difficult to find an artist than to look for clients mainly because nobody thought they could make a living out of drawing on people’s skin. “Many early artists worked in the underground,” he said. “They concealed their art. For them, it wasn’t practical. You either had to know someone who could do it or get yourself in jail to get a tattoo in Metro Manila. That’s how hard it was.”
He, on the other hand, was all about displaying and disseminating his art. “I just thought it was fun. I connected with people who shared the same passion I had. I made friends with bands and other artists, collaborated with brands, commissioned works for personalities – you name it, I’ve done it. Soon, my name was all over the place.”
His involvement with the industry didn’t stop there, however.
S ix years after opening his shop, Sta. Ana, alongside a burgeoning community of tattooists, helped establish the PHILTAG, the first-of-its-kind effort to regulate the then-rapidly growing tattoo industry. “By ’96,” he said, “the demand and supply for tattoos had risen to a point where new artists needed to learn what exactly they were doing, and potential clients needed to consider what exactly they were getting.”
Apparently, at that time, there were mounting concerns for standardized training and sanitation in the industry after rates of infection and complaints among customers increased. “Of course, most new artists start from scratch,” he shared. “You don’t learn tattooing in school. Nobody tells you how to properly operate that thing, how to dispose of your waste properly, or how to take proper care of a new tattoo. There were no standards with which we could identify who a ‘professional tattoo artist’ was, and it was worrying people.”
PHILTAG was founded to change all that. Up to this day, the group provides lectures and screening on tattoo preparation, waste management, hygiene, and tattoo after-care to its members. More importantly, Sta. Ana asserts that PHILTAGhad helped legitimize tattooing as a career. It gave Filipino artists the incentive to earn from their skills. It also introduced tattoos to the public as a safe means of bodily expression.
It wasn’t until 2005, however, that tattooing took a turn from relative niche popularity to being one of the most lucrative trades in the country. Dutdutan – coined by Sta. Ana’s long-time friend and partner, PHILTAG founder and tattoo legend Alfred Guevara – has grown out of the garage to being one of Southeast Asia’s biggest and grandest tattoo conventions. Every year, the two-day expo attracts dozens of thousands of tattoo fans from all over the region. It also features hundreds of local and foreign tattoo brands, international and homegrown acts, bikini shows, band contests, combat sports, and graffiti.
In 2007, Tribal Gear founder and owner Bobby Ruiz acquired the rights to Dutdutan, making it a global brand and giving it worldwide reach. The event also seeped into the national consciousness with its on-air bombardments every August or September. Along with that came titillating pictures of gorgeous tattooed girls in juicy magazines. Having tattoos no longer appeared threatening or offensive – it was beautiful and respected. From narrow rooms and small-scale bars to shopping malls and high-end clubs, shops popped up and tattoos were suddenly commonplace. Tattoos were on t-shirts, on street posts, and on billboards. Tattoo styles and techniques became rampant. Social media were flooded with photos of new tattoos every week. People wanted to get inked. Celebrities endorsed their support for tattoos, companies started hiring applicants with tattoos. In a span of years, Dutdutan showed society that tattooed people can be professional, artistic, and peaceful.
“Tattoos have come a long way,” the man mused, and so did he. Once upon a time, he had his own troubles; he was young, he was making mistakes and was simply trying to get by. But these days, much like the ink he has drawn on the bodies of many, his marks on the tattoo industry havr become, more or less, indelible. And he will continue to make them as Dutdutan returns once again this year.