We enter her low-lit territory and she's caught right in her element, wearing a disposable mask, and chatting with a client. The inking madame greets us right above the gentle, whirring buzz of her tattoo machine just as we pull out our camera. She asks us to sit just anywhere.
Mia Claravall-Reyes, spunky and chill at 35, is probably the hottest tattoo mommah on the block. Her husband, Shellby Reyes, is also a fellow tattoo artist. They have two daughters, Marley and Juana, seven and one, respectively.
Mia's dim and cozy tattoo parlor today, Chronic Tattoo Culture, at F. Concepcion, Pasig, follows a flight of steep steps on top of the Black LaMezza bar. It's greenly lit and is reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz's chamber all punked up.
Chronic Tattoo Culture sits right on top of Black LaMezza (Waze pin) in Pasig
Her air-conditioning is moderate enough to keep you comfy without the need for a jacket, and they'll log you into the wifi upon request. Clients get the feeling they're extremely welcome to stay for as long as they like and that's how Mia likes it, she likes chatting with them while doing her "thang." There's even an arcade machine and the option to play Family Computer.
Seeing Mia working the tattoo machine on a client is somewhat akin to the scene of entering a dental clinic. She replies with a wisecrack, "Nga-nga (mouth open)!". She then introduces herself, "I had DOH training sa PHILTAG (Philippine Tattoo Artist Guild). Part ako ng organization, dati merong kasamang DOH training. Para syang blood-borne pathogens seminar about how to fix your stuff, so you won’t spread AIDS and Hepa and all that.”
Over the last decade, Mia has tattooed a veritable mix of locals, foreigners, and now celebrities as well. Among recent celebrity clients are Ang Probinsyano's Pepe Herrera, Alex Medina, JC Santos, Robin Nievera, and even Maine Mendoza. It's a bit hazy to imagine at first how she went from being unsure and inexperienced to slick and sure with her craft. That's until you realize how many supporting characters were in the scenes of her inking journey.
To start she apprenticed with Ricky Sta. Ana, tattoo maestro from Skinworkz, along with other great tattoo artists in the same team, like Ding Fernandez and Philip Peña . "Sa DutDutan (tattoo convention), pinasali niya (Ricky) ako agad. It was so nerve-wracking. He told me to join para lumakas daw loob ko. So I did, kahit panget ng gawa ko, but he was there, he was watching."
In the beginning, a handful of Mia's loyal friends from UP Fine Arts, Diliman agreed to be her first blank canvases. "Natuto ako mag-tattoo because of my true friends. Those friends—they offered their skin to me (upon apprenticeship), knowing na hindi pa ako marunong. Meron akong friend tinato ko siya sa rib-cage. Yung kinalabasan hindi talaga maganda, pero hinayaan lang nya akong mag practice sa kanya.
Mia started learning the art in 2007. After a year professionally (with Skinworkz), "kinuha na ako sa shop ng 55 Tinta. Puto, Led, (Fine Arts) people, the Kamikazee boys. They invited me after I did my apprenticeship with Ricky sa Skinworkz, tinawagan na ako ni Puto. I was part of the pioneer artists dun sa 55 Tinta.”
Tattooing was not Mia's first career however, she graduated and pursued other professions at first. “When I was in high-school I used to draw on my classmates’ skin pero hindi ko siya naisip as career. Di ko alam paano sya i-start." She was a children's art teacher for a while after graduation, as well as an art director for a day job. “So, yung time ko, all the time na free ako, tatakbo ako to the shop just to tattoo. Lahat ng free time ko ni-try ko mag-tattoo. Pero ngayon na full-time na, everyday. Kahit kelan ko na gusto."
When it comes to her tattooing style, Mia found that she was less of a realist and more of a graphic, illustrative type. She's fond of mandalas, organic linear art, as well as geometric designs. If you do have a design in mind or on hand, Mia's willing to either adapt it upon request or go with your design one hundred percent.
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When it swings the other way, the client putting their full trust in her for a custom design, that excites Mia even more. "I love it when people trust me (to create a design for them). Because it’s 50% trust and 50% artwork and execution. 'Pag walang tiwala, yun yung nagiging lokohan naming mga tattoo artist friends. I always talk about vibe. Nararamdaman mo talaga when a person doesn’t trust you, and that’s sometimes when things go wrong. Pero I also understand people who are hesitant, minsan ‘coz it’s their first time and it’s freakin’ permanent."
We ask Mia about the relevance of a few of her own tattoos as well. She shows us four. The first one is cute, a slightly ragged red star on Mia's inner thigh. "Eto nakakatawa toh, ito yung first tattoo na ever ginawa ng husband ko sa buong buhay nya. Favorite ko yan. hindi pa kasi kami nun kaya...flirting, flirting." She laughs. Mia, a more senior tattoo artist than her husband, met him while she worked at 55 Tinta. He owned the band rehearsals venue next door together with Bords, a Kamikazee member.
The next one is by someone who Mia would probably agree is the real OG in native tattooing, Whang-Od. It isn't a wonder since Mia looked her up for her Fine Arts thesis on tattoos and revisited Kalinga multiple times in 2004 to try to meet her. A few years ago, she had the opportunity to meet the traditional Filipina tattoo artist "mambabatok" from Buscalan.
Whang-Od inked mountains and a caterpillar form on Mia's arm which symbolizes protection. Mia understood what Whang-Od has decided to create on her arm, since she herself studied the tattoo symbolism from the old lady's tribe for her thesis once.
A large tattoo over Mia's left shoulder and arm is a retro edition of a mother and child. Mia wanted the mother to resemble her ever so slightly and it was done at a time when she was in a pin-up style dressing phase. "I had this done after I had my first daughter, Marley. Gawa toh ni 'Bones', Ryan 'Bones' Dizon, dati naming artist. Pinagawa ko 'toh 'cause I'm really embracing motherhood now."
And then there's the one you just can't ignore on her right thigh. "Tanuki"—a naughty and playful racoon-dog character inspired by their family's favorite Studio Ghibli film, Pom Poko. This tanuki tattoo was done by artist, Beng Espiritu.
One example of Mia's festive and limited-edition activities that she holds from time-to-time are her blind tattoo sessions. Clients are blindfolded and they agree for Mia to execute a design on them with zero visibility on their part. The struggle is real for some people. What Mia does to make it special is she videos/photographs their reactions once the blindfold is removed. She cleverly hashtagged this "#thenopeepshow."
It's somewhat of a fun socially creative experiment that Mia agrees to do from time to time at Chronic Tattoo Culture that fosters trust and full-on artistry between the artist and client. "When someone gives me their full trust, that’s when my job is really like, wow. The two of us will hug each other and like ‘OMG, thank you!’ And parang pareho kaming thankful—that feeling. Kasi ang tattoo hindi lang naman ‘ako’ eh. Dalawa kami dun dapat maging masaya sa output eh. Yun, maganda yun. Tiwala ang tattoo."
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Photography by the author and from Instagram.com/mialocatattoo