the “dragonfish,” my first tattoo back in 1997, my dad found the design from a children’s book

I got my first tattoo back in 1997. My Dad had the artist come to the house one weekend and we all had one done — my Dad, my Mom, my brother, and myself. My Dad helped me pick out a really nice tattoo, which he found in a children’s book. A serpentine, fish like creature. I loved it because it was… Piscean? I’m Piscean and I loved the fish aspect of it. It was also during the aftermath of a rather tumultuous relationship so it became like a signpost for me — a reminder of my capacity to hurt someone. It was a reminder that I could do it and I should be careful of ever doing it again.

Two years later, I had another hard lesson to learn and on an impulse, I went down Estrada Street, just in front of De La Salle University, where I was studying, straight into Avatar Arts studio and had my second tattoo done. I had just recently discovered that my spirit animal is the Elephant and I decided I wanted my spirit animal with me at all times. So I picked out a design and had myself inked that day. It was done Japanese style, and the original design, the one I saw in the catalogue, showed the elephant with trunk down. I am superstitious enough to know that it’s bad luck. Elephants in sculpture and iconography should have their trunks up for good luck so I had the artist redesign it with the trunk up. It kind of ruined the contained image — it was originally circular and contained in its design — and adjusting the trunk so that it was raised sort of changed the symmetrical nature of the tattoo but I like it. It seems more pleasant and extroverted. I had become extroverted.

second tattoo: the elephant. my mother ascribes it to Ganesh. the elephant is my spirit animal.

That tattoo, the elephant has become a reminder that I shouldn’t let others walk all over me and that I should never lose myself in order for people to like me. The elephant reminds me of that. Every time I feel like I am compromising who I am, I look to the elephant, my spirit animal, to remind me that I am who I am and that it should be enough.

It took me over nine years before I found the next design that I wanted. Each tattoo had such significance in my life that I felt that, at this point, I did not want to put a tattoo on my body just for the sake of. Each one had to have a certain meaning. In 2008, I finally found the one that I wanted. I realised, after all that time, that I needed to have more patience and discipline. So much has happened in my life and that two things that I really needed in my life were patience and discipline. So I searched for a good design for both, with the intention of putting it on my forearms. I wanted a tattoo that I didn’t have to take my shirt off to show to people. It was also a way, for myself, to be proud of my accomplishments and my skills. I was scared to put a tattoo in some place that was so easily seen because I thought I would be judged harshly and unfairly because of them. Then, at some point, I felt that regardless of how I looked, I think people would always treat me nice and would hire me for jobs even if I had a tattoo in a very visible place. It was a message to myself to believe in myself and to be who I am at all times.

So I found the Japanese character of patience online and placed it on my right forearm. Later, I discovered that what I thought was a Japanese character, was actually Chinese. It still meant patience, but just recently, I discovered that what it really meant was “to endure.” I like that more. “To endure,” it is much more painful, much more dramatic. “Patience” has a passive quality to it. But “To endure” is so much stronger.

on my right forearm: “to endure”

Apparently, the character is made up of two Chinese characters. The one for a knife and the other for a heart; and the knife is puncturing the heart — it is being stabbed in the heart causing it to bleed. This is the symbolism for “to endure:” the knife puncturing the heart. You will bleed and you will take it because you will endure. I thought it was so powerful an image and some of my poems actually have this image. I was so shocked at the serendipity of this meaning. I had the tattoo done in 2008 in March. That August, I was diagnosed with HIV and had no idea that my life for the next few years was one that would test my endurance — physical, mental, and emotional. It was like magic, like destiny or fate.

Last week, I finally found my new tattoo. I went through so many and had so many thoughts about what to do and I finally found it. “Benzaiten.” It is the name of a Japanese river goddess. When the Hindu gods were brought to China and Japan, the lake goddess Sarasvati, goddess of wisdom, became Benzaiten in Japan. Benzaiten is a river goddess and her province is with all flowing things, eloquence, the written word, and poetry. She is a guardian and protectress. Sarasvati had slain the three-headed serpent demon and so Benzaiten is also a warrior as much as she is an artist. Her messengers are snakes and dragons. She is so apt for me right now. These are the qualities I need for myself.

welcome Benzaiten, my fourth tattoo… please forgive the ugly body shot, it’s the tattoo I’m trying to showcase

And what I love about it is that Benzaiten, her name in Japanese, somehow relates to the Japanese/Chinese character of “patience” and shares the same thematic aesthetic. Having her origins from the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, there is a very thin and small link between her and the elephant, both being Indian and my Mom had alway said that the elephant was Ganesh. At the same time, with serpents and dragons as Benzaiten’s messengers, it connects to my dragonfish, my first tattoo which is serpentine and dragon-like.

The amazing Gene Testa, who also did “to endure” in my forearm back in 2008 did the Benzaiten ink. I told him I was HIV positive and I asked if he was still willing to put the design on me. He didn’t even falter and flinch. Didn’t even ask. He said, “Sure. No problem.” I had already two other artists and they said they weren’t comfortable with it. I don’t blame them and no hard feelings. But that experience made what Gene Testa even more powerful for me. He wasn’t scared.

He’s an amazing artist and he has such light hands. I barely bled. It’s only my second day and it’s already healed. It looks great. I feel great that it’s on me. I feel like Benzaiten is there, somehow, and I hope her influence comes to me or that I manage to draw it out of myself.

I did this, as well, on the night of the full moon. Something wild and crazy and meaningful and important.

I got inked.


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