Young tattoo artist Mjeng went through several hobbies that didn’t click until she found her love for handpoked tattooing. While still deep in the process of learning, she’s dedicated to growing in the craft, and picking up some life lessons along the way.
Those of us who have ever tried a few hobbies knows that not everything will stick. You’ll leave a crochet project tangled and unfinished, a paint-by-numbers half-empty and rolled up in a cabinet somewhere. For some of us, we discover that one niche that we spend our days doing—as well as the peace and contentment that comes with it. And for others, we want to turn our hobbies into a source of livelihood because if we love doing it and are good at it because why not?
Mjeng, a 23-year old writer and self-taught handpoked tattoo artist based in Metro Manila and Los Baños, is finding her way as an artist slowly but surely, guided by her dedication to her craft. Easygoing and relaxed, but harboring a deep passion for the work, she’s committed to growing, and she’s got some pretty big plans. Here’s how she turned a niche hobby into a dream worth pursuing.
THE ART OF HANDPOKED TATTOOING
While there still exists prejudice against tattooed people and the negative notions attached to tattoos, the constant popularity of getting inked, not to mention its cultural and historical significance, make them a staple in human cultures.
Tattoos are all about art and self-expression, and immediately reveals something about a person. They could be meaningful and sentimental, or they could just be something cute and fun. Mjeng says, “I like that a lot of people are embracing that idea na if you want a tattoo, go get [one].”
Handpoked tattooing is a manual method of tattooing where a tattoo needle is dipped into ink and pushed into the skin. Also called stick-and-poke tattooing, it requires artists to manually create a line using dots. It takes some more time, but offers unique art permanently placed on a person’s body. It’s tedious and often perceived as impractical in the day and age of machine tattooing. But for Mjeng, while she wants to learn machine tattooing as well, as of now she doesn’t have a dedicated space for it nor the money to purchase equipment. But tattooing with a machine isn’t her ultimate goal.
“Parang gusto ko gawing niche yung handpoked tattoo, kasi may sentimental value siya for me.” The handpoked tattoo experience, Mjeng elaborates, is more intimate and personal. “I like how when I tattoo, nae-enjoy ko talaga either yung silence or yung opportunity na makausap yung client to get to know them.”
While the method and materials are slightly different between handpoked tattooing and the indigenous Filipino practice of batok, Mjeng referenced the dedication and commitment of mambabatok Apo Whang-Od and wanted to embody similar characteristics in her own work. “I want to follow that kind of dedication to a certain craft,” she shares.
FROM HOBBY HOARDER TO SERIOUS PLANNER
During the pandemic, Mjeng tried out several hobbies that didn’t stick. Crocheting, embroidery, and the like were not for her, and while she’s not artistically inclined in any other way except in writing, one day she finally found it. After watching plenty of YouTube vlogs like the rest of us, she stumbled upon the practice of handpoked tattooing. At first, Mjeng reacted the way most people do and thought to herself “isn’t that unhygienic?” But she thought back to what she did when she was younger and realized how well the art would fit her.
“Nung high school at elementary ako, siguro universal experience to pero for me kina-reer ko talaga yung pagddrawing sa arms ng katabi ko. So parang foreshadowing na meant to be yung handpoked tattooing.”
So, given her affinity for drawing on her classmates’ arms, Mjeng got curious and tried it out. She researched and practiced—on herself first, then on her friends. She got into a groove—a hobby finally clicked. Now, she wants to build her business, find her art style, and dedicate her time to handpoke tattooing. Short term-wise, she’s saving up for a dedicated space for tattooing, perhaps a converted area in an apartment. For now, she’s taking her time, saving up money, and learning as she goes.
Throughout her learning journey, Mjeng has picked up a few things. “You won’t ever get better at something unless you consistently do it, unless you persist at doing it,” Mjeng advises. As with any thing, you need time to grow and get better. Your first work or first draft won’t always be good, she said. “I try not to be too upset na di ganoon ka-perfect yung mga una kong works of art.”
She’s also grateful for all the faith people have in her. Tattoos are a permanent commitment, and her friends letting her tattoo them is a show of trust. She finds that “Someone out there will really be there for you [and] support you.” Besides the people you already know, she believes that someone out there will recognize your craft and all the heart and soul you put into it.
Unfortunately, it’s not all smooth sailing—nothing ever is! The young artist still struggles to find her art style because she isn’t able to practice it well, instead following her clients’ wishes of dainty tattoos. She also has work, so she doesn’t have enough time to practice. But she advises not to get caught up in being upset that things aren’t coming along or that other people are doing better quicker. She’s got the time and she’s putting the work in—things will be alright.
The way she talks about the craft—the preparation, the process, and the little details—and her optimistic demeanor are clear indications of how much she loves doing what she does. Mjeng is as knowledgable and enthusiastic as anyone who’s passionate about something, and while passion isn’t the only thing that gets people to achieve their dreams, she is wholeheartedly committed to it.