How This 23-Year Old Self-Taught Handpoked Tattoo Artist Found Her Calling

Value the learning curve.

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.

Related: 13 Filipina Tattoo Artists Inking Their Way Around the Philippines

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.


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.


mjeng handpoked tattoo artist
boltcutters handpoked tattoo

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.

Continue Reading: This Upcoming Documentary is Giving Filipino Tattooing Its Deserved Spotlight

Breaking New Ground: A-Team Is Highlighting Filipino Excellence Through Dance

They're making bold moves.

“We believe in this saying: by the community and for the community.”

Related: All The Performances That Made NYLON Manila’s Big Bold Brave Awards Night Unforgettable

For elite dance crew A-Team, pushing the boundaries of dance means learning from every experience and offering their very best selves to the world—and not just as performers.

We got the chance to talk to MJ Arda, one-half of The Ardas—the founders, choreographers, and directors of the multi-awarded dance crew. With him and his sister Angelica Arda, the duo are leading a team of driven, talented dancers to take on the world, one step at a time.

Arda talks all about how A-Team has grown over the last decade and how they’re using everything they’ve learned to give back to the community that’s uplifted them from the very beginning.


A-Team Dance Crew

Founded and led by MJ and Angelica Arda, A-Team is an independent street dance and hip-hop group known for their explosive, artistic, meticulously-curated, and impactful performances. Beginning as a small group of young dancers in 2011, A-Team has grown to be a community of dancers championing dance and movement in the Philippines.

As the first ever Filipinos to win the gold medal in the Megacrew division at the World Hip Hop Dance Championship in 2014, A-Team has earned renown and respect from participating and winning competitions all over the world throughout the years.

While they immediately started off participating in international competitions as early as their founding year, it was a long road to get to where they are.

Arda muses that dancing wasn’t celebrated before the way it is now. But as appreciation for the arts and movement grows and as pioneers make their marks, showing the world the value of what they do, it’s clear that much has changed.

“We really started from the bottom,” Arda shares. From small studios and a handful of members, to international titles and opening FIBA World Cup 2023, the team has grown so much not just in reputation, but in terms of who they are and what their role is in the community. They’ve learned from each competition, each performance, and each other.

In the international scene, “There’s so much more you can improve on. You’re not the best. There’s so many ‘bests,’ and you’re competing with all of them.” Constant improvement is a principle they strive to abide by. The global stage isn’t easy to step on, but it does provide an avenue for learning, discipline, and improvement.

Challenging themselves every day not just sharpens their skill, but also strengthens their own idea of who they are as individuals, as a team, and as dancers representing their nation.


A-Team Dance Crew

As time passed, A-Team was able to form a stronger, more cohesive idea of who they are and who they want to be. By telling stories through each performance, they also tell their own.

Because before each story is shared to audiences through movement, there’s also everything else—music, direction, mentality, style, and all of the other pieces of the puzzle.

Music and style are important aspects of a performance. For Arda, he refers to music as the most important thing. It is the “water” while the dancers are the “boat”. They ride the waves, letting their movements intertwine with the music to make a piece nothing short of magical.

And not only does the crew feel the movement magic in the music and steps, they also channel it through their looks. Watch any A-Team performance, and you’ll quickly see that fashion and styling are distinct essentials to their identity. 

“Fashion, styling, clothing…that’s our bread and butter. It’s who we are.” The team, known to always be decked out in cohesive, well-put-together outfits, takes pride in what they wear. It’s an extension of their performance, and an extension of themselves. Their style is an outward expression of their identity and pride at being dancers.

The influence they’ve earned now paves the way for them to help develop the mentality that dance is more than just a form of entertainment. Their members also aren’t just dancers—their roles have also shifted and changed along with the freedom and creativity that a change in mindset allows. They’re leaders and teachers, coaches, artists with a future.

It’s important to A-Team, and to Arda, that the identity they forge with their dancing isn’t just about them. Sure, going out to chase outside experience is good, but he asks a very relevant question: “why do we keep chasing the opportunity or the talent when we have it here?”

Several Filipino dance teams have won renowned global dance competitions—A-Team’s Megacrew division gold medal win, for one. And just recently, Filipino teams HQ and Legit Status brought home gold medals in the Adult and Megacrew divisions, respectively, in this year’s World Hip Hop Dance Championship.

Given the heaps of talent we have in the Philippines, from well-established crews to independent dancers, the world should be acknowledging that we could learn so much from local Filipino dancers and choreographers. Clearly there is no lack of talent nor opportunity for Filipino dancers to tell their own stories and to share their gifts with the world.


A-Team Dance Crew

Every A-Team performance is eclectic, meticulously designed with much consideration in mind regarding each one’s purpose. Preparation for a performance is fraught with having to make difficult creative decisions to exhausting conditioning sessions. There are “a lot of ups and downs,” Arda admits, and preparing both physically and mentally is a mountain to be climbed.

“The stronger the body, the stronger the mind. The stronger the mind, the stronger the body.”

And while producing, choreographing, and directing a dance piece for a large-member crew is a long, painful process, he admits it’s very fulfilling.

Their recent large-scale dance showcase DEMO Vol. 9 required a lot of patience and preparation. The DEMO is one of A-Team’s biggest projects, and it’s also one of their favorites, because it’s not done to win anything, but to express who they are and why they dance.

“You’re exhausted after that, but at the same time it’s full of emotion.” The emotional rollercoaster that is a performance, tied with the physical toll it takes, could get dancers to reach a sort-of “Nirvana” state that Arda refers to, where they realize just exactly why they do what they do.

“Because of these things, these experiences, that make you feel something.”

What makes A-Team is the artistry, athleticism, mentality, and community behind every performance. It takes so much out of every dancer mentally, emotionally, and physically, and it takes a village to create something electric, something wonderful to share with the world.

At the end of the day, dancing is not just about the creative process or how excellent a piece is technically. “At the end of the day, dance is a feeling. You get to feel something and you get to share that to a lot of people.”


A-Team Dance Crew

Today, A-Team strives to “create newer paths” in the world of Filipino dancing. Their new era is marked by endeavors that will—more than just bring home more trophies—empower the dance community and inspire aspiring athletes and creatives. They own Zero Studio PH, where they host classes and workshops, and they constantly try to uplift the dance community and celebrate local artists.

“We believe in this saying: by the community and for the community.” Arda shares that the strengths of the members of A-Team is that they’re able to connect with the community on a daily basis. They encourage their members to create their own paths and build communities that love and appreciate the art of dance.

So when they announced the Ultimate Dance Cup, a dance competition to be held in October 2023 to highlight Filipino dance teams, they brought together everything they’ve learned to give back to the community.

The Ultimate Dance Cup is the third in their line of competitions meant to, literally and figuratively, put the spotlight on members of the local dance community. They began with the Choreographer’s Cup for local choreographers and the Freedom’s Cup for freestylers.

“The whole concept behind the ‘cups’ is for us to have a space and platform where everybody is given the equal opportunity to be seen.” UDC gives opportunities to teams who just want to try, those who may not have the infrastructure, support, or visibility in the dance scene. Dancers, established or new, young or old, have the opportunity to sign up to compete in the Cup.

The Ultimate Dance Cup ties together what A-Team was, is, and what it could be as it showcases their efforts to empower Filipino dancers and highlight dance excellence in the Philippines.

Grounded and driven by passion, a commitment to the craft, and a love for the community, A-Team is steadily pioneering a new era that brings performance art to a whole new level.

A-Team Dance Crew

Outfit Credits: MJ: Revibe Culture Reworked Jacket, Paxon Pants, Jordan Boxer Shorts/APES: Reworked Zara Top, Miss Sixty Mini Skirt, Nike Boxers/JAJA: Neric Beltran Bralette/NICA: Nike Skirt/ANGEL: Paxon Pants, Stone River Body Jewelry/YSAI: Blackbough Swim Belly Chain worn as Necklace/SHAWN: Toqa Tank Top, Give Me the Loot Vest/KOBE: MM6 Oversized Tee, Give Me the Loot Pants/JOSH: Revibe Culture Reworked Jacket/CHAEL: Revibe Culture Reworked Jacket

Photographer JAN MAYO

Assistant Photographer ENNUH TIU 



Assistant Stylist RAF VILLAS 

Special thanks to MUD Studio Manila

Continue Reading: 6 Filipino Dance Crews That Rocked The World