Tattoos, Mindanaoan Art, and Old Siargao with Iñigo Jaldon

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In celebrating the arts, we feature artists of the island through an interview series. These individuals continue to pursue their craft through the ups and downs, some “making ends meet” while “living the dream.” These are the realities of being an artist in this once remote island turned tourist destination.

Raw yet exquisitely melancholic, our first conversation is with the cover artist for our April edition, Iñigo Jaldon.

What is your background?

I was born in Zamboanga City in the southernmost tip of Mindanao, grew up in Davao City, and moved to Siargao Island for good 9 years ago.

How did you first find art?

I don’t remember any exact moment. It’s more like a blurry compound of experiences and exposures.

My dad was quite good at making art; he did paintings and illustrations. Although he did not really pursue it, as he worked as a traveling salesman for San Miguel, he would often draw images while telling me stories. I remember him drawing crocodiles and a Tikbalang (a horse / man deity in Philippine mythology) to go along with his tales. He would also do oil paintings and watercolor of plants, still life, and of soldiers and military stuff. Those moments sort of stuck with me.

As a Mindanaoan, exposure to our endemic culture, stories, crafts, and arts became subjects of my interest. At home, we had native swords, boat lutes, bronze ware, and weaving patterns decorating the interior, it was a trend then. Also, Zamboanga and Davao City, were sort of melting pot for indigenous peoples, mestizos, and Muslim tribes, so it was quite interesting for me in hindsight.

How would you describe your style?

I am essentially Mindanaoan-inspired. Although, my influences are quite varied, as I continuously acquire new inspiration from everywhere. But a big chunk of my inspiration comes from my home, this region.

I have at least two main modes of approaching art. As a tattooist, most of the designs I create are more specific for tattooing but maintaining a degree of freedom in conceptualizing,. I like making “tattoos that look like tattoos” and are mostly “blackwork or dot work.” I have to keep in mind it's “tattooability,” and how it would be translated onto human skin. The lines, negative space, and texture should be considered.

I am not formally schooled in art, but creating custom designs for clients and creating tattoo flash tend to challenge my technical capabilities. This is where I try acquiring much-needed skills, like drawing proportionate hands, anatomy, and other theories.

As for my other approach to art, I try to veer away from the constraints and technicalities of tattooing. This is where I use acrylics, sumi-e, block-printing, watercolor, and spray paint. I just play around with different mediums and give my subconscious free rein to put out whatever. It’s almost like therapy, fun and innocent.

I have come to believe that there is this state where I produce my best, that state where one is childlike, not too serious, and just becomes like a medium of sorts.

What does your work aim to say?

It’s usually just art “for art’s sake.” But I soon come to realize that art often mirrors the artist’s subconscious or is a reaction to stimuli. So if I create something, perhaps it’s my subconscious projecting my memories or state of mind at that moment, or it could just be as simple as a desire to play with colors, mediums, or patterns.

Tell us the story about living in Siargao?

I first visited friends in Burgos in 1998, and we stayed with Richard Matthews, a bamboo surfboard shaper. I moved to Catangnan for good around 9 years ago. Those times were not that different from one other, both were “raw.” Oftentimes, we’d have memories in the form of smells, right? Well, Siargao then was a mixture of Coppertone, coconut oil, and briny seaweed.

From my first visit, I knew I’d end up moving here, but it just wasn’t feasible then as an 18 year-old with no defined skills. I didn’t fish or had any practical skills to offer then. And, there was college.

When I turned 32 years old, I realized my plan to live here. I’ll spare the details of that journey and the jobs I got into prior to the big move. But I definitely got into tattooing to be able to survive on the island. Back then, there were no tattoo artists that were completely based here. They would only stay a few months at the most. So in essence, I’m the longest-staying tattooist in Siargao.

So, my friend Momon introduced me to this guy Marlo, and I ended up renting half a duplex directly in front of Cloud 9. Eventually, Marlo left me his half of the duplex (a better one), and I ended up living there for over four years (I owe my landlord, Glenn, big time for this) at only P3,500.00 a month! Living just in front of a world-class surf spot and with a next-door neighbor (let’s call him “J”) that dealt the best veggies from the north of the country (that was back when I was a vegetarian). It was a very simple but charming life.

During the lean rainy seasons, La Niña would bring us long, wet days. There was not that much business since we had no surf, so the locals would start getting crafty and get on survival mode. But if “J” still had some cash from the vegetable sales, or if he managed to barter vegetables for other food, everyone was free to partake on the huge meals that the boys would prepare - and we could have some veggies as well. He was generous in that way, but food would eventually be scarce when the veggies ran out. Then he’d have to leave to replenish his stocks.

The young surfers we see now were just practically kids back then, along with the more senior ones, they would either forage for shellfish or rent a net to “dag pas” (corner a school of fish). As long as we had some coconut milk, ginger and garlic, we were ok. I bought the rice. Then we’d all gather in a makeshift cooking area beside my place to prepare the food and eat. Those were awesome times.

I would stay for at least a year on the island without ever leaving or visiting my family in Davao City, especially since I found out that staying during the “lean” months then was actually good for the tattoo business.

There are so many quirky stories and extraordinary experiences to share - but it would take a novella. One thing’s for sure though, I would never experience these things and meet the people I met if I chose to live anywhere else. I owe a lot to the locals as well, they helped me out in numerous ways like through clients, food, and company. They might not know it, but I learned a lot just by being around them. Their survivor mentality, their simple ways, and the privilege to live the surfing lifestyle was, and is still for me the best quality life one could live. We were prepared to live simply for the rest of our lives.

How have you developed your art and career here?

I believe times of solitude during the off-seasons had a great impact. There were practically no people at all. It gave me time to dwell in my head, to be more prolific, and to be more observant.

Living here didn’t just give me time for art, but also for formulating plans on the other aspects of my life. A big reason for me not leaving that much was so I would not miss any change that might be a shock to me should I leave and come back. Like when they built the cement road — we used to have a lush canopy of “fire trees” with fire-red blossoms from the hill all the way down the Cloud 9 area. Before going home to visit Davao City, I took a picture of it as I saw the construction was headed that way and thought it might be the last time I’d see those trees, it was. It made me feel so bad when I saw the trees chopped down. It sucked and I felt quite depressed, I had to condition my mind before coming back. I never thought those things would ever affect me, but that was then. Now, I think of those times spent here as just studying where the island was heading.

I had my share of tattoos, murals, and art commissions. They were really of great help in sustaining me - thanks to my clients and friends.

What are the hardships of making a living solely on art?

Difficult. For me at least, as I had to set aside pursuing art as a full-time endeavor or source of income for regular jobs before becoming a graphic designer/tattooist. Being young and Filipino, we were encouraged to go for “regular” jobs, so making art for a living was out of the question in the early part of my life, art was more of a hobby then.

Art only became income-generating for me when I started getting outsourced projects for tattoo flash. That was around the mid-2000’s, and there were tons of projects available to freelancers. I got my first break doing freelance writing and diversified into doing drawings for tattoo-flash, then did research on tattoo symbolisms for foreign-owned websites. It was a niche I focused on at that time and was doing fairly well and started to hire other artists to draw for me too. When the financial crash came, I started losing projects as employers began hiring within their countries or pulled back their projects due to the lack of funding.

That’s when I started veering towards tattooing. I used the funds from freelancing to purchase my initial supplies for the studio. I sold some of it to other artists and the rest I kept as my personal supply and got on it. I just started tattooing friends to build my portfolio, and I set up a short-lived studio in my hometown. I then packed up and went back to Siargao in 2012 to feel the place and eventually lived and worked here full time. So in essence, it took me at least 20 years to be able to make art for a living and to realize my plan of living on the island.

But tattooing alone would not secure my place here on the island, I started seeing some drastic changes around 2015 and 2016. That’s when I started working on a back-up plan so I would not be displaced. I focused on tattooing more to buy me time on the island, then I eventually got into selling real estate. I then studied for the board exam, passed it and became a licensed real estate broker. The few deals I made here helped me build my home. Thank God.

So I had to get into other things to support my lifestyle and craft. Nowadays, making art (other than tattooing), is more of a privilege and luxury. For me, it’s a sign that I have the time to do so and I’m doing it for art’s sake—not for money nor for a living.

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