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Crimson River Tattoo


Words by Katrina Swee| Photography by Gio Panlilio

It’s a rare occasion for these women to be in the studio at the same time. The artists often work in pairs, inking a select few on different days of the week. However, despite the distance, I entered the bright, red-painted walk-up to a whole lot of laughter as they were spilling the tea. It was like nothing changed in the last year—just a bunch of girlfriends circled comfortably around each other, catching up. They were excited to be together again. 


Works of art from painted skateboards and framed prints to pieces made by creatives and friends filled the walls; a collection of oddities, vinyls, plants, and kewpie dolls sat in all corners, adding a personal touch to the parlor.


This used to be Gigie Santiago’s private studio, back when she was still part of the 55tinta family. After years of practice, she made the decision to work on her own. The mother of two has now established herself in the industry for her blackwork tattoos and is sought after by many Manileños who wish to be inked.


In November 2020, Gigie chose to fulfil her dream of setting up a women-led studio while using her space to help other artists cope. As her fellow women tattooers closed their studios one by one, she believed it was the time to transform Crimson River Tattoo from a one woman show to a tattoo collective. And like many other creatives coming together to support one another during this time, Annie Concepcion, Drew Cortez, Kara Gonzales, Wiji Lacsamana, and Jelly Levine joined, not only to become a formidable team in the industry, but to learn and grow together, much like a sisterhood.

With the pandemic, our lives have all shifted in one way or another. How has tattooing proven more significant in your life?

Annie: I realized that I needed it. Financially, that’s a given but also as part of a routine. I feel like…it’s like you’re not safe or hindi mapakali kasi walang ginagawa sa bahay unlike when you’re at work, you’re creating art, tattooing, doing something. Days before that, you’d also be working on designs.

Drew: Tattooing is also our current way of connecting with other people since we’re in isolation. It’s not like before when we could meet and tattoo many clients. We are able to reach out and make new connections through work.

Wiji: When the pandemic happened, I assumed less people would be tattooed but I haven’t seen a decrease at all. A lot of my clients now kind of regret not doing what they wanted to do when things were normal. Now they’re more open and say, “let’s just do it!”


Jelly: I actually only started tattooing during the pandemic. I had a lot of time to myself and then I had this enlightenment that I could do more. I started drawing again and without the help of Gigie, I wouldn’t have been able to start tattooing myself or learn the art.

Kara: It was really difficult for me. I started tattooing in late 2019 so when the pandemic hit, kakakuha lang yung studio and it was in the condo where I was living in. Kasi before, you could do that. Then I had to close the studio and I had no other work anymore because I decided to make it a full time job. It was a big deal for Gigie to invite us all here because it made it easier for us to do what we do. It was our safe space when we were still trying to get a feel of what was happening around us. 


At the start, it was hard to create because we didn’t have any clients and we didn’t know when we could go back to work but eventually when things started up again, it became cathartic. It’s meditative, iba talaga yung feeling. It really makes me happy. 

Wiji: I feel like there was an increase in my creativity but I also feel like that’s my response to panic. When the pandemic hit, I also had to close down my private studio because it was in my house and I have a son. There were a couple of months where I stopped tattooing and started painting and illustrating again. I stopped last year and earlier this year. It’s been very erratic. I try to redirect my anxieties towards being creative and now I’m back, tattooing again.

Prior to this, you worked alone or at other tattoo parlors, mostly surrounded by male counterparts. How has working at this particular studio, surrounded by other women, changed your art? Can you give us an example of how it influences your art that might not be obvious to other people?


Gigie: It’s very inspiring kasi iba iba kaming style. We get to watch and learn from one another. We all do tattoos differently. We were more able to hone our personal styles.

Annie: I worked with Gigie way before sa ibang shop, so ngayon nakikita ko yung work ethic niya, so napupush ako na galingan ka pa. Coinciding with working with the others, it’s more chill because it was more about having client after client in the past. You had no breaks. Being here means I get to focus more on the art and the client gives me more freedom to do what I want. Parang eto, sige gawin mo gusto mong gawin, pero gusto ko ganyan it eto kasi there are certain boundaries to what I can do. Parang nabibigyan kami ng artistic freedom kaso nasa loob pa rin ng gusto ng client. So, meron kaming understanding kung nasaan yung gusto niya at yung kaya ko. 

Annie: You book for a style unlike what was more of a walk-in situation before. 


Gigie: If it’s a street shop, ganun talaga— gagawin mo kung anong gusto yung client parang mas work siya for us. 

Annie: Hindi siya fun, hindi siya art. It’s definitely more personal working here.

Jelly: Because I’m an apprentice here, it’s easier to get along with everyone since they’re women as well. It also pushes me to be more creative and give my best on every project. They’re all inspiring. 


Wiji: I remember the first week I started tattooing here. Parang ang saya because I usually work alone. At first, I didn’t know if I’d be okay. I thought, how do I function while working with other people? 


Kara: It’s super fun! It’s nice to be able to talk after your sessions.


Wiji: Sometimes when I’m still tattooing a client and another is done, I can ask for some help and I used to have to do those things by myself. It’s so refreshing and also because of the pandemic and having to stay at home with two men, I craved the estrogen and this positive energy. 


Kara: There’s also an effect from working alone to working with other artists. Seeing their setup, the preparation before and what happens after was different. You get to share different techniques and setups from what type of needles you use to the colors. 

Wiji: It’s interesting to see other styles that I’m not proficient in. I try to learn from their expertise.  


Kara: Wiji and I both work with color so we also learn from one another when we see each other using different types of needles for different tattoos. Ang ganda kasi you learn those technical things and can then apply that to your own style and expertise. Then, it builds. 


There’s some kind of unsaid intimacy between you and the client every time you perform your work. Can you describe a connection between you and the client? 


Gigie: We’ve actually built a lot of friendships with clients kasi bumabalik lang sila. May trust sila kasi they know how you work.

Drew: And their trust is such a big factor because they’re trusting you with their body. It’s a big thing because it’s going to be forever.

Gigie: It’s fun when there are some who are like collectors. They want to get a tattoo from each artist. It’s really refreshing to feel those kinds of things.


Annie: Parang nagiging friendly sila. Sa session, nafefeel mo sa client like meron na kayong vibe, nagchichikahan na kayo and then it continues. Wala na yung boundary between the client and artist. Enjoy naman namin yung kwento.


Drew: Ang saya kasi all females so we get to chika!


Wiji: The person is giving you their trust and I think we all take that seriously. It’s such an intimate process when you’re in close contact with the person. There’s physical touch. I read somewhere that when you’re physically touching someone, it’s creating a new form of intimacy. Usually when people get tattoos, they’re celebrating, wanting to remember or going through something. There’s an intense story behind that which they share. It’s like I get a new friend every time I tattoo someone. 

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