Tattoo artist Camsy Valencia still remembers the conversation she had with a friend over what would turn out to be her most grueling tattoo session to date.
C: "Ang laki pala ng gusto mo. Umpisahan na natin yan ngayon. (30 minutes into tattooing) So kailan ka babalik ng Singapore?"
F: "January 5."
C: "Kailan ka babalik dito?"
F: "Siguro mga five years pa."
C: "Uuwi ka nang yan lang yung nagawa?"
F: "Ay, hindi ba natin matatapos?"
She tried to get some shut-eye before resuming work, but was awakened by nightmares where she drowned in dragon scales. Camsy recalls telling her peer, "Alam mo hindi ako makatulog, tapusin na lang natin yan. Mag-kape na lang tayo, balik ka dito." After almost a day of painstaking pigmenting—16 frickin' hours—a majestic dragon coiled around the man's calf area. "Para kaming lalagnatin dalawa."
To think the thought of her taking tattooing seriously didn't even occur to her until she started hanging out at Island Tattoo in Boni, Mandaluyong. When she was still a multimedia arts student at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, she was first asked if she would like to try out doing the body modification, to which she answered, "Huh? Hindi." Camsy was into graphics that time and didn't imagine injecting ink on somebody else's skin, so her dumbfounded reply was somewhat warranted.
Her first tattoo, which Camsy had to mull over for two years, spurred her interest in furthering the craft. Originally, she was in it for the experience; she wanted to get a small one. Thanks to her friends' nonstop prodding, she got out of the tattoo parlor with most her back inked. "I wanted a lot of details, kaya sabi nila lakihan ko na para maganda. Hindi ko alam na pagkalipas ng ilang taon, maiintindihan ko talaga kasi ako na yung gagawa ng tattoo."
After being mentored by a handful of Island Tattoo mainstays, Camsy picked up a tattoo kit for the first time in 2009. Three years later, she opened a commercial studio in Libertad, Mandaluyong, but it didn't take long for her to realize what she really wanted: a more intimate, private shop. Hence, the birth of her eponymous salon, located at 25-B Diego Silang St., AFPOVAI in Taguig, where her Sacred Chaos clothing line is also based.
She was supposed to test her skills on herself for her first project, not wanting to risk ruining another person's epidermis. The people at Island Tattoo warned Camsy, "Hindi ka makakapag-concentrate. Una, nasasaktan ka, tapos tuturuan ka namin, hindi ka makakapag-focus." Her future adviser, Gary Canlapan, offered his leg for Camsy to do a little skull and crossbones on, which took her three hours to finish.
These days, a couple of hours is more than enough for her to accomplish an intricate pattern. Credit to the composite art work of a woman, a tiger and an eagle on her back, which thrust her into this side of the creative industry. According to her, the chosen design symbolizes the sequence of how she lives her life: the process of "lakad, takbo, (at) lipad." And judging by how her brand has steadily taken off, Camsy has no doubt internalized such mantra.
In her element
Camsy describes her style as "a mix of mandala and pointillism, with a touch of trash polka and ink splatters," which was also evident in an enormous mosaic of her masterpieces on one of the studio's walls. Her primary influence, particularly when it comes to her usage of the sacred circle, is Sake Tattoo Crew's Orge Kalodimas (Athens, Greece), who specializes in geometric tattoo. Other than that, she is also fascinated by women and skulls.
Originally an artist with a diverse palette, Camsy has been into minimalism for almost three years now. She eliminated every color from her ink set, except for black, white, and gray. Aside from falling in love with the black-and-gray style, she wanted to adopt a single form of tattooing and be good at it, like a musician who decided to stick with one genre his whole career. "Parang gusto ko rock lang talaga yung tugtugin ko, wala nang punk, hardcore, o kahit ano."
Camsy is aware that her preference to dabble in such an exclusive theme puts her at a disadvantage in terms of clientele. She explains that most high-profile customers go for commercial tattoo shops for a wider variety of designs, albeit in modest sizes. On the other hand, she does what she calls "big-ass pieces" for her patrons, which consists of yoga practitioners, doctors, lawyers—mostly professionals.
On where these hotshots have themselves inked, Camsy reveals, "Yung mga iba hanggang maitatago ng scrubs, o sa legs kasi naka-pantalon sila." But those places are actually mild compared with where some clients want to be branded. Some female patrons have theirs on "delicate areas," like under the breasts and even lower. It took a while before she got used to these kinds of requests, but Camsy knows that women are more comfortable with an artist of the same sex.
Her favorite canvas, though, are the people closest to her. Camsy has fond memories about tattooing her best friend, whom she stayed in the same house with and gave her free rein to work on the latter's entire back, which took three months to complete. She narrates, "Minsan, para mabuo yung backpiece niya, 3 a.m., kakatukin ko siya, sasabihin ko, 'Gusto mo gumawa ng konting bulaklak diyan?' Isang oras lang, tapos tulog na kami."
While Camsy rather not assess what level of expertise she's currently in, it seems that she is comfortable with how she has grown—actually, how she went back to basics—as an artist. One thing's certain, though: she devotes her full attention to a project, especially that she is quite particular with details. Being able to manage a good number of clients because of her custom style has allowed Camsy to commit her 100 percent to her works.
A lasting mark
In movies, a familiar trope is the 'drunken tattoo,' in which a character does something that he will regret the morning after. Due to her shop's appointment setup, walk-ins are hardly accomodated, Camsy is a stranger to such requests. To give their customers ample time to contemplate the big decision, sessions are usually booked weeks in advance, so spur-of-the-moment cases are pretty much avoided.
Although Camsy doesn't deny coming across brokenhearted fellows wanting permanent ink, as their way of liberating themelves from the shackles of love. She likens her job to a barber or bartender, and doesn't mind being a confidant to her customers at times. "Minsan, kailangan nila (clients) ng kausap, o kinukwento nila yung buhay nila. Which is cool, actually, that's fun," she shares. No matter how cheesy some of the requests are, she understands there is a story behind each one of them.
She also senses if a person isn't too sure about getting a tattoo or doesn't know which pattern he/she really prefers—a feeling that she has acquired through years of doing her thing. Camsy has no problem shooting down a potential sale if it means not being blamed for a reckless mistake. "I really go through all the details, and if I feel that they're not comfortable with the design, I tell them, 'We can put it on hold first and once you've made up your mind, let's talk again.'"
On the other hand, the entire opposite can be said when starting a career in tattooing, according to Camsy. If there is anything she learned from her humble beginnings, it's that an aspiring practitioner cannot afford to waste time mulling over embarking on the aesthetic venture. If you have the means, then there's no other way to go than buying a machine. Also, one must have enough patience while training and when experiencing struggles to become a better tattoo artist.
"You can actually lose a little bit of your spirit kapag may tattoo na nag-fade, o parang hindi ka masaya sa gawa mo. You have to let go of those things—if you can fix them as much as possible, that's better—and persevere. Tuloy ka lang sa paggawa, don't give up kasi matagal talaga before you can master the craft."
Take it from Camsy: all it took for her is to throw caution to the wind, before she realized her true passion. She has unwaveringly lived up to her first ink: walked and made his way to the scene, ran through several obstacles, and soared to great heights in the industry. Who would've thought that from a shaky skull and crossbones attempt, Camsy would flourish into one of the country's well-known female tattoo artists?