x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Tattoo artists uphold the pointy end of the battle for free speech

We look inside the underground world of tattooing in the UAE.

Lawrence Talento, 24, displays his collection of 13 tattoos and says he plans to add more images to his extensive body art. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Lawrence Talento, 24, displays his collection of 13 tattoos and says he plans to add more images to his extensive body art. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Thirteen tattoos and you'd think he would have had enough.

But Lawrence Talento, a 24-year-old Filipino waiter in Dubai, is not even close to being done.

"Tattoos set me apart from others," he says. "I just love all the attention I get from them."

At the age of 14, Talento got his first tattoo - his name in Old English lettering - on his upper back. Today he has a Japanese koi (carp) and a lotus flower on his upper arms, a mummy on his chest and the words "respect" and "loyalty" on both arms. On his left forearm are the faces of his 70-year-old father Adolfo Talento, the Filipino national hero José Rizal, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Abraham Lincoln. Albert Einstein is on his neck, while Martin Luther King Jr is on his left forearm.

"They all inspire me," he says. "My father is my idol. He used to be a farmer, became a bus driver and decided to leave the country to work in Saudi Arabia and Japan."

Talento recently wanted to get a tattoo portrait of Sheikh Zayed, the founding president of the UAE, as a way to honour him. But he was worried people might find it offensive.

"He's the reason why I'm here in Dubai," Talento said. "The UAE is the first country I've been to and I'm lucky to be working here."

Talento, who is currently assigned to the kitchen at his workplace, is aware of the health risks associated with tattoos. In March last year, he undertook a medical test and was declared fit.

"I'm clean," he says, adding that his employers do not mind that he has tattoos.

Talento says he has immediate plans to have his right forearm tattooed with images of his favourite musicians: John Lennon, Bob Marley, Elvis Presley and the late Filipino rap legend Francis Magalona.

The artist behind most of his tattoos is a man who calls himself "Lupin".

"Tattoos can be very costly," the 32-year-old Filipino graphic designer says. "But he [Talento] can pay me whenever he can."

Lupin charges a minimum of Dh250 for a simple tattoo while larger and more elaborate designs can cost as much as Dh6,000. He says his full-time job at Dubai Media City earns him Dh10,000 per month, while he makes twice as much from tattooing.

In 2008, Lupin rented a room in the Karama district of Dubai, which he converted to a makeshift tattoo parlour. He has 30 tattoo machines and a stock of disposable needles, tips and an autoclave for sterilising. On any given workday, he sees at least four customers. But on Saturdays he accepts only two appointments because he attends church services with his wife and five-year-old son.

Another UAE-based Filipino tattoo artist, EJ, 26, says his customer base is largely built on referrals.

The majority of his clients are Filipinos, while the rest are from the UK, Jordan, India, Pakistan and Nepal. He earns Dh2,300 per month as a store attendant at a petrol station in Abu Dhabi. "Of course, tattooing brings me more money than my main job," he says. He can earn up to Dh3,000 a week from his tattoos, which range from Dh300 to Dh3,000.

Both Lupin and EJ are aware of the legal risks involved in commercial tattooing. In November 2010, four Filipinos were arrested for operating a tattoo parlour in the Muraqqabat district of Deira.

The men were reported to police by a neighbour who observed teenagers walking out of the flat with their arms wrapped in gauze. He suspected it might be a drug den.

Police arrested the four men for illegally running the parlour and referred them to the public prosecution.

One of the men, who declined to be named, said he was still into tattooing despite the incident.

"I don't have a regular job except this," said the 30-year-old. "Before we got arrested, I was earning Dh18,000 a month. Now it's down to Dh8,000."

They were detained at the Muraqqabat police station for three days before being released on bail after leaving their passports with the police, he said, adding: "We didn't attend any hearing at the Dubai courts or paid any fine."

"Tattooing isn't illegal in the UAE," said a senior police officer in Abu Dhabi, speaking on condition of anonymity. When asked if people tattooing others risked arrest, he replied in the negative.

Many Filipino tattoo artists have been under the impression that they are not banned from practising their craft in the UAE.

"There are salons here that offer eyebrow and other cosmetic tattoos," Lupin says. "So I don't think we're doing anything wrong."

rruiz@thenational.ae