Tattoo Talk with Ann Savage

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Celebrated tattoo artist Ann Savage gets personal about rising up to the challenge of being a woman in a male-dominated industry.

From the never-ending narrative of being a woman in a testosterone-dominated industry to tattooing the nether regions of a male client, I covered a lot of bases with my friend and one of Cebu’s most celebrated tattoo artists, Ann Savage.

This story examines another facet to Ann, focusing on her craft and opinions on the current local tattoo industry instead of her challenge-filled personal life—that’s for another round of beers altogether. 

On the past

I personally find it tedious to keep repeating the storyline of being female in an industry primarily run by men. However, it’s not just a storyline to many, is it? For Ann who experienced the death stares, unfair assumptions, and overall nasty prejudice, the bigotry was all too real. Her womanhood and being a mother were her biggest challenges when she ventured into tattooing a decade ago. 

During tattoo competitions, people would assume she was the assistant of fellow tattoo artist-slash-entrepreneur-slash-father-to-her-children Joe Black, her partner-in-crime-and-everything-else. Her clients were frowned up for getting tattoos from a woman. A lot of bigots also discriminated against her because apparently, only men know how to handle a tattoo machine. They said she couldn’t put up her own tattoo studio simply because she was a woman; and so on and so forth. It was already 2011 and she was still judged by what’s between her legs. Ridiculous, right? Ann being Ann, she turned all the criticisms thrown at her into motivation, and the rest is her story.

On present challenges

Ann Savage at work

Through the years, Ann persevered like a real savage would to survive—from having to sleep in the same place she and Joe were working at to walking the streets of Cebu because they did not have enough money to commute. With all the struggles she overcame to achieve the success she enjoys today, it is completely understandable for her to express anger over obscenely low rates given by other tattoo artists. To give you a rough idea, a decent starting price for a tattoo is Php 1,500 to Php 2,500. The former is really the lowest, so if you’re given a rate that’s any lower, it’s worth questioning. 

(Disclaimer: This context does not include giving free tattoos to close friends and family, especially when you’re just starting out and still building your portfolio. And also, if you’ve just begun tattooing, it’s more ethical or preferred to offer tattoos that are free rather than at super low rates. It’s a case-to-case basis. Established tattoo artists advise to price your first paid tattoo appropriately.)

What I’m referring to here is the public announcement of tattoo services in a blatantly distasteful manner. I personally see tattoo promos online that advertise “Php 2,000 for two” or “Buy 1, Take 1” like they’re selling t-shirts or whatever. If the goal is to be popular or earn more money by blasting more attractive rates, in Ann’s words, “You are downgrading yourself.” She feels like the foundation laid by veteran tattoo artists is being diminished into a trivial thing. When you calculate the time, effort, equipment, and not to mention the blood, sweat, and tears—literally—that one invests in the pursuit of the specialized craft that is tattooing, you’ll understand why tattoos are priced like that. Unfortunately, there are people who bite into the poisoned apple and go for cheap ass tattoos without fully appreciating the craft. I sound like a snob, but if it’s for the sake of emphasizing the value of tattooing, then so be it.

Ann pointed out how some tattoo artists might have their own reasons for lowering their rates, one being financial losses due to the pandemic. This is not lost on Ann and her team who have had significant setbacks as well. Despite it all, they held their breaths and did not dive into the temptation of decreasing rates, because that would mean decreasing their value as technicians and artists, and negatively impacting the tattoo industry overall.

Another challenge at hand is the easy accessibility to tattoo equipment and tools. This is actually two-pronged: it’s good for genuine tattooists who are in it for the long haul, but it could also be a bad thing because the craft might not be taken too seriously by some who’ll end up having a heavy-handed approach to tattooing. There’s even a beginner’s kit on Southeast Asia’s leading e-commerce platform that shall not be named but rhymes with ‘burpee’. Because of this, as well as the availability of online references like YouTube and everyone’s favorite, Pinterest, it’s much easier for people to call themselves tattoo artists. Ann recalls how they used to wrap tattoo magazines in plastic covers just to preserve them because they were not easy to come by. While it’s a fact that it’s less challenging to become a tattoo artist these days, it doesn’t mean everyone’s cut out for it. Falling in love is easy; it’s staying in love that’s the hard part.

On what it takes to be a tattoo artist

Ann’s top three prerequisites to becoming a tattoo artist are professionalism, drawing skills, and passion. 

For her, being kind, professional, and an overall decent human being goes a long way in the tattoo industry. The nature of the job is also more intimate than usual because you get physically close with your clients, so it’s essential that they feel safe with you. Included in this list is also patience in all aspects like dealing with difficult clients, tattooing long hours, and finally being proud of your portfolio, among others. Overall, conducting yourself in a respectable and ethical manner is number one. 

Second, being artistic and having the necessary drawing skills are kind of non-negotiable. Your interest and skillset in the visual arts is the very foundation of tattooing as a trade and plays a huge role in finding your own style. In pursuit of perfecting her craft, Ann found her niche in realism. For others, it may be American or Japanese traditional, black and grey, bio-organic, minimalism, surrealism, and so on and so forth. There are so many genres out there, and it’s up to you to find what your specialty is. Ann says that it’s also important to dabble in styles outside your comfort zone because it’s how you learn and refine your work. Like a chef who explores many cuisines, it’s also a way to better know yourself—your strengths, weaknesses, and the clientele you want to attract.

Passion being last on the list is fitting because it ties everything together in a nice red bow of determination, guts, and sheer focus. They say if you don’t suffer for it in one way or another, it’s not your passion. This may seem drastic, but definitely not for tattoo artists. According to Ann, you cannot last as a tattoo artist if you don’t have passion. There is no shortcut to becoming one; no smoke and mirrors to hide behind. It’s essentially you on someone’s skin… Forever. As intimidating as it sounds, I would imagine it’s also very fulfilling once you’ve hit your stride.

Ann Savage’s soft-spoken demeanor and gentle spirit perfectly complement her ironclad determination and resilience as a tattoo artist. While life was not kind to her, she still exhibits kindness in whatever she does and whomever she crosses paths with, breaking stereotype after stereotype about tattoo artists and the industry.

Quick Hits:

Favorite and least favorite tattoo style?

Not a huge fan of blackout. Favorite to do would be realism.

Does tattoo longevity matter?

BIG YES. What’s the point if it doesn’t last?

What’s your opinion on “job stoppers” (hand, face, neck tattoos)?

You should have at least a stable job, know yourself enough to get one, and have at least other tattoos on the body already.

What’s your worst client experience so far?

I had this one client in 2013 who wanted a fallen angel done on his back. On the day of his appointment, he didn’t like the placement of the stencil, but it was already stuck on his skin for an hour so it was hard to remove because we didn’t have a stencil remover back then. I told him to put lotion on it overnight to erase it and to come back the next day. The next day came and we spent 10 hours adjusting the placement on his back. Our appointment was at 1 pm, but we started tattooing at 11 pm and finished at 4 am. Plus, I had another appointment that day at 8 am. On top of that, this client only wanted to pay half of the agreed amount. From then on, we started requiring a deposit.

What’s your favorite type of client?

Someone who gives me creative freedom and who knows what they want with valuable input so that it’s collaborative.

What’s your least favorite area to tattoo?

Buttocks because it’s hard to stretch, chest because it’s challenging position-wise, and the elbow and knee because they are bony and require a lot of technical skill due to the skin texture of those areas. Also genitals for obvious reasons. One client asked if I was okay to do a tattoo cover-up on his “weenie,” but I didn’t know what that meant before, so I said yes because I didn’t want to discriminate him. I thought he just meant around his private part. I even asked him to send me photos. When he did, he apologized that the old tattoo wasn’t clear enough because his “weenie” wasn’t erect.

For you personally as a tattoo collector, what’s the most painful part of the body to get tattooed?

Elbow. Mine’s not even finished.

What part of the body do you refuse to tattoo and why?

Face because it’s a sacred part of your identity. I’ve only done it once previously on an already heavily tattooed person, but I won’t do it again.

Who do you want to get a tattoo from?

Leo “Yok” Vincent Genabe

Photos courtesy of Ann Savage

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