The last time I saw El, he touched my Wimpy Kid tattoo with his finger and said, “Another new tattoo and still no Shrinking Ninja?”
El had created the character for me when I was diagnosed with depression. He has supported me through this journey, going with me for runs, spotting me at the gym, cooking for me (soup week will always be a precious memory) and being a constant presence even during times I would disappear into my shell. We didn’t know then that it was a battle he too would face just over a year later.
It had always been my plan to get one of my ninja selves tattooed, I just hadn’t gotten around to it. I thought there was plenty of time. But six days after he reminded me of my missing tattoo, El died in his sleep. He was just 28.
I gave his eulogy days later, ending it by apologizing to my grandparents and my mother (they’re not a fan of my tattoos) and telling everyone at the wake that I am finally getting my ninja tattoo.
I did it weeks later, on the eve of my birthday. I braved the rain and the Friday night traffic to make it to 55 Tinta.
Over the past weeks spent missing El and mourning, the Shrinking Ninja’s meaning has changed for me. She is no longer just a girl fighting depression, she’s a symbol of my cousin’s extraordinary ability to keep putting himself before others (something we’ve heard again and again and again from everyone who’s been around him) and the lasting magic of his big, big heart.
Thanks to @alvinscene, my Shrinking Ninja is now permanently a part of me. I love how he added his touch—those pretty splashes of color—and how the tattoo became a collaboration between him and El.
I was on the tail end of what had turned out to be an incredible trip to Hawaii. I had spent days hanging out at different beaches, exploring Honolulu, eating amazing food, meeting really interesting people and revelling in the joys of being a solo traveler.
“You’re so brave,” many locals had told me, when they found out I was there on my own. What they didn’t know was that it was also my first solo trip after my diagnosis. It didn’t feel brave, it felt absolutely natural, freeing. Most days I woke up with no plans and I ended up just following my gut, my heart, my feet (and okay, Google Maps), as it led me to adventures strange, delicious and wonderful.
It was my first time in Hawaii, a place that had almost instantly felt like home, something I had never experienced before. There are cities I absolutely love—like New York and London—but despite that love, I never felt a desire to move to those places. Hawaii was different. There was instant attachment. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to live there. (I still do. And I will. I know I will.)
I was sad that my trip was coming to an end and I wanted something to remember it by. A tattoo! It had been around a month since I had gotten my first ones and I had been itching to get a new one.
I Googled “best tattoo shop honolulu,” read a lot of Yelp reviews and decided on Tattoo Hawaii, a shop a lot of people were recommending. The bigger question was if they could squeeze me in. Most tattoo places in the US require a consultation and deposit before you can actually book your tattoo appointment. I called while waiting for the bus that would take me back to my Airbnb.
Me: “Hi, I was wondering if you accept walk-ins?”
Tattoo Hawaii guy: “You have to have an appointment.”
Me: “Even if it’s a really small tattoo?”
Tattoo Hawaii guy: “What did you want to get?”
Me: “A tattoo of a paper clip, the size of an actual paper clip.”
Tattoo Hawaii guy: “Come in tomorrow at 1 and let’s see.”
That was good enough for me.
The next day, after having yet another crazy beach moment and basking (and baking) in the sun, I walked from Ala Moana Beach Park to Tattoo Hawaii.
I walked in and saw Dave and, I must admit, I was intimidated when he asked if I had an appointment. When I told him that I had called the night before, he told me to talk to Peggy. I loved her instantly. She was so warm and funny.
We started by looking at pictures of paper clips online and she explained why some wouldn’t work—the lines were so close together that they would bleed.
We finally settled on one that we liked but then I saw Peggy at the back of their office.
She had found an actual paper clip and had scanned it to create my tattoo stencil. It was so awesome of her to go the extra mile. (And I love the idea that somewhere in Hawaii is the paper clip that my tattoo was based on. It’s a little connection to a place I so deeply love.)
Soon, it was time for paperwork.
The part about aliens made me laugh.
I handed the paper to Tattoo Hawaii’s desk concierge Sean who then asked to see my ID. Holy shit! I had left my passport at the Airbnb.
“It’s okay, you have time to get it,” he said.
“Wait! I have a scan of it in my inbox, will that work?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s a good idea, I should do that too.”
I was in for a bit of a wait and I spent time looking around and talking to a girl who was there for a consultation for her first tattoo.
Then it was my turn. “Good luck,” Sean said. Luck was not needed. I spent the entire time chatting with Dave while he tattooed me.
We had such a fascinating conversation about the history of tattoos, Sailor Jerry, tattoo conventions and crazy cover-up stories that I barely felt the needle.
“They say wild women get tattoos,” Dave said at one point. “And if you think you’re pretty wild, the more tattoos you get the wilder you get, so you’re in for some good times.”
I found it funny when Dave told me that women had a higher threshold for pain than men. He said that in his 35 years as a tattoo artist, only seven women got sick or passed out while he was tattooing them.
“And how many guys?” I asked.
“Two a month.”
On my way out, I told Peggy that I loved their “No Whining” sign. She said that sometimes people go to the shop asking for anaesthesia. “Pussies,” she said, rolling her eyes.
I loved how my tattoo turned out. (Tattoo Blend did too—they added it to a list of Super Cute Tattoo Ideas For Women).
And I guess it looks super real because the next day, at the airport, as I went through security screening, the TSA guys actually stopped me to check what it was.
“Is that a…”
“Of a paper clip?”
“Yes, I just got it yesterday,” I said, grabbing my bag and walking off in search of my boarding gate.
“But what does it mean?” a TSA lady yelled after me.
“Keeping it together!” I said, before waving goodbye. I had a plane to catch.
Powie refused to believe I was getting a tattoo. I think his reaction when I told him was, “Ulol! Seryoso?”
His needle-hating sister willingly paying to be pricked not just once but multiple times? That was never going to happen. That was as likely as the Care Bears coming to life.
So when the tattoos were done, I texted him.
And when his shock wore off, he gleefully waited for shit to hit the fan.
And by shit to hit the fan, I meant he was waiting for my mother and grandmother to react to my tattoos.
For you to fully understand, we need to rewind to October 2002, when a then-17-year-old Powie got his first tattoo: a tribal tramp stamp. I repeat: my innocent 17-year-old brother got a tramp stamp. A tribal one.
But he wasn’t really that innocent, not when it came to doing crazy things to his body. He was 15 when he got his eyebrow and nipple pierced, 16 when he got his tongue pierced and 17 when he stretched his ears so he could wear tunnel earrings.
And just like getting his first tattoo, he did those things without warning.
When his school’s assistant vice principal found out about his eyebrow piercing, Powie was summoned. “Patrick, alam mo ba ginagawa mo sa sarili mo? Pinapatay mo ang sarili mo!”
And if you think that the assistant vice principal was dramatic, you need to hear how my mother reacted when she found out about the tattoo.
I remember that morning clearly. My mother found a tub of petroleum jelly in the bathroom and was trying to figure out whose it was. I was in her room when she walked in, waving the tub, looking both disgusted and amused. “This is your brother’s! Do you think he’s masturbating?”
I rolled my eyes. “Ew, Ma,” I said. But I knew the real reason Powie had been lugging petroleum jelly around. He was using it on his secret tattoo.
I left for work and later that afternoon, my mother called me at the office. She was hysterical. “Your brother has a tattoo! He’s killing me! Talagang papatayin ako nito!” She kept sobbing on the phone.
“Oh my god, Ma. Stop. Your tears aren’t going to erase his tattoo,” I said, eager to get back to work.
Four years later, Powie got another tattoo, one on his arm that was so big it took two sessions to complete. My mother did not want to see it so for years, Powie couldn’t wear sleeveless shirts at home.
Lola Lydia kept quoting Biblical passages, telling Powie that in the Bible, only the bodies of slaves were marked.
Now you understand why Powie was expecting theatrics after my tattoo session.
My mother had come home from the States the day I got my tattoos and when I greeted her, I flashed my right arm, showing her the typewriter one.
“Bullshit!” she said loudly and I laughed.
And then, probably thinking her cowardly daughter would never get a tattoo, she said, “Is that fake?”
“Nope, it’s real.”
She glared at me. And that was that.
Powie missed that exchange and really wanted to see some action. So the next time he saw us together, he tried to get her riled up. “Ma, what did you think of Pam’s tattoo? Are you going to jump out of the window?”
She just glared at him.
Powie continued, “Aren’t her tattoos worse? At least if I wear a shirt, you couldn’t see mine.”
My mom said, “Pam’s tattoos are small.”
And I chimed in, “Yes, they’re small because I want a lot of small tattoos. I’m going to keep adding to them.”
It was my turn to get the glare.
Truth be told, I was more nervous about Lola Lydia’s reaction. So when I had lunch at her house, I used only my left hand to eat. She didn’t notice the tattoo.
But later that night, as I was on my way home, I realized that she had liked the photo of the typewriter tattoo that I had posted on Facebook. I was waiting for the inevitable comment. “In Jesus’ name,” I thought I would read. Or “Terrible!” (I could almost hear her voice saying it the Spanish way.) But there was no comment. The silence was terrifying.
I called Powie. “Holy shit, Lola liked my tattoo photo. What the fuck does that mean?”
Powie started laughing. I kept talking. “I feel like she marked it to remind her to scold me.”
Powie and I arrived at Lola Lyd’s house almost at the same time. And again, he really wanted to see tattoo-caused theatrics. So while I tried hiding my tattoo, he kept trying to get Lola to notice it.
“Pam, why are you wearing your watch on your right wrist? Don’t you usually wear it on the left?” Powie asked loudly.
I gave him my powerful evil stare. I noticed Lolo Bojie looking at my typewriter tattoo and I put my fingers to my lips.
“She’s already seen it,” he said.
But Powie wasn’t done.
“Yelo?” Lola Lyd asked me, adding ice to my glass of water.
Powie said, “Lola, hindi yellow. Green!”
Again, I widened my eyes at him. He kept snickering. But Lola said nothing about my tattoos.
Instead, as I washed the dishes, she started talking about how Jesus had already healed all our diseases when he was nailed to the cross. All diseases, she said, “including migraine, depression, hilo.”
And all of a sudden, her silence about the tattoos made sense.
As we walked out of my grandparents’ house, I nudged my mom. “Lola knows about the depression, huh?”
“I told her,” my mom said.
“I knew it!”
So apparently, in my family, depression gives you a tattoo pass.
It took a couple of days before Lola Lyd finally brought up the tattoos.
“Why did you get tattoos?” she asked me.
“Because the only thing stopping me was my fear of needles and it has disappeared.”
“And what does two-zero mean?”
“A new version of me,” I said.
A version of me who can get tattoos without shit hitting the fan.
“I’m going to ask for complete bloodwork so we can rule out other conditions,” my psychiatrist said.
“Okay, Doc. Can we do it now?” I responded, surprising myself.
I have spent my entire life terrified of needles. As a child, my regular vaccinations always resulted in soap opera-worthy theatrics. I was weeks away from turning thirty when I shamelessly threw toddler-level tantrums in the emergency room after finding out that I had to be hooked up to an IV. And during that dance with dengue, which involved two blood tests a day, after the 6 p.m. blood draw, I would stay up all night in fearful anticipation of the 6 a.m. one. At each blood draw, I would dramatically cover my head with a bunched-up hoodie, refusing to see my own blood. Sometimes, tears were shed. Powie found the whole thing so hilarious that he documented it on video.
And now, all of a sudden, I was offering myself up for total bloodwork willingly and nonchalantly? Fuck, I thought. Something really is wrong with me.
Dr. D looked up at me and asked, “When was the last time you ate?”
I couldn’t remember. “Umm, over 24 hours ago?”
“You overfasted, that would make the results inaccurate.”
A few days later, I returned to the hospital, this time to the lab. “Blood test please,” I said, as if I were ordering fries at McDonald’s.
“What time did you start fasting?”
“Umm, 2 a.m.?” I said, not bothering to mention that what I had in the middle of the night wasn’t a full meal but just a couple of forced bites.
“That was 13 hours ago. You overfasted,” I was told again. I sighed.
Yes, the girl who used to love eating was rejected twice by the blood test gods for fasting too much.
A couple of days later, I was back and I had made sure that I had eaten just ten hours prior. The nurse typed my information into a computer and when I told him my birthday, he exclaimed. “Ay ma’am, magka-birthday tayo!” We smiled at each other.
And when it was time for my blood to be drawn, I asked the nurse, devoid of any feeling, “Right arm or left arm?”
“Right,” I was told. And I offered it to her, feeling absolutely nothing, no fear, no nervousness. You want my blood? Fine, take it, whatever. I even watched as she transferred the blood into vials, marveling at the thought that the crimson liquid had come from my body.
“Okay na po,” the nurse said.
I thanked her and got up. I had more feelings about how much the blood test cost than the actual pricking.
Seriously, how can one damn blood test cost almost P9,000? I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the bill. “Tangina ang mahal maulol,” I texted my friends.
Jason texted: “So wait, so di ka na takot sa injection? #ultimateproof”
I replied: “Yes exactly, as in dedma, ‘right or left?’”
He replied: “SHEEEEEEEET”
But because I remain an optimist no matter what my mind says, I found a silver lining in the sudden disappearance of my needle phobia:
HOLY SHIT, I CAN NOW GET A TATTOO!
And I knew exactly what I wanted. Just a small black “2.0” on my wrist.
For weeks, people kept telling me that I was going to be fine, that if I took my medication, I would be back to normal. But I didn’t think that was going to happen. I had changed so much in a matter of days and I was sure those changes had left indelible marks on me. And the truth was, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go back to who I was.
A friend who has been depressed said, “One of the biggest things you have to accept is that you may never go back to being the person you were. And that’s okay.”
It was such a relief to hear that and to have it echoed by people crucial to my healing including my psychiatrist. “Anak, think of it as a new chapter,” she said to me.
“It has changed you,” Nico said. “And maybe you can’t change back into Pam-Before-Depression. But you CAN become Better Pam. Pam 2.0.”
2.0. I wanted my tattoo to celebrate the new and hopefully better version of me.
I kept bugging Tatin, a veteran with four tattoos, about my desire to get inked. “Taaaaaats I want a tattoo,” I would text her at random hours.
She booked an appointment for us with illustrator and tattoo artist Wiji Lacsamana.
Naturally, I began stalking Wiji on Instagram. And when I saw the incredible colored tattoos she creates, I realized I was in trouble. “Uh oh,” I told Tatin. “I have a feeling I will end up getting two tattoos.”
Days later, Tatin and I arrived at Wiji’s tattoo studio.
I loved how clean, cozy and comforting it was. Not scary at all. She even has a wall you can stare at to relax you while you get inked.
Tatin was getting a tattoo of her beloved poodle Tank’s face and she and Wiji tried to figure out how big it should be.
I love how Wiji uses printouts so you can choose the size of your tattoo.
“Mabibitin ka dyan,” they told me as they looked at my tiny “2.0” design.
“I know,” I said, while staring at stencils of beautiful tattoos Wiji has done. “I think I’m going to get a second one.”
“Go first,” Tatin said as Wiji prepared her tools. I was a mix of courage and nerves.
“I’m going to start by shaving the area,” Wiji said.
Then she applied stencil gunk. (I forgot what it’s really called.)
And she used a pink Sharpie as we tried to decide on the exact placement of the tattoo.
Then it was time for the needle. “You need to stay really still,” Wiji said. Apparently it’s a must when you are getting letters or numbers tattooed.
“Wait!” I said. “I need music and my book.”
“You’re not going to have time to read,” Wiji said, laughing. “This is going to be really fast.”
But because I’m stubborn, I grabbed Augusten Burroughs’ Possible Side Effects anyway. Then I popped in my earphones, opened Spotify and started playing M.I.A.’s Bad Girls which has officially become my tattoo jam.
“Ready?” Wiji asked.
“I’ll start with the dot.”
I loved how quiet Wiji’s tattoo machine was, it was practically purring. I felt no pain, just a little pressure.
Then she started on the numbers. And I felt a little pain but it wasn’t bad at all.
“Kaya, kaya,” I kept saying and they started laughing because they said it sounded like I was trying to convince myself.
Wiji was right. The tattoo was done so fast that I didn’t even get to finish my song.
And they were right, I wanted another one.
So while Tatin got Tank’s face tattooed on her wrist, I thought of possible designs.
I knew I wanted something that symbolized my love for words, writing and reading. A book? A notebook? And then it hit me: a typewriter!
We began the process again. Shave, gunk, stencil, placement, Sharpie.
This time, I was able to finish the song. Multiple times, actually. I could have even chosen to read if I wanted to. But I did not. The typewriter tattoo was bigger and more detailed than 2.0 and so it hurt more. But again, kaya, kaya.
Strangely, getting those tiny little keys done was my favorite part. At some point, you get used to the pain and hardly feel it.
The most painful part for me was when Wiji started coloring the tattoo. But I think it’s totally worth it.
And what shoes did I wear when I got my first tattoos? My tattoo Doc Martens, of course.
I woke up the next day still absolutely in love with my tattoos.
I have 2.0 on my left arm.
And a typewriter on my right.
I also got a tin of Good Lovin’, which Wiji makes for her brand Radioactive Mushrooms In The Forest. I’ve been using it to care for my tattoos while they are healing.
“Welcome to the dark side,” Wiji joked when I expressed joy about finally getting inked. And like I told her, the dark side is a magical place full of possibilities. In fact, I’m already planning my next ones.