Time for Tattoos

I was careless to let the small house gecko fall from my hands, and my heart sank to see the creature torn into two. Its own tail wagging on the ground, opposite the head! “I’m sorry!”

I saw the ruby blood hemmed on the edge of the wound. I let out a silent gasp at the sight of this. Then, I saw my reflection on the gecko’s emerald glass skin and felt the opening of many wounds in my memory as if life was destined to be cut in every fall.

“What tattoo would you like?” Ate Wamy asked me after the incident. We were at the Igorot Charm Café on a Saturday afternoon and we inspected our memory of the skin for vernacular tattoos.

“You see these many tattoos on my body have meanings. Tattoos could be an emblem to symbolize bravery, beauty, healing, protection, sustenance. Wooh, I make sure I have them all,” Ate said in her infectious laugh.

Illustration by Jimbo Albano

“For one, I met this old lady in Kalinga before, she had a malady in her throat and was advised to have her tattoo on it.” Miracle, miracle! She was healed! Ate shared her adventure on the mountain ranges of Kalinga. She claimed to have all her protection from the tattoos on her arms. And upon inspection, I saw her body transform to a region of mountain places, acres, and boundary lines. The crawling animals came to life as if her skin was meant to be painted with animal faces all along.

I saw the pyramids of mountain patterns across her torso, the long hundred-feet centipede crawling up her legs, outlining her frames creating a path towards the deepest part of her soul. The falling diamond shapes on her elbows, the sun rays and dots laid out on a carpet of her snake-skin, indeed, her body is an art inspired by the many chapters of her life.

“Tell me, Ate, how do I pick-out the memories of these tattoos?” I asked.

In my mind, I only had the gecko as a symbol of many pains in my life. One time, I would think of that gecko that slipped out of my fingers. I would think of the many opportunities I missed and the many relationships I broke carelessly.

Then, I would remember the geckos I once saw carved on the wooden coffins at the Lumiang Cave of Sagada. The gecko, according to our tour guides, is a symbol of wealth and distinct bravery among their ancestors, and, when carved on their coffin, it set them special and revered. This was how victories and life happiness could be memorialized in our culture and how geckos—the small and unbothered creatures—are emblems of humility in the tattoos of Kabunyan.

Then finally, I would think of the gecko my father used to pick up in our courtyard. Father used to study its crisscrossed skin and patterned his stonewalled constructions. These many defense walls seen around Baguio City were the works of our mountain people brought up genuinely from their experiences on the rice terraces in the province.

Father said that when he was looking for a place in which to build our ancestral home, he followed the gecko’s rock houses and built from there, our windows facing the sun. Geckos are beautiful and strong, but they always die in their fall. They would crawl all the way up high ceilings, look out from there and seemingly decide the height of their death. Father died at the fall of a heavy weight in his work, pinned down by rocks, his blood ruby under the sparkling blue sky of April.

I was too young then to understand the fall. But as the old folks say, “Geckos die only after safekeeping their eggs; they keep them at a height where no one can break them.” That was the fate I was unknowingly prepared to break through in this life. Orphaned for more than two decades, I stared at the ramified gecko tattoos in Ate Wamy’s Coffee shop. “Ate, how much pain would that cost me?”


Richard A. Giye
Richard A. Giye
Richard A. Giye is a Cordilleran writer. He is a fellow of the BIYAG Benguet Creative Writing Workshop and of Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika at Anyo (LIRA). The Province of Benguet awarded him the Essayist of the Year in 2022 and Promising Artist for Literature in 2023. He teaches language and literature at Benguet State University.


More Stories