Artist Spotlight: Ralph Perez
We had a photo shoot scheduled, so picked up Ralph after brunch. He was waiting somewhere on 50th St. in Queens. Ralph jumps in the car. 'Anong balita (what's new)?' "Eto," replies Ralph, as if to say 'same old.' "Naglalaba pa nga ako eh (I was still doing laundry when you got me)." (Laughs) I had never met him before, but right off the bat, I already thought he was one of, if not, the humblest of people that I have ever met. But his quiet persona should not be mistaken for apathy, meekness or naïveté. This 25-year old tattoo artist is as passionate as they come, constantly chasing perfection. An already seasoned veteran, Ralph Perez is quietly building a reputation for himself among Filipinos as one of the best local tattooists around. We talked about how he started, and some of the experiences from his journey, so far. We were driving by Queensboro Bridge now, just under the 7 train. Ralph Perez "Oh by the way," he recalls, "some of my samples, I don't have pictures of." Why? "I would hide the fact that I was doing work on the side, working out of the shop before. I was supposed to bring all my clients in there." (Ralph used to work for a private shop.) Why did you leave? "I didn't like it. (The shop) would rush me every time it was tax season. And then sometimes, if I would get a really big tip, he'd take some of it out of my pay. It was supposed to be a 50/50 split, but all the materials were mine," Ralph explained. Even the needles and ink, all that stuff? "Yeah." Why not start your own shop? "When I save up for it, (that's the plan)." Apparently, Ralph used to work for a cheap asshole. Ralph started pretty young. He says he couldn't even remember how old he was. "My first time (drawing on skin), I was still in the Philippines. I was in a band, and then I would draw, too. I kept busy doing both. I'd tattoo yung mga 'tambay-tambay' (some of the local people) around the neighborhood. Then Papa petitioned me, and I came to New York. Then I worked on my craft here." So from being a hobby, it eventually became more? "Yeah. All by myself, I really didn't have anyone to mentor me. But I wanted to learn, to be better. I went online, watched YouTube (clips), researched on the art. "Kinakapalan ko na mukha ko sa mga tattoo artists sa Pilipinas, (I shamelessly reached out to the Filipino artists back home, not minding potential embarrassment) which gave me tremendous confidence. They gave me a lot of (pointers and) advice, and it has helped me immensely," he said. "Here," he goes on to explain, "if you don't go for it, you won't get anywhere. I learned how to be thick-skinned, shedding any thought of humiliation." Do you remember your first tattoo on someone? "I do - I remember doing it on my Uncle Bitoy. I drew a skull on him. I used - do you remember those rotary machines on toys? - I used that. I improvised, used the rotary and a guitar string."
"...I remember doing it on my Uncle Bitoy. I drew a skull on him. I used - do you remember those rotary machines on toys? - I used that. I improvised, used the rotary and a guitar string."
At this point, all of us in the car were completely amazed and amused. "I just sharpened everything. Tusok lang ako ng tusok (I just probed and probed away)," he says, "wala pang sterilize-sterilize 'yon (we didn't even sterilize anything)! All three of my uncles just told me to go for it, and I tattooed all of them with the same needle."  Laughter all around. "Yeah, it's true," Ralph goes on. "I was very thankful. They trusted me even though, you know... I was new at it. So, now that I actually know what I'm doing, I make it a point to do everything by the book. "So one time, one of my uncles, he got me a China machine for my birthday. So I practiced and practiced, kept on going, even after working all day." Do you have a specific style or theme? "I don't really have a singular (preference)," he explains. "Sometimes, I'm working on 'Biomechanical,' sometimes it's 'Polynesian' style. It's all different. I can't make my own designs because you have to go with what the client wants, so there often really isn't room for creativity. For now, I'm studying everything. "Ang tattoo naman, walang katapusang pagaaral 'yan eh. (Tattooing is a never-ending study.) So I keep on studying until I reach that point where I know I can match up to the best tattoo artists around." We mentioned that Ralph is such a nice and humble person. He would just ask for 'donations' in exchange for his services. This was quite intriguing, considering that his work is unquestionably good. Why have you been settling (for huge markdowns) when it's time to charge your clients? Doesn't that leave people the opportunity to take advantage of you? "Well, yeah, I can't really deny that. But (for the longest time), all that mattered to me was 'skin.' I need (that canvass) to work on and get more experience," he says. "I needed more work for myself, so before, I was just like, 'yeah, pay me what you want.' I didn't consider it 'lugi' (unfair) as long as I enjoyed what I was doing." "Even now, I (have to admit), I still tend to undercharge, but I'm trying to get my friends and my girlfriend to handle that aspect for me. Materials are getting expensive." Roughly how many people have you had as clients? "I'm not exactly sure. It's around the hundreds, I know that much. It's hard when I have a second job - I have family in the Philippines that I support, and it's just me here. But gradually that number is growing." Where in the Philippines is your family? "I'm from Cavite," he said. (Hearing this made me a little more proud, because so is my family.) "I'm thankful, for sure, with the whole experience. My clients are confident and happy with my work, and I have complete confidence in myself." Where do you find inspiration for your work? "I find it through a lot of things. I keep it simple though - I love rock bands from back home, mostly. Tattoos and rock, you know, they kind of go hand in hand. And here in New York, you have to keep looking for things to inspire you. "May damit na maayos, sapatos na suot, Rock on na! (Proper clothes, shoes on, let's rock on!)" What's your advice for aspiring tattooists?
"Work hard. Money will follow later."
"Draw first. Focus on that. Keep on drawing. Draw, draw, draw. You have to understand, if you just (hack away) on skin, you're screwed if you make a mistake. So practice your drawing skills. And learn the proper hygiene. That's how you avoid illnesses. You have to sterilize everything. You have to treat the client as if he has HIV, it's for your own protection, and your clients', too. "Work hard. Money will follow later." --- If you're on Facebook, you can view some of Ralph's work by clicking here.