Calgary·Filipino Bureau

How two young Filipino tattoo artists are navigating family, identity and the industry

Calgarian Leah Anifowose says attitudes are shifting, both in Filipino circles and in the industry itself.

‘I think that's something I want — to reach out to more of these Filipino artists and give them a voice’

Jet Catacutan, left, and Leah Anifowose are tattoo apprentices in Calgary who use their art to explore their own identities and help others express theirs. (Submitted by Jet Catacutan, Leah Anifowose)

Leah Anifowose and Jet Catacutan are two young tattoo artists in Calgary who never imagined they'd one day make a living doing something their families initially strongly disapproved of. 

But while bumpy in places, their careers have helped them better understand and define their own complex identities.

Now, their art is helping others in their community find ways to express themselves on their own terms — challenging traditional expectations not just within Filipino circles, but also, stylistically, within the industry itself. 

Navigating family expectations

Before either Anifowose or Catacutan established themselves in the industry, they had their parents to contend with. 

Like many young Filipino Canadians, they were caught between the sometimes conflicting desires to meet their family's expectations and chase their own dreams.

Both Anifowose and Catacutan say they butted up against prevalent cultural misconceptions about what kind of people get tattoos, and what tattoos say about a person. 

Jet Catacutan, 24, completed this Zeus-inspired work as an apprentice at Fox and the Machine Tattoo in Ramsay. (Jet Catacutan)

"They were like, 'Are you in gangs?'" recalled Catacutan, when he told his parents 18 months ago that he was starting a tattoo apprenticeship.

"That's the stigma they had, but mainly because they didn't have the knowledge about the tattooing scene."

Leah Anifowose is an apprentice at Atticus Tattoo in Bridgeland. (Submitted by Leah Anifowose)

Anifowose jokes that just getting a tattoo would be reason enough for her mother to disown her. So she didn't mention it until she had already landed an apprenticeship and quit her job. 

"But I'm really lucky that I'm in the position where my mom's just kind of accepted, 'OK, this is what she wants to do. I'm going to be supportive about it.' Because she wants to be in my life. She doesn't want to have rifts there that don't need to be," Anifowose said.

Catacutan says tattooing is just another of his creative outlets, and his parents are starting to see that.

'For me as an artist, I just love making beautiful things,' says Catacutan. (Jet Catacutan)

"The more I get to show that to them, the more they appreciate it, and they actually support my art."

It's one thing to win over family; it's another to break into the industry.

The difference representation can make

Catacutan says he was lucky to connect with a mentor, almost by accident, who saw the potential in his art. Someone who just happened to be Filipino.

But Anifowose struggled to find an apprenticeship.

"I feel like things would have been easier for me, a female person of colour, to have someone who looked like me and could kind of understand where I was coming from," she said.

Some in the industry questioned her style. They told her no one would want the kinds of anime, Pokemon and Sailor Moon-inspired tattoos that she was creating.

Anifowose says much of her work these days is influenced by things she loved as a kid, like Pokemon. (Leah Anifowose)

Still, she stuck with it.

And when she finally got her chance, she started to build a client base — affirming not just her talent, but also her cultural identity.

Many of Anifowose's clients are Filipino, even though she doesn't advertise herself as such. 

She says this unexpected affinity has helped her feel at home in some of the more complicated parts of her identity.

"The tattoos I design, they're the kind of tattoos that I would get. And it's interesting that that's what's attracting other Filipinos."

'I did have trouble like finding a space where I could do this stuff I wanted to do,' says Anifowose. But today, she's carved out a niche, and many of her clients come to her for anime-inspired work. (Leah Anifowose)

She's grateful for this recognition from her community, because it's helped her acknowledge the authenticity of her own experience, she says.

"For a lot of my earlier life, I kind of rejected being Filipino. I really wanted to fit in with all my white friends, and I didn't want people to see me as 'other.' Because that was hard to survive as a kid," Anifowose said.

"But now that I'm older, I'm regretting not leaning into that more. I'm like, 'Why didn't I learn Tagalog?'

"I almost felt like I wasn't Filipino enough for certain spaces. And it's kind of cool that stuff that I'm drawing for myself is still attracting Filipino attention. It's kind of reaffirming. It's like, 'Oh, OK, I am Filipino enough,'" Anifowose said.

(Leah Anifowose)

One thing she sees mirrored in her clients is the experience of trying to reconcile who they are with who their families want them to be. 

"A lot of people that I've tattooed have actually been like, 'Will my parents see this? Can I get it here so they won't see it?' So very much people who are like, 'I want to express myself creatively, but I also want to keep the balance in my family,'" she said.

"I think that's something that hasn't been super easy for Filipino Canadians."

"We have a weird space that we're trying to find ourselves in. A lot of people are just trying to figure out who they are as a Filipino, but also as a Canadian, and who they are as a person, individually. And tattoos are a great way of expressing that," Anifowose said.

Tattoos as self-expression

Both Anifowose and Catacutan say the industry is attracting people who may never have considered getting tattooed 10 years ago because perceptions are changing. 

"The culture has shifted from that stigma that tattooing is for bad crowds and whatnot, and now it's really purely out of art and expression," Catacutan said.

Catacutan's bread and butter is in fine, detailed shading, as opposed to bold, stark contrasting lines. (Jet Catacutan)

"You don't have to be a certain type of person to get a tattoo, like super edgy or badass or anything," Anifowose said. 

"I think a lot of people are finding niches in the tattoo culture that weren't there before. And they're like, 'I fit into this, and I want to put this on my body, because it's something that's important to me.'"

As a tattoo artist, Catacutan says he's proud to be able to connect what he's doing now to what his ancestors did centuries ago.

Traditional tribal tattoos, or batok, were used in pre-colonial times to signify bravery, beauty or status in the Philippines.

'I feel like having that history definitely plays a part of it for me,' says Catacutan. 'I feel very blessed that I have that background where, maybe in a past life, I was a tattoo artist.' (Jet Catacutan)

"It's kind of cool to see if there's a rise again with Filipino tattoo artists, given the fact that we have that rich history with tattooing, making an actual impact out here and in Calgary," Catacutan said. 

"I think that's something I want — to reach out to more of these Filipino artists and give them a voice, or representation. Having that tight community … it's one of my dreams."

Anifowose says she likes the sound of that, too. 

"If it does turn into that kind of thing where it's like … let's establish a Filipino presence in the tattoo community, that would be really cool," she said.