Beauty Over Wounds

Tattoo Nebula artist Yok Genabe shares stories of renewed confidence for people who come for cover-up work on seen (and unseen) scars

Interview Erika Abad
Images Yok Genabe


Artist Yok Genabe, Header: Tattoo Nebula

I’ve been a follower of your work. So medyo madali sa akin ang interview na ito. [laughs] How do you want me to call you: Yok or Leo?

[laughs] “Yok” na lang.

You create incredible tattoos—both on the level of detail you put into each creation and the design idea itself.  But more importantly, I want to understand how your tattoos affect the clients you work with.

First, walk me through a day in the life of Yok. Ano trip mo ngayon sa buhay? How do you start and end your day?

I would start my day by waking up at 5 AM to bike, then I cook breakfast, ay, meal for the day pala. Then by 9 AM, we are all in the tattoo shop. We open at 10 AM so we must be here before that.

You give out food for stray animals and sa mga tao sa kalye. How did that start?

Matagal ko nang ginagawa iyon.  Mga 15 years na.

Sa South [Metro Manila]?

Before pa sa Cebu—I am originally from Cebu—may group na ako [na gumagawa niyan]. We cooked every Sunday ng spaghetti or pancit

I posted a video recently of me giving out food. A friend saw it then gave me money kasi sabi niya gusto daw niya makatulong.  Marami ang biningay niya. So hinati ko yung budget na may pang-pancit at para sa dog food yung iba.

That is very commendable lalo na ngayong pandemic.

Matagal na naming ginagawa yung pagpapakain sa mga animals. Madami na din kami na-rescue na animals. I have a lot of friends who work with animal orgs. I bike around our area and see a lot of animals, especially in the summer. Madaming namamatay sa gilid lang because of dehydration. Small amounts of food and water are a big help for them. Every time I go out, it is a habit already that I bring food and water with me, just in case may makita akong hayop sa daanan.

When I posted the video, many reached out and wanted to help. Ngayon may stock na kami ng dog food sa bahay.

You do that every day or every Sunday lang?

Every day. But dahil maulan ngayon, I’ll wait kapag okay na ang panahon. Mga four times a week, or every time I go out and bike.

© Yok Genabe

How has the pandemic affected your creative pursuits? Do you ever get creative blocks, and what do you do when you do?

Iba ang epekto ng pandemic for me. Personally, I experienced a lot of trials during the pandemic and I have a lot of free time, as well. But for me, in every situation, I think of an opportunity kung paano ako magiging productive. Thankfully, I did not experience creative block. Even though the tattoo shop is closed, every day I am working. I was working on a commission during those times. Kahit wala akong tattoo work, every day ako nagpe-paint.

Sometimes, if I feel uninspired, since mahilig ako sa outdoors—hindi ko kinukulong ang sarili ko sa bahay. Trip ko mag-ibang environment. Good thing in the South, we have a lot of trees. I just bring a chair, tambay ako sa puno, and I draw on my iPad. Kapag nakakakita ka ng ibang bagay, it induces your creativity. Madami ako nagawa during the pandemic.  Personal art and commissioned ones.

That’s great! I have a lot of friends who work in the creative industry who experience creative block kasi lalo na ngayon.   

Madami ako kilala naka-experience niyan, actually. Kasi hindi sila sanay na nasa bahay lang. Kapag nasa bahay ka, in your own comfort zone, gigising ka tapos doon ka na rin magta-trabaho. There is no more distinction between your workplace and your home.

I am an introvert so that kind of setup works for me already. Matagal ko ng ginagawa yung ganon [laughs].

So being isolated worked and helped in your creativity [laughs]. How would you describe your style, or when you get requests for original designs, what would you say is your go-to art style?  I know that you are very good at single-needle and watercolor types of design. Would you want to be known for that style?

I’ve been a tattoo artist for 11 years. A decade ago, iba ang level of tattooing noon. Technology-wise, there are machines now that are highly accurate and there are needles na maninipis na. For me now, I just want to achieve what we, kaming mga artists, thought that wasn’t possible before. Dati it was impossible pero ngayon madami ng available [tools] kaya nakakapag-laro na kami sa colors.

Ngayon, the clients noticed that I do this kind of art. “Oh, magaling siya ganito”, and so they request this style most of the time.

People gravitate to you because they noticed you are excellent at doing single-needle and watercolor tattoos.

Madalas ko siya ginagawa, and I curate my Instagram feed and post the vibe that I want. But I still do a lot of other styles all the time. I do text, basic, and miniature tattoos.

In our shop, Tattoo Nebula, we have three artists. Each one of us has a specific style. We recommend clients collaborate with this artist for their specific tattoo style. Kung sino magaling sa ganyang style, nire-recommend ko ang kapwa artist ko.

You know your strengths as a group. 

From the very beginning, we established that. “Dapat kilala natin ang sarili natin.” We will work with each other and hindi magkakabangaan. 

Ang ganda ng isang art community that works together. I understand your style has evolved over time because of technology and trends. People find your style as detailed, fresh, and even euphoric sometimes. What can you say about that?

Maganda! I am flattered. Masaya na ako sa ginagawa ko. For me, bonus na lang to hear that kind of compliment. Hindi ako sanay [laughs]. Nagpapasalamat sa mga nangyayari. Ang gusto ko talaga mangyari is magawa ang imposible dati. Time and technology made everything possible.

© Yok Genabe

How do you feel about the growing popularity of tattoos? All over the world—including conservative countries like ours and South Korea—it’s becoming more of a trend. Do you think the new mainstreamness of tattooing takes the artistry away from tattoo?

For me, hindi siya bad thing. If you are an artist, you want your art to be seen by a lot of people, ‘di ba? When more people are appreciating tattoos more, marami na magpapa-tattoo and that means more canvasses (for the artist). Good for business as well. It is also our dream. 

Wow, that is the dream.

Dahil matagal na namin na-experience ang stigma, lalo na as Filipinos. We live in this kind of conservative community. Now, my parents appreciate my work. Before, hindi nila alam ang trip ko. Akala nila trip-trip lang ang pagpapa-tattoo [laughs]. 

People are more open now and tinatanggap nila. Because of social media, it’s easy to see more people with tattoos. Though hindi pa lahat accepting, this new generation is more open to the idea.

What is your favorite part about tattooing people?

Tattoos, for me, symbolizes something for us. Imagine your work is on a person’s body for a lifetime. That is a big deal for me! Pero wag sana ipa-cover up (eventually) [laughs]. At kapag gusto ko pa yung ginagawa, and people appreciate my work, iba sa feeling to give people that satisfaction.

People have different levels of appreciation for art,  and many consider tattoos as an art form—maganda ‘yun! You will get yourself an art that is on your body forever.

Wow, I love that part! [laughs] Many people get inked because they find it beautiful or because they want to have a symbol etched on their body forever.

With that being said, are there any tattoo designs or symbols that you refuse to do? Like foreign characters, may iba na won’t do satanic symbols. Do you refuse any designs?

Wala pa. Wala pa naman.

Wala pa?

Sino ba naman ako para kumontra? But I ask first if trip ba talaga nila or “Seryoso ka ba talaga dito? Kung oo, then why not ‘di ba? Trip ng tao. 

How do you approach a super personal design? Does the level of emotion attached to a client design intimidate you? Like for example, the client brings in their own design, and may nakita ka na parang off or hindi balanse sa design. Would you tell your client about this?

Most of the time, sasabihin ko talaga. You want to give the client the best service and design. When this happens, I talk to them and the client listens.

They don’t get offended?

Sinasabi ko naman in a good way na baka pwede ibahin. Sa design naman, I say, “As a whole, if we change one thing, mas babagay siya.” I explain it properly. They listen.

Even if the client is insistent and they want the design exactly as they want it?

‘Yun din talaga ang gagawin ko na lang.

But ilalagay mo ba yan sa Instagram mo?

Siguro sa Stories lang. [laughs]

© Yok Genabe

Hindi sa feed. [laughs] Okay, I got you. I understand that you look for common ground with your clients. You marry your artistic control and what the client wants.

Most of the time.

But if the client is still insistent?

Okay lang din. We will find a way. The most important thing is to communicate. Magkaintindihan kayo.Wala pa naman ako na-ecounter na ganong client. As much as possible, I will find ways to work around their design. My work is to beautify. So, if they have an idea, I max it out creativity-wise. Wala pa naman nagrereklamo! [laughs]

Some get tattoos to cover up regrettable ones, to hide scars or birthmarks. I read in your Instagram Q&A post that the hardest tattoo job is covering an old tattoo. Why it’s harder to do than a fresh tattoo? How does the process for this differ?

To start, if you want something to be covered up, you are already limited. It is already a hindrance to making a new design. For cover-ups, you need to consider the existing tattoo first. So basically, your designing process should include that, and it has to revolve around the idea na kelangan takpan ito. Ang daming factors. 

For black ink designs, it must be black as well. For areas you need to cover, iisipan mo pa ng ways to make it cohesive or okay pa rin.

Mas matagal ba gawin ang cover-up tattoos compared to fresh ones?

Same lang but for the designing process, it is different. For tattoo cover-ups, the designing process takes longer and mas mahirap because there are many factors to consider.

Some want their cover-up tattoo to be the same size as their old one. Sometimes, it is not possible. It needs to be bigger.

Do you have a covered-up tattoo of your own?

Wala pa and wala ako balak magpa-cover up. Nagpa-tattoo ka dahil in that moment of your life, it is significant. It means something to you. How can you remember that moment, if you decide to have it covered up? That’s me though!

Can you tell us the best or a memorable tattoo cover-up you have done?

I have done a lot of scar cover-ups. I’ve done cesarian scars. I tattooed a flower to cover one. Dahil doon, she wears bikinis now. I also work on birthmarks. The client’s birthmark looks like a flower, so I incorporated that into her tattoo. May ginawa din ako for a cancer survivor.

Oh wow, on the breast?

I made a nipple tattoo kasi wala na siyang nipple and areola because it (cancer) took everything. It looks realistic.

Would you say that these tattoos helped them regain a new sense of positive self-image?

For sure! Sinabi naman din nila na hindi sila gaano nahihiya and they wear clothes they didn’t wear before. Nadagdagan talaga confidence nila.

How does that make you feel?

Masaya! Hindi ko lang sila nabigyan ng new tattoo, I also helped in giving them a new level of confidence. It is another level of appreciation.

© Yok Genabe

A bit of cliché but aside from how it looks, personally, what do you think is the beauty of a tattoo? What is a tattoo for you?

Aside from symbolism, it is body design. For example, we display art in our living room, we beautify the place. Tattoo is similar to that. You have an art piece on your body na hindi mawawala.

You’re like a walking art gallery!

True! Some display their art but you wear yours all the time.

A well-made tattoo can not only change a person’s image but also help lift their confidence and overcome their insecurities. Tattoo artists are more than what the job entails. It is more than the needle and the ink.

Totoo siya. For me, other than the tattoo job itself, the satisfaction we get by seeing the change we bring our clients.

Is there anything you would like to do more of? I know you do watercolor art, as well. Other than that, ano pa ang nasa vision board ni Yok?

I want to have an exhibit.

A one-man exhibit?

Yes! Hindi ako confident dati sa paintings ko but from time to time, may nagpapagawa na sa akin. Na-realize ko okay pala itong gawa ko! Kasi may nagbabayad [laughs].

Yes! I remember one of your artworks, the one with a skull and pink flowers. Parang may fundraiser pa iyon. You are very detailed-oriented, and it is so beautiful.

This art is very personal for me. I made this for my nephew, and he passed away last year. He had cancer. Behind that skull, my nephew has a drawing. You can see it when you wear a 3D eyeglass. Basically, it is a collab between me and my nephew. It is sad, but it is nice people appreciate it.

The concept of your group’s shop is amazing. Other than tattoos, Tattoo Nebula is like a pop-up store; you have vinyl records and a mini art gallery, right?

That is really the concept. In the South, there are a few art movements. I have seen this kind of concept sa Cubao Expo. Ang lalayo namin, nasa South kaming mga probinsyano [laughs]. Hopefully, magawa namin na unti-unti magkaroon ng art events. That is the main goal of the shop: more than tattoos but for a creative lifestyle.

What improvement would you like to see in the tattoo industry in the next 10 years?

In general, nakikita ko naman that the tattoo industry is evolving, and we just need to keep the ball rolling. The level of appreciation is there already. More acceptance by the Filipino culture, especially in the work environment. I hope there will be no more tattoo discrimination in the workforce. 

Also, I hope we have more local tattooing products, so they can be accessible and the cost is lower. Right now, we have to get our supply abroad. If we have more options, more are able to do tattoo work, and it means more artists come out. Mas madami, mas masaya! With more accessibility, you can practice your craft and improve your art. •

Cover your body with art by @yokgenabe at

Erika Abad is a project manager and advocate. Her days are filled with outdoors, tea, and anxiety.

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