*Editor’s note: Lea Loeb is a journalism student in SF State’s Journalism 575 Community Media this spring. Taught by professor Jon Funabiki, the class is a collaboration with El Tecolote.
To an uneducated eye, the thin black lines zig zagging up tattoo artist La’on Canabe’s forearm may seem like just a cool geometric design. In a Western world hyper-focused on aesthetics, it’s easy to look superficially at the pattern of squares, arrows and parallel rows intricately weaved together from the base of his wrist up into the rolled sleeve of his shirt.
But no art associated with Canabe is without meaning. Canabe is an “intentional” tattooer. Each piece, from the smallest flash tattoo to a complete sleeve, is full of symbolism. Those parallel rows on his arm? A complex system of irrigation networks. And the alternating squares? Rice fields, just like the ones he grew up tending on his home island of Biliran in the Philippines. They are designs that honor where he comes from and represent the type of work he does.
Canabe specializes in work that connects people to their heritage and cultural roots by integrating his Indigenous Visayan (sometimes spelled Bisayan) beliefs with modern tattooing techniques. The process is long, with some clients taking up to several months to research their ancestry and family history in order to create a piece.
“It varies from person to person. A lot of it is like investigative work; I really give assignments to my clients to look into their family to kind of get a direction,” said Canabe. “You can’t just get a picture from Google and slap it on.”
For Canabe, tattooing is as much a spiritual practice as it is a career. The way he explains it, he’s not just inking an image onto a client’s skin, he’s performing a tattoo ceremony, creating a sacred space and connecting with ancestors.
“We’re calling in energies from our ancestors to empower the symbols that we’re placing on someone, like a sort of blessing,” said Canabe.
Traditionally, the acts of giving and receiving tattoos are community events. When Canabe tattoos someone, he welcomes the spirits of the community to support and protect the ceremony, ensuring a positive experience during a time when a client is both spiritually and physically vulnerable with the tattoo as an open wound.
Canabe’s Visayan spirituality is a blend of pre-colonial Indigenous beliefs and post-colonization Catholic practices. He explains that Visayans are a people very intune with nature and the interconnectedness of all things, especially between the physical and spiritual worlds.
“We associate ourselves with our surroundings. We always see spirits around us, you know, in the trees, and little mounds of rocks and rivers. We know that our existence is not separate,” said Canabe. “We inherently know that there’s things that we can’t see. There’s things that are beyond our scope, that are magical. So when we approach something like trees, for example, when we approach a new space, we always say, ‘Excuse me, can I pass by?’”
Canabe practices this same mindfulness and intentionality in all aspects of his work. In an effort to give back to the collective Indigenous community, he started Warrior’s Grace, a nonprofit based out of Oakland that aims to be a center for Indigenous spirituality, cultural cultivation and political movements. Through Warrior’s Grace, Canabe periodically holds flash tattoo sessions that benefit different Indigenous causes.
For Torre Meeks, the recreation coordinator at U.C. Berkeley, Canabe’s tattoo session, a benefit for Amazon Watch held Feb. 24, was the perfect time to get some fresh ink. Meeks had been planning to get a new tattoo for about a year. He thought his next addition was going to be a bicycle, something to match his active lifestyle. Then he saw a drawing by Canabe on social media. Meeks knew immediately that the illustration of forget-me-not flowers, with roots that twisted together to form ventricles of a heart, was the piece for him.
“It just spoke to me,” said Meeks. “I woke up, rolled over, looked on Instagram and it was the first thing I saw. I went, ‘Yep, I’m getting that tattooed today.’”
The tattoo resonated with Meeks because for him, the plant imagery represents emotional growth—something he has been working on over the last year after the deaths of his grandmother, grandfather and mother.
For Abbie Mulligan, Meeks’ girlfriend, the decision to get tattooed by Canabe was even more spontaneous. The idea to get flash tattoos was originally Meeks, but Mulligan felt drawn to an image of a python with its tongue sticking out. She reflected on her recent experience doing a guided meditation at The Assembly, a wellness club and coworking space in the Mission District.
Mulligan, who is half Filipina, expressed that she had recently been trying to get more in touch with her Indigenous spirituality and to feel more connected to her culture.
“Snakes can represent spiritual transformation, so it seems fitting,” said Mulligan, who chose to have Canabe tattoo the python on her arm despite admitting that she’s actually afraid of snakes.
During Mulligan’s session, she spoke about her experiences with her mother’s Indigenous culture and a recent trip to visit family in the Philippines. Canabe connected with Mulligan about their shared heritage and ongoing quest for authentic Filipino food. As he finished up the final details on Mulligan’s tattoo, Canabe explained the meaning behind the design.
“The snake is a python,” he said. “In a lot of designs it represents a manifestation of our ancestors. The snake’s tongue is supposed to represent the hissing of the wind. So whenever you are silent, and you hear the wind, it represents your ancestors guiding you and telling you things.”
“I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” Mulligan said as she posed with her new tattoo while Meeks took a picture.
Neither Meeks nor Mulligan knew, walking in, what kind of work Canabe does or that by the end of the session they’d all be exchanging numbers and planning to meet up soon for dinner. But that’s just how Canabe rolls: always building community and connecting through his work.
Canabe tattoos at Premium Tattoo Oakland on Broadway. His booking information and examples of his work can be found online at www.premiumtattoooakland.com or @laoncanabe on Instagram.