The secretive world of the tattoo artist

For an art that is all about showing off, getting a tattoo in the UAE means entering a shadowy environment in which the law is a grey area

Glen Hipolito, a tattoo artist in Dubai, inks Aries Manzo's arm.
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DUBAI // Usually, what they create is there for everyone to see. But tattoo artists in the UAE operate quietly, undercover, in a murky zone where they are not sure that what they do is legal, though they claim that there is nothing in law to ban them.

Legal or not, tattoos are a worldwide craze that is taking hold in the UAE, with artists earning thousands of dirhams a month. Dhengz, 32, a tattoo artist from the Philippines who asked that his last name not be published, said he was not aware of any law that prohibited tattooing. Most of his customers have their tattoos done inside a rented room in Dubai during a day off from his job as a sales assistant, or after work. He uses a machine that he bought in the US in 2007.

"I am very particular with hygiene and cleanliness," he said. "I do not reuse needles." Dhengz has been a member of the Philippine Tattoo Artists Guild since 2005. He also has a certificate from the Department of Health in Manila after attending a seminar on blood-borne diseases. Half of his customers are Filipinos. The rest are British, Indian, Russian, American, Moroccan and Lebanese. "Most of my British customers ask to have tattoos done in their homes," he said. "I don't mind it because it's much safer."

Police were more likely to become suspicious of a tattooist's activities when a customer, who was not Filipino, left the villa after getting a tattoo, said Dhengz. His job brings in Dh2,500 (US$680) a month, not enough to cover the Dh2,700 monthly rent on his room and other expenses. When business is brisk, he can earn up to Dh8,000 a month from tattooing. His cheapest tattoo costs Dh500. "A Briton had his full back tattooed and I charged him Dh10,000 for the entire job, which could cost twice or thrice more if he had it done in the UK," Dhengz said. "We did it in six sessions and each session lasted for about five to seven hours."

Ronaldo, 32, a graphic designer in Dubai, who also did not wish to give his last name, said some of the money he earned from tattooing was sent back to the Philippines and the rest helped to pay bills. "If no one complains, then I guess it's all right," he said. He earns Dh10,000 a month from his full-time job but said he could earn twice as much from tattooing with a couple of dozen customers. The majority of his customers are Europeans who travel from Abu Dhabi and Dubai to have tattoos done inside his home in Sharjah.

In four years, he has tattooed at least 15 Emiratis. "They like black and grey tattoos as well as tribal designs, such as waves, the sun, and birds," he said. Ronaldo charges Dh500 an hour. If a tattoo takes four hours, it costs Dh1,500. The tattoo artists said they took health and safety precautions by keeping their place and equipment clean and hygienic to prevent infection or illness. "We will only face problems when a customer complains," said a 37-year-old Filipino tattoo artist who did not give his name.

He said police were more likely to check up on them if they used drugs or supplied drugs to customers to control pain.  Eighty per cent of the tattoo artist's customers are from India. He charges a minimum Dh300 for a tattoo, but it can go as high as Dh7,000 for a larger and more intricate design, which takes about 12 hours to do in one sitting. He does not hold any other job. In 2004, he quit as a hotel lifeguard after working for two weeks. He took on other jobs, but a year later, became a full-time tattooist.

He started out as a tattoo artist 22 years ago in the Philippines. In Dubai, he earns an average of Dh35,000 a month, far more than he could make at home. "I tattoo every day for at least eight hours," he said. "When it gets really busy, I usually ask someone to assist me. I've trained six so far."