By Hannah Jo Uy
Layout by Pinggot Zulueta
Chrisanto Aquino has faced more than his fair share of hardships in his pursuit of a life in the arts. “I’ve experienced going from house to house to ask if they would like to have a portrait done,” he says. “I’ve experienced walking two kilometers carrying a 3×4 feet painting just so I can submit it and because I was trying to save on transportation fares.” Aquino even suffered through using tin cans of industrial paint from the hardware store, the cheapest he could find, and having to save up to buy them one by one. “I went through a lot of difficulties and challenges, both financial and related to family, just so I could pursue my career and continue painting,” he recounts. Even amid the direst of circumstances, however, Aquino’s resolve was unquestionable, and it is the experience of overcoming these tribulations that added greater depth to his paintings.
The artist’s admirable commitment can be traced back to his early years. “At the age of six, I was already drawn to color,” he says. “I saw a tree being cut down, and saw its greenish and orange rings, its sap, and it has been ingrained in my mind ever since.” In 2007, Aquino took up Fine Arts at Tarlac State University. The early affinity for trees paved the way for his strong fascination toward indigenous people, as he grew to admire the deep connection tribes in the Cordilleras have with nature. “I’m also a big fan of tattoos,” he says. “For me, it’s a symbol of strength that I can draw parallels with my own life. Despite everything life threw at me, I was able to get through it, even though it was a painful process.”
These interests were further heightened when Aquino came across Whang-od Oggay, the famed tattoo artist from Buscalan, Kalinga and largely considered the “last” and oldest mambabatok. His earlier works fleshed out the narrative of the famed Filipina tattoo artist, celebrating her aesthetics through paintings portraying physical subjects sporting tattoos in homage to traditional aesthetics. “Tattoos, especially those done by Whang Od, have a message,” he says. It was Aquino’s way of giving emphasis to culture, in an effort to etch its importance in the consciousness of the following generation, calling Whang-od a “national treasure.” This is especially evident in one work entitled “Karnabal,” where Aquino explored the discrimination that children of the tribes endure when faced with other members of society that gawk at them for their traditional tattoos. Elaborating on his process, Aquino says that there is no fixed sketch to prelude his paintings. “Every day, I get different ideas I want to add to the work and I develop the piece based on what I was feeling on that day,” he explains.
During this period, Aquino was no stranger to difficulty, recalling that there were times he and his family would go hungry. “There were times I wanted to give up,” he admits. “I also experienced receiving harsh words. Some closest to me say that my paintings are trash. I was told there was no future in the arts. I understood them, because, back then, I would just paint and paint and I wasn’t earning, but I stuck through it, I knew they were wrong so I took in all their harsh words.” The hunger to achieve his dream was more powerful than the weight of the world attempting to bring him down and his resilience paid off when he started to bag the top prizes in a number of major national art competitions. “When I was just starting out in the art scene, I was searching for a way to advance my career, and to support myself as an artist,” he says. “I saw the national art competitions and I kept joining. It became a training ground so I could refine my skills more.”
Aquino’s winning streaks provided him with a slight measure of financial freedom and also helped make even the harshest critics in his life recognize the value of his undying commitment to the arts. “Thankfully, with art contests, I was able to survive financially,” he said. “But now I am able to provide for my family through art. I always felt it was worth it. There was a reason for everything and now, I am able to use these experiences and draw from it to create a unique message through my pieces.”
Aquino soon sets his sights on playing a more active role in exhibits. Initially, many of his paintings were overlooked as the themes tended to be dark, which, he felt was needed to underline the grave importance of promoting awareness on the environment, heritage, natural resources, and women empowerment. This was embodied in the characters within his narrative, which feature flora and fauna morphing with women, whose bodies are heavily inscribed with traditional patterns, alluding to a modern, moody, and more aggressive reimagining of Mother Nature.
This was the narrative that unfolded in “Wild Free,” his latest solo show at the Village Art Gallery, a celebration of women’s inherent strength as a nurturer and nature’s role as a mother. In one piece, Aquino presents an almost mythical representation of the female form, with the hands of an eagle to symbolize strength and a light emanating from the heart, representative of a mothers role as “ilaw ng tahanan.” The blood red print on the skin is a reference to the pain associated in the tattoo process and in appreciation of the cycle of life in nature, from where it all begins and on which we will always depend.
For Aquino, the main objective is to not only showcase his skills, but to relay what’s in his heart and mind. To this end, Aquino is driven by the journey of his own contemporaries who have found success despite the difficulties, as well as by his own. “My experiences made me the artist I am today,” he beams. “It was a struggle, but after you get past it, it gets easier. My art is the fruit of all my hardships.”