Here is a man’s chest inked with water and charcoal tapped into the skin with thorns. Here, look: a small frieze of X’s, another of arrowheads near the meeting of his ribs. And there: tessellations become snakes’ scales, then a wreath of shadows; there, archivolts running from the nipples up and around the armpits mark the fringe of biceps.
See how the muscles of his neck flex, raise the chin forward, bearing, it seems, the weight of a breastplate decorated with medals and amulets.
This is the image of a self drawn by hand upon a body sun-struck and proud—one portrait from Richard Atrero de Guzman’s small folio from Buscalan, deep in the Philippine Cordilleras.
Staring again at his work, I think to Maria Fang-od, her hands and all the lives she has been asked to translate to pattern, the valor and beauty she has memorialized in fractals and arabesques, all the drops of strangers’ blood she has quietly wiped away. And see: there she is—fourth portrait in—the last remaining mambabatok tattoo artist facing us, beatific, a calamansi branch held between her fingers.
As with Emily Vizzo’s and Victoria Kennefick’s poems and the extraordinary interview with Kaitlin Rees and Nhã Thuyên at the heart of 4.3, de Guzman’s photographs of the Butbut tribe invite us into “grief’s / Dozen surnames,” into the gaps and asymmetries of memory and language and love. These are transfigurations of intimacy and consequence, wild, pulsing reminders. They render visible the holiness of who we are, how we survive each other and our many “enigmatic, wondrous, feral, budding” selves.