After dinner, my cousins and I strolled down Station 2, the busiest part of Boracay. Outdoor stalls dotted the sand a few feet away from the shore. I was careful not to get sweet-talked into buying more souvenirs. I have been to the Philippines’ most famous island several times, so I knew better than to hoard another set of “I Love Boracay” keychains or puka shell necklaces.
Something caught my eye. A guy wearing a cut-off shirt and cargo shorts was crouched on a stool, painting on a piece of wood. On the table were magnets, keychains, pens, and bracelets organized into two piles—one for pieces with a person’s name and a colorful backdrop, and the other for untouched pieces. No two designs were the same.
“How much are they?” I asked in Tagalog.
“The magnets and keychains are 35 pesos (80 US cents) each,” he replied. “The bracelets and pens, 25 each.”
“How much if I have them personalized?”
“Wow! In that case, I’ll get more than one.” My cousin Tobee ordered two bracelets and I, two magnets. We described the exact designs we wanted.
“But you have to come back tomorrow because we have a lot of orders,” the artist said.
“What? You have that many orders?” I paid him P120 and he gave me a claim stub with his name, Larry, and his cellphone number.
I returned the next night with my crumpled stub, but Larry told me they haven’t started on mine yet.
“Oh no, I thought you said 10:00? We scheduled a massage at 10:30 p.m. back in the hotel.”
“Sorry, there were so many orders last night.” His hand, stained with different colors of paint, placed the final touches on someone’s keychain.
I told him I’m willing to wait, so he handed me a stool. I told my cousins to go to the massage without me. Larry began working on one of my designs while assigning the rest to a teenager beside him.
“That’s my nephew,” he said.
“So you guys are artists, huh?”
He nodded and smiled. He said there are two other teens working for him, both the children of his artist relatives. One is the runner who brings supplies to and from their home, a tricycle ride away. The other works on designs from home. Larry’s wife is also an artist.
“How many of these do you make in a day?”
“About a hundred.”
Larry said that five years ago, he was a tattoo artist in Muntinlupa City, a 50-minute plane ride from Boracay. Every Christmas season, he sold personalized mugs and portraits on the side streets. “I’m just a small-time businessman!” He laughed.
What began as a short Boracay vacation became an extended stay. To make ends meet, he rented a stall for P1,500 a day. He got his supplies from Divisoria, a shopper’s haven for wholesale and bargain retail in Manila. He said he was the first to offer personalized miniature art to Boracay tourists.
“My price used to be higher, but people started copying me,” he said. Neighbors began asking him about his supplies. “Next thing I knew, there are new stalls with the same concept.”
He attended to two Korean girls ordering keychains. “Okay, but come back at 1 a.m.” he said. It was 11:30 p.m. “Don’t forget to remember, ha!”
A barefoot Caucasian girl stopped to examine the pens. “How much are they?” she asked with a British accent. “25 pesos? Okay, I’ll take 4, but only if you put the names for free. Nicola, Andy, Phil, and Hannah.” She told me her friends organized a scavenger hunt and the person who can buy the best gifts for P100 before midnight wins. Larry told her to come back after 10 minutes.
I wanted to say, “Hey, how come you can make hers for only 10 minutes and you made me wait for 24 hours?” But it took him less than five minutes to scribble the four names in cursive—no background design—using one of his silver pens. He went back to my magnets. I watched as my description of a plane surrounded by clouds came to life on a 3 x 1 inch piece of wood.
“I would pay more for those—even double,” I said.
Larry said he experimented with different price tags and found that P25 apiece was reasonable, especially with copycats mushrooming around. “My competitors sell theirs for 7 for P100, but I’m not worried about them. Their wood is thinner, and I’m proud of my customized pieces.” He described his work as pulido (polished), unlike his competitors who paint hurried designs. “And besides, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s like we’re just playing with art.”
A Chinese tourist inquired about the heart-shaped wood with a zigzag cut in the middle—great for couples who want to wear them as necklaces. It costs P100. The tourist showed him a photo on his iPhone and they agreed on a design.
The British girl was back for her pens. “Oh, these are perfect!” As she ran off, I said, “Hope you win!”
After drying for a few minutes, my orders were finally ready. Larry touched the edges to make sure they didn’t smudge. I thanked him as he placed them in a plastic bag.
Before heading to the airport the next day, I came across an indoor shop, which happened to be one of Larry’s copycats.
I asked about the magnets. “7 for P100, with free name,” the salesman said.
“It’s like the one we got last night,” my cousin said.
“Yes, but Larry’s is better.”
November 12, 2014
*This article was written as an assignment for Matador U, where I took a Travel Writing Course and was later tapped to become one of their writers.