DARAGA, Albay – For years, Jafryl Refran's "grave branding" artworks have sparked conversations both in the online and offline worlds. On All Saints' and All Souls' Days, when rows of austere tombs in white and gray usher in a sense of somber reverence, his colorful logo-inspired grave art at a Catholic cemetery in Oas, Albay, stands out from the crowd.
Refran, 42, is the artist behind the infamous grave branding tradition observed by the Relleve family every Undas to honor the memory of their father, Jose Relleve, who died in 2011.
Since 2016, he has been commissioned to paint the patriarch's tomb with logos of his favorite brands: Black Label Johnnie Walker in 2016, Lacoste in 2017, Bvlgari in 2018, M&Ms in 2019, Wrigley's Doublemint in 2020, Alpine in 2021, and Jollibee in 2022.
This year's masterpiece, however, is unlike any other.
"Of all the logos that they have asked me to paint for his tomb, this Tancho brand is the one that I am most unfamiliar with," the artist said in the vernacular.
To nail the painting, Angelle Relleve, daughter of the deceased, sent him a photo of the pomade so he could begin his work.
It took him two days to complete the artwork due to erratic weather.
In an interview, the young Relleve said the Tancho-inspired tomb is a comical tribute to their father's obsession with the pomade brand to achieve Dr. Jose Rizal's iconic hairstyle.
"In the 1980s up until the 1990s, my father, along with his colleagues at the Oas municipal hall, used to sport the "buklis gobyerno" look—a distinctive hairstyle attributed to government employees at that time, characterized by a side part and a slight pomp," she said.
But in this age of hair wax and hair gel, Refran realized that the brand name Tancho never rings a bell.
In fact, passersby at the cemetery, who would often guess what brand he was working on even before the big reveal, also had a hard time figuring out what he was up to during the initial stages of the painting.
Refran's foray into grave branding was merely accidental.
As a local artist in Matacon, Polangui, Albay, accustomed to painting murals and logos for schools, the idea of using tombs as a canvas to paint the favorite brands of the departed initially struck him as surreal.
"I was very surprised when I was first offered this job. But as I got to know the family, I realized that they must really love their father so much that they remember all the memories they had with him," he said.
Refran, who lost his four-year-old youngest son last July due to heart complications, said he also wants to replicate the tradition of the Relleve of honoring the dead, by painting his child's tomb with his favorite cartoon characters.
For him, the practice of painting the tomb of the departed with things that are dear to them is a personal tribute that keeps their memory alive.
Remembering with laughter, not tears
Over the years, the Relleve family's non-traditional grave branding practice every "Undas" has earned both cheers and jeers.
But the young Relleve maintains that this is how they ensure that the legacy of their father lives on, knowing fully well that if he were alive today, he would have approved of this tradition given his non-conformist streak.
In making sense of this tradition, renowned anthropologist Nestor Castro said the Relleve family's manner of commemorating the dead is "deeply rooted in Philippine culture."
"The grave branding in Oas is unique because of its creativity, although at its core, it is still a manifestation of long-standing Filipino practices and values," he said.
Castro stressed that in precolonial times, Filipinos buried their dead together with the material objects owned by the departed, such as ceramic items and jewelry. This practice, according to him, alludes to ancestor worship.
In contemporary times, however, as culture changes, the practices by which Filipinos express their respect for the dead have also evolved, the anthropologist added.
"As we come together for 'Undas', we just want to honor our father, who is a disciplinarian but who also loves to crack jokes, by remembering him with laughter, not tears," the daughter said.
At a time when forgetting is so easy given life's many stressors, the practice of grave branding provides a unique opportunity to remember the departed in a way that reflects their character and idiosyncrasies.
After all, in the grand scheme of things, the greatest tragedy is not to die but to be forgotten. (PNA)