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Philippine Tattoos

Page history last edited by Mark Anthony 11 years, 2 months ago

Tattoos of the Philippines

History and Ideology of their Significance, Context of their Survival in Contemporary Society

Mark Anthony



"Tattooing was a complex rite de passage that also maintained the polity and the Kalinga warrior class (kamaranan). Sadly, however, it is a cultural practice that is rapidly dying. And unless some sort of tattoo revival occurs in the near future, traditional tattooing... will vanish forever."


-Ikin Salvador



     Known as the Forgotten Islands of Southeast Asia, the Philippines is composed of 7,000 islands with a variety of at least eighty to ninety different cultures. Between the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, the Spanish explorers referred to the Philippines as "La Isla De Los Pintados," or "The Island of the Painted Ones."  Warriors of the Philippines, namely the people of the Luzon highlands such as the Kalinga and Bontoc Ingorot, had tattoos that heavily signified their status that essentially acted as a badge of honor proudly displaying their headhunting victories.  In the case of the Bontoc Ingorots, their chest tattoo, the "chaklag," which was in a t-shaped design running upwards while curving on their shoulders and ending on their uppder arms--was an indication of having taken a head.  Successful headhunters were given tattoos on the back of their hands and wrists after their first kill.   The striped designs of the tattoo were called "gulot," which literally translates to "cutter of the head."  Any headhunter warrior of the Kalinga tribe who successfully killed more than two men were allowed more ornate designs on their arms and chests  These tattoos, called 'bikking' were tattooed with different animals or insects that acted as guardians or provided a spirtual protection against their enemies and throughout their lives in general.  Some of these tattoos were birds, lizards, scorpions, snakes and centipedes among other things.  The use of a centipede as a tattoo among the Kalinga tribe was the common belief that the scales helped protect against cholera.  One mythical story that narrates the origin of the Philippine tattoo tells of a bird that fell into a bowl of black ink.  Upon coming out of the bowl, the bird flew into a Philippine warrior and began pecking him until he became covered with little black marks.  These black marks formed the similar designs that have no commonly been associated with the tattoos of the Philippines.


Jasmine Ines will be covering a cumulative history of the Philippine tattoos in her upcoming presentation.




     The Philippine tattoo as an art has unexpectedly begun to decline in most recent years, possibly from the assimilation of people into modern society, thus becoming educated and altogether abandoning what was once seen as traditional customs in favor of more practical one for the contemporary lifestyle.  Today, there are only a few documented people of both the Bontoc and Kalinga tribes who continue to have their surviving tattoos--the surviving tribes have somehow given up their traditions.  Even more threatening is the changing style of the tattoos, which have adopted certain froms from other tribes.  However, in 1998, a group calling themselves the Tatak Ng Apat Na Alon tribe, composed of Filipino-Americans, set out to preserve the traditions of their heritage by educating individuals about the spiritual art forms of their ancestors and their works.  Fortunately, unlike their ancestors who have hunted heads literally--their approach in hunting heads comes in the form of teaching.  A great number of members of the ever-growing organization have been tattooed with traditional designs that reflect their indigenous ancestors of the Philippines, serving to teach people and spread the awareness of such a significant historical tradition.  Some are even practicing the art to become contemporary tattooists to keep the spirit of the Philippine tattoo alive.



Eric Barrios revealing his indigenous-inspired tattoos.


"Like the nomadic turtle who carries his home wherever he goes, my tattoos carry forth my ancestral heritage. As a Filipino-American my tattoos show that I know myself, my roots, and my people."


-Eric Barrios



     The significance of the Philippine tattoo as a disappearing art bears many similarities with other cultures that have been discussed, much like the Ta Moko of New Zealand, in which missionaries contributed a hand in describing them as the Devil's Art that influenced their spiral of decline.





Return of the Headhunters: The Philippine Tattoo Revival



Reviving Traditional Tattoos of the Philippines



Filipino Tattoos



Lars Krutak


Comments (3)

boselw@u.washington.edu said

at 7:02 pm on Jun 3, 2009

I thought all of this was so interesting, from the unique beginning myth of the bird starting tattoo, to the of course dramatic and controversial reasons behind it. It's one of the traditions then that I think is particularly interesting to think of coming into the contemporary context. Since it is really founded on something that I personally find absolutely abhorrent it is a bit weird to think of being practiced today, unless it comes along with different associations, which seems to be the case. However I think the connotations are still a little troubling honestly. It's a tricky subject.

Katelind Donahue said

at 12:27 pm on Jun 5, 2009

I thought you did a great job with this subject because it would have been really easy to sensationalize the act of headhunting and have it detract from what you really wanted to talk about which were the tattoos. Interesting how tattoos of all cultures become to be associated with gangs or violence at some point in history, but usually goes through some sort of cultural revitalization and becomes more popularly accepted. Also, I just love the idea of education as an alternative form of "hunting heads."

Mark Anthony said

at 10:41 am on Jun 7, 2009

Yeah, my main intention was to talk more about how the meaning of the tattoos had changed over time--more so with how it is presented in today's society, and whether or not it's really acceptable to continue its practice. Headhunting, of course--while a staple of the northern Luzon tribe lifestyle, again, it's hard to dissociate itself from the tattoo--and with these established present-day 'headhunters' whose goal is to educate the public about their heritage seems puzzling. Somehow, I'd like to believe that their main intention was to say: "Here are our traditional tattoos, while they were associated with headhunting--we are trying to change its meaning so it no longer has to be connected with it." It's almost like an atonement statement, to denounce themselves in the public eye that says "we are no longer primitive," but to say they are or are not, is up to how one defines a civilization. But again, it just begs the question with regards to how colonized the Philippines is, and how dominant Christianity has become that the need for such tattoos is starting to regress... and the identity of being Filipino, does it make it more so closer to your heritage if you wear one, or not?

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