Reviving the art of Filipino tribal tattoos
The Spanish conquistadors who landed in 1521 dubbed the Philippines the Islands of the Painted Ones after the heavily tattooed locals. Nearly 500 years on, tribal tattooing is almost extinct. Aya Lowe met the islands’ last practitioner and those trying to keep the tradition alive.
For more than eight decades, Whang-Od has been inking the headhunting warriors and women of her Kalinga tribe.
Using the traditional “tapping” style, dating back a thousand years, she hammers ink into the skin using the spike of a calmansi (lime) tree attached to a bamboo stick that has been dipped in wet charcoal.
The simple designs are evocative of the nature around her in the mountainous region of the Cordilleras - outlines of centipedes, trees and snakes or basic geometric patterns such as diamonds and squares.
Not for the light-hearted, this slow, primitive method is extremely painful and would have been endured for short periods only. Large tattoos might take several months to complete.These, she says, are “earthly messengers from the gods [that] protect you from enemies or bad spirits”.
However, at 94, Whang-Od - whose own skin is etched with a variety of designs - is likely to be the last of her kind.
Training her niece
Tradition dictates that skills can only be passed down family lines. Having lost the love of her life at the age of 25 in a logging accident, Whang-Od did not marry again and bore no children.
"It can’t be passed on to anyone else," she insists. "It has to be within the same family because if someone else who is not from the same bloodline starts tattooing, the tattoo will get infected."
However, the young in her village are not keen on adopting the body work of their elders. Though she is training her niece to carry on her work, Whang-Od says that her young relative is more interested in her studies to become a teacher.
The preservation of tribal tattooing may, however, lie thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, where a group of dedicated members of the Filipino diaspora has been working hard to ensure the tradition is not lost.
Tatak Ng Apat na Alon, which translates as “Mark of the Four Waves Tribe”, was formed nearly 15 years ago in Los Angeles by Filipino-Americans.
Their name is a reference to the “waves” of immigrants who came to the Philippines.
The group has grown to become a global community made up of hundreds of people with Filipino heritage looking to revive the tattooing traditions of Filipino tribes by having their designs etched on their skin.
"People are sacrificing their skin to revive this ancestral form of art and make sure it is not forgotten," says Elle Festin, the co-founder of the community.
"The only way you can find proof of designs is through oral history and artefacts. The only way to stop it becoming obsolete is by reviving the designs."
Having left the Philippines as a teenager, Mr Festin said his journey into the world of tribal tattooing became a way for him to connect with his own heritage, something he felt he had lost growing up in the US.
"Filipinos in the Philippines don’t need to define themselves, but for the Filipino diaspora many are looking for a connection back to their heritage," he says.
"It’s more important for them to define themselves as Filipino in a foreign country."
Tattoos were a prominent feature among pre-Hispanic tribes of the Philippines. They acted as a corporal roadmap designating people by tribe and rank, acting as a protection charm or medal, or as permanent make-up.
Dr Lars Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist knowledgeable about the Visayas region of the central Philippines, says traditional tattooing practices had vanished in the region by the 1700s because of the presence of the Spanish military and the influence of the Church.
But in Mindanao, an island in the country’s far south, and the mountainous region of the Cordilleras - the home of Whang-Od - the practice survived because of the area’s remoteness and warrior tribes who successfully defended their ancestral homelands from foreign invaders, like the colonial Spanish.
People who receive a tattoo have to be of Filipino heritage. The artists work closely with their clients to research their family histories and life events to create a design.
"We were very careful about how it grew and who our tattoo artists were," said Mr Festin. "We didn’t want it to go viral and turn into a trend like Polynesian designs. We wanted to encourage curiosity to getting people talking about the meaning behind the markings."
In 2008, Mr Festin made perhaps the most important pilgrimage in his career as a tattooist when he returned to his homeland to visit Whang-Od and the Kalinga tribe.
"When I first met Whang-Od I was afraid of what she would think of my designs, especially as they were modified from original form," he said.
"But she was impressed with my tools and asked me to tattoo her. You could tell she was experienced by the way she lay down and stretched her skin."
While the sight of a fully tattooed man or woman is becoming a rarity in the Philippines, it is this small dedicated group of enthusiasts, far across the ocean, that is keeping the art form alive, hopefully for many decades to come.
About the author: Based in Manila, Aya Lowe writes business, travel and human interest stories around South East Asia and the Middle East.
Photos of Tatak Ng Apat na Alon are from Dr. Lars Krutak’s Kalinga Tattoo: Ancient and Modern Expressions of the Tribal
Painter painting in our land pictures of only white angels
Painter painting in our time in shadows of yesterday
Eartha Kitt - Angelitos Negros (1970 performance)
I tried looking for a phrase in Tagalog I can text you before the seas and stars separated us. Our communication was always fraught with half (mis)understandings and whole worlds lost in too many (too little) words. So I thought it fitting to say goodbye in a language you don’t understand. You would have to work for the meaning I worked to find and in this way we would continue binding each other with words.
I tried phrases like “makita mo mamaya,” and “maligayang paglalakbay” but they all fell flat on my English contorted Tagalog where open vowels boisterously bounce light on my twisting tongue. Too impersonal as though we were familiar strangers that never caressed each other’s wrists. Too distant as though we were passing ships that never collided and crashed.
Then this word tumbled onto me like the waves of your soft hair when you rested your weary head on my lap.
The Tagalog word for “friend.”
But if mispronounced (stress the space between tongue and palette so the word opens itself with the graceful bow of a diphthong) kaibigan would sound like an old, old word for “lover.”
I like to think that’s what we were: an archaic word for lovers mispronounced as friends because our tongues kept sweeping into each other’s mouths when all we intended was a kiss on the check, and we tried to smile at each other like we were silent studying buddies at the cafe, but our teeth kept scraping along the sensitive slope of our shoulders and spine. And we tried tentative touches on the back of our hands, the amiable grasp of a handshake, but the tantalization only increased the tension between tactfully articulating our names without sly sighs (“kaibigan”) and stripping each other of each syllable of our names (“kaibigan”) as we tripped into a tangle of limbs, sheets, sweat.
We tried, we tried, we tried…
dragons don’t ever really leave their princesses
(and their princesses never really want them to go)
“You can’t change the laws without changing the images. It is one thing to say we exist; it is another thing to show it. Art is political, art is about activism.”—
Quote is from a great piece in The New York Times: Lens, Photographing A ‘Difficult Love’ In South Africa by Alexis Okeowo. It is about Muholi’s critical work on portraying the nuance, love, relationship, lives…the humanity of Black lesbians in South Africa. She’s a stellar photographer, critical thinker, activist.
Loved this quote; originally shared it on my photography blog.
This quote resonates with me personally, as well as being integral to the idea of this project. Wow.(via medievalpoc)
It’s not really a block. There’s just a lot of (too much) raw material I can work with.
Tension in Three Parts will take longer to update than expected. The last part is expected to be 5000 words and it’s dealing with events I’ve been intimately involved with lately (and hence difficult to write about).
I can’t even write in my personal journal at the moment. I keep starting and stopping.
Sleeping and writing are the two things I desperately need to do when I’m in this state and yet they are also the most frightening ordeals I have to face.
Sleeping leads to dreaming. Dreaming and writing are the same in this regard: imagination beautifully and terrifyingly infinite. Thoughts spiraling out of control as you try to pull down images into words, pull onto them like reins. Impossible possibilities bewildering the senses and memory.
Happy dreams instantly becoming sad because you wake up and they’re not real.
(Not in this universe).