By Aya Lowe
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.
These, she says, are “earthly messengers from the gods [that] protect you from enemies or bad spirits”.
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.
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 in 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.