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Batok - Exploring Skin Art

The creative capacity of men is boundless. Artistic manifestations through time have been seen in stone, wood & bone carvings, cave paintings, murals, metal, canvas, and skin, to name a few. Tattoos have been evident in every human culture throughout history. Tattoos have been used in various ways: as a rite of passage, a symbol of social standing, medals, protection, symbol of spiritual devotion and love, and for purely aesthetic reasons.

Tattoos were a prominent feature among pre-Hispanic tribes of the Philippines. The Spanish explorers dubbed the local people as Los Pintados (The Painted Ones) as the natives they encountered were heavily tattooed. But these were not just body decorations, as the position of tattoos on one’s body has meaning. Chest tattoos are given to those who have been in a series of battles. As their war experiences grew in number, their tattoos would also cover their backs. Facial tattoos are special markings that are reserved only for those who are proven to be the bravest warriors of their tribe. In some tribes, tattoos symbolize the number of heads taken during a headhunt - the more heads, the more elaborate and broad the design. There is a ritual where hands and wrists or warriors are tattooed after their first kill.

Women’s tattoos were regarded as marks of beauty and fertility. For some tribes, tattooing of a respected warrior is followed by his female children and female first cousins, as a sign of belonging to a renowned clan of warriors. If a woman did not bear the suffering that came with the tattoo process, she would be scorned by other members of the tribe and labeled as an outcast. Tattoos are also believed to serve in the passage to the afterlife, and to protect a person from evil spirits.

However, with the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, the Americans, and the Christian missionaries, traditional practices such as tattooing gained negative stigma and were discouraged. In the remote areas of Mindanao and in the Cordilleras, untouched by Spanish influence, the practice of tattooing was preserved. It is in the mountainous region of the Cordilleras where one can find 104 year old Apo Whang-Od, the last practitioner of batok, the traditional tapping style, where ink is hammered into the skin using the spike of a calamansi (lime) tree attached to a bamboo stick that has been dipped in wet charcoal.

Currently you see tattoos with a mixture of contemporary and tribal motifs. Outside of the Philippines, more and more people consider tribal tattooing as a means to connect to their heritage. And there are increasing efforts to preserve original practices and Filipino tribal designs in the Filipino diaspora. In the US, Lane Wilcken, a cultural tattoo practitioner, uses the batok technique, with his personally made tools, some of which are now extinct in the Philippines. His approach is spiritual, incorporating rituals, chants, food offerings and prayers in the tattoo process. In California is the tattoo tribe Tatak ng Apat na Alon (Mark of the Four Waves), which aims to revive tribal designs, encouraging its members to research symbols that strengthen their connection to their Filipino heritage. In Vancouver, Mayo Landicho is another batok practitioner, learning the practice from Apo Whang-Od. He travelled to the remote village in the Cordilleras to learn the technique after having several recurring dreams telling him to reconnect to his cultural roots. In Richmond BC, tattoo artist Romeo Reyes incorporates baybayin, an indigenous writing script in the Philippines, into his designs.

There are many ways to instill and strengthen cultural pride - through the performing arts, visual arts, literature, film, cuisine, fashion and skin art. When one sees or contemplates a tattoo design, look beyond the aesthetics of the patterns - for thin parallel lines may symbolize a complex indigenous irrigation system; the sun and snake for ancient gods; the crocodile jaw facial tattoo for the deity responsible for transporting dead spirits into their resting place; zigzag lines represent water which is the source to maintain all life; mountains represent perseverance and stoicism; or a centipede as a protection from evil forces. And for some, the act of tattooing goes beyond the physical pain but is viewed as a process of knowing your ancestry and family history and finding symbols or patterns that resonates to the person, of creating a spiritual practice of generating energies to empower the symbols bestowed on the skin, and being one with one’s history, environment and individuality.


* This article was published in the July 2021 issue of the Alberta Filipino Journal.


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