Ancient Filipino tattooing practices are arguably the origin of all SE Asian and Pacific Island tattooing styles we see today.
It is believed that all ancient cultures on earth practiced some sort of traditional tattooing and that it was deeply connected to their spiritualism, culture, and history. Unfortunately, these traditional tattooing methods and their symbolism have disappeared from most cultures due to colonization and religious stigma.
Anthropologists believe SE Asian tattooing can be traced back to different migration paths that led early humans through China, Borneo, and Taiwan, into the Philippines and out into the Pacific islands.
In fact, the word for “tattoo” in much of Polynesia, “tatau”, means “to mark or strike” or “to do what is right or correct” depending on which island you’re on. We can trace the etymology of “tatau” to two Filipino words“tatak”, which means “to mark or brand” and “totoo”, meaning “truth.” And it’s high up in the mountains of the Philippines where the old tattooing traditions have been preserved. Although, they were nearly lost because of the brutal cultural genocide of Spanish colonization. The survival of these ancient Filipino tattooing practices, against all outside forces, is simply amazing.
In pre-colonial Philippines, tattooing was a widespread and accepted tradition of being Filipino. It identified an individual’s status in a tribe, their spiritualism , it was a mark of personal beauty , and tattoos were also considered an extension of their clothing . When Spanish explorers attempted to stop Filipinos from tattooing themselves they responded,“Why then should we be naked?”
Tattooing in the Philippines was a sacred event. Before the process began omens and prayers were offered to the anito, spirit ancestors, to receive their blessings. The tools usually consisted of a handle made from water buffalo horn or wood, needles made of bamboo, brass, or thorns, and ink was made with pine soot and water held in a coconut shell. The needles were affixed to the end of the handle and another stick would be used to create a tapping motion, which applied the ink in the skin
The Visayan people of the Philippines were called “Los Pintados”, or, the painted ones, by the Spanish because of their prominent tattoos. For them, tattoos made of rows of triangles, called “labid,” represented crocodile teeth or steps of rice terraces , which were a figurative ladder to the kaluwalhatian, the sky world where the Gods dwelt.
For the Kalinga people, the forked tongue of a snake, called “Chila na urog”, was a physical avatar of your ancestors where the hissing sound these snakes made were the whispering voices of your ancestors guiding you through life.
The Ifugao of Northern Luzon had an “ipi’ipit”, or scorpion tattoo, that symbolized the deadliness of the warrior wearing it.
The sun was also a central part of Filipino spirituality and was tattooed often. It represented the kaluwalhatian, sky world where gods dwelt.
A resurgence of interest in ancient Filipino tattooing methods and their meaning is sweeping across the Philippines and the world where the younger generation of Filipinos, like Lane Wilcken and and Ayla Roda , are tearing down the stereotype that only criminals have tattoos. They are single handedly helping to revive this deeply cultural, symbolic, and spiritual practice.
Experts like Apo Whang-Od have helped keep alive the ancient tattooing practices. For modern Filipinos, these tattoos are a literal window into the lives and spirituality of their Filipino ancestors, connecting generations together, in a living, unbroken history, not recorded on paper or canvas, but intimately and permanently etched on the bodies of Filipino fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters.
The information for this video was sourced from William Henry Scott’s Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society, Diccionario Mitologico De Filipinas by Ralph Angelo Reyes, The Art That Exhibits Philippine Culture and History by Cristina Baclig, Lane Wilcken’s Filipino Tattoos, and Daniel De Guzman’s The Beautiful History and Symbolism of Philippine Tattoo Culture. All of these resources are available online.
The artwork was generated by Midjourney and is also available for free through the link on my profile.