The history and meaning of Filipino tattoos

 The history and meaning of Filipino tattoos

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.



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  • Tatak/Patik

  • Take this video down English Kurt. You're using footage of people who DO NOT LIKE YOU AT ALL. You have no permission to make content nor money off videos of them. Your actions are deplorable. To my people of the islands, who share the same blood, please decolonize your hearts & minds, know that this puti wants pera, like so many others who have come to our islands pretending to understand our struggles.

  • You can widen your range of audience not just in the Philippines by changing your channel name.

  • God bless Filipinos forever ❤

  • What does the two spiral tattoos mean on the guys chest? 2:47?

  • I love history. Salamat po na kahit hindi kayo pilipino nakakatulong po kayo sa aming edukasyon at kultura.

  • Polynesian here trying to learn more about the origin of my people and how we're connected to the Philippines. The more I learn,the more apparent our shared blood is. What the Filipinos call Anito or Anitu was what Samoans call Aitu.

  • Learn more Samoans before you speak..

  • Lamang ang may alam…Ang galing mo kuya kurt…Thanks for spreading this information ang the history of our ancestors…We are so great full, an American love's the Filipino culture…More power to you kuya kurt…

  • I love the resurgence of tattoo culture, I'm half Visayan and I feel even more connected to my ancestors through this practice.

  • Short n sweet. Great content!

  • And it's not Tata-oo! But TATAU. You completely butchered that.

  • Btw the out of Taiwan theory has been debunked as they finally found archaeological proof besides DNA, and linguistic evidence that the Philippines was the ground zero of Austronesian expansion into the rest of the Pacific. We are not “Asian”, but Austronesian. Asian is a geographical term anyway, not one people or ethnicity. Indonesians, Malay, and Taiwanese aboriginals migrated out of the Philippines and not vice versa. Only reason we call our selves Asian is due to colonial brainwash and mentality, politics and racism. Collective amnesia can only be cured thanks to decolonisation and healing generational historical trauma, and re connect, take back and revive what was lost and destroyed. But my fellow kababayans prefer to stay colonised, both in mind and body.

  • good job, yet again! this kind of content is worth watching! your efforts have paid off 👏😊 ang galing!

  • Cool content bro👍

  • Thank you kuya kurt …isa nanaman dagdag kaalaman.. more videos like these please..

  • Followed you here from IG.😊

  • Good content!

  • Thank you for the great informative video. Would you get a Filipino tattoo?

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