The Philippine Tattoo Revival

High up in the terraced rice fields of the Philippine Cordillera mountains, traditional tattooing (batek, Kalinga) among the former headhunters of northwestern Luzon is nearly extinct. Today, you can only see traces of the indelible art in all of its splendor among the Kalinga and maybe one or two other groups living in the area. But back in 1900, just before American authorities outlawed headhunting, tattoo was to be seen everywhere, especially among the Bontoc Igorot, Kalinga, and Ifugao peoples.

Bontoc is derived from two local words, "bun" (heap) and "tuk" (top), which together mean "mountains." As they have for centuries, most Igorots live in Bontoc municipality near the upper Chico River basin and in the capitol city of the municipality, Bontoc. The region is bounded to the north by the Kalinga-Apayao province and to the south by the Ifugao and Benguet provinces. Although there is a common language, several villages in the Bontoc region have their own distinct dialect.

Generally speaking, the Bontoc Igorots recognized several kinds of tattoos and very often the amount of designs worn by a man was directly related to the proportion of human heads he had taken in the headhunt. The chaklag, usually running upward from each nipple, curving out on the shoulders and ending on the upper arms, indicated that the man had taken a head or, as one writer put it in 1905, "The indelible tattoo emblem proclaims them takers of human heads, nine-tenths of the men in the pueblos of Bontoc and Samoki wear them." Among the neighboring Kalinga to the north, successful warriors (maingor) had tattoos placed at the back of their hands and wrists after their first kill. These striped designs were called gulot, meaning "cutter of the head." Kalinga men who killed two or more men had elaborate patterns applied to their arms and chests called biking, comprised of khaman ("head-axes"), ufug ("centipede scales") and bodies of the centipede (gayaman), which were protective and spiritually charged symbols. The khaman design also covered portions of the torso, back, and thighs and centipede scales crossed the cheeks of the most successful warriors. Sometimes, a human anthropomorph was tattooed just above the navel and small crosses adorned the face, indicating a warrior of the highest rank. Other more simple markings had therapeutic value and were placed on goiters, tumors and varicose veins. Among the Kalinga particular arrangements of centipede scales were believed to ward off cholera.

Tribal cultures leave mark on anthropologist

Lars Krutak (Anth, Art’93) knows about ritual pain. The 38-year-old anthropologist has dozens of tattoos and decorative scars given to him by the tribal people he studies in such far-flung places as Hawaii, the Philippines and Indonesia. Native artists have used a variety of objects to pierce his flesh — hippo teeth, tree thorns and nails.

He nearly reached his limit during the skin-cutting ritual of the Kaningara of Papua New Guinea as he lay on a bed of banana leaves while a master “cutter” made more than 450 marks on his chest.

That day he became a celebrity among the Kaningaras, the first outsider to participate in their timeworn ritual to initiate young men into manhood.

And his fame was about to spread, since the ritual was captured on film for Discovery Channel’s Tattoo Hunter, which starred Krutak and ran this past spring and summer. During the show Krutak introduced native tattooing and scarification to an audience who — despite the popularity of tattoos among Westerners — was largely oblivious to them.

“I was able to give a voice to people I don’t think anyone would have heard otherwise,” Krutak says. “They’re endangered people and their stories are really touching.”

Those stories center around traditions that seem, at first glance, to have little in common with modern tattooing. Indigenous tattoo artists, for instance, are unlikely to use the electric tools and synthetic inks found in American tattoo parlors. Instead they may hand-tap ink or substances such as tree resin or soot into the skin using a sharpened stick, thorn or, as with the Kaningara, eschew ink altogether and make cuts that heal into decorative scars.

And while both natives and Westerners may obtain tattoos for spiritual reasons, indigenous wearers tend to have more complex connections to their markings, which can signal tribal affiliation, status and accomplishments. Among the Phillipines’s Kalinga, for instance, chest tattoos delineate the fiercest warriors. For Africa’s BĂ©tamarribĂ©, facial scars illustrate tribal membership.

Krutak’s fascination with indigenous body markings stems from an appreciation for their beauty — healed-over wounds from the Kaningara’s skin-cutting, for instance, depict the head of a crocodile right down to the reptile’s skin texture — and a fascination with the rituals that give them meaning. Kaningara men spend two months in seclusion beforehand. “These are personal acts of transformation that have to be felt to be understood,” he says.

The son of a university professor and museum researcher, Krutak learned to value other cultures and their artifacts at a young age. At CU, he found two strong mentors among the faculty: professor emeritus John Rohner, who gave him an internship at CU’s natural history museum, and fine arts professor emeritus Ron Bernier.

“After I graduated from CU,” Krutak recalls, “I knew I would eventually find a way to bridge my love of art history, anthropology and museology.”

What he didn’t know was that tattoos would be the bridge. That piece of the puzzle revealed itself soon after Krutak enrolled in a master’s degree program in anthropology at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks in 1996. One day, he caught a glimpse of a native woman with three “chin-stripe” tattoos, which eventually led to a research project on the tattooing traditions of the St. Lawrence Island Yupik people.

“No one in perhaps 100 years had written much about the vanishing art of tattooing on St. Lawrence Island [off the west coast of central Alaska] or in the Arctic itself,” he says. “Before I knew it, I was interviewing 10 90-year-old-plus women who were the last gatekeepers of an ancient tradition.”

The women, who believed their tattoos gave them a connection to the afterlife, knew their customs were dying and found solace in the fact their traditions would be preserved in the work of the young graduate student.

Krutak finished his master’s degree and spent several years as a researcher at two museums. But then Yupik elders began passing away, and he realized the same pressures that killed their traditions — globalization that led young people to work in big cities, medical advances that overtook beliefs in the physical protection of tattoos and missionary work that altered spiritual values — threatened tattooing rituals around the world. Krutak quit his job and began traveling, recording as many traditions as he could while they still existed.

That mission got easier when he landed the role on Tattoo Hunter in 2006, allowing him to visit far more places in one year than he might have in a lifetime. Krutak skirted the edges of war-torn Ethiopia, Kosovo and Myanmar and went deep into the jungles of the Amazon. Often tribal elders wanted him to prove himself just as any young initiate would before they allowed him to wear their tattoos.

Nowhere was this more important than among the Watermen of Hawaii, profiled in the show’s ninth episode, who asked him to become proficient in activities they learned as youths. So Krutak worked on his surfing, killed a wild boar and jumped off a cliff into the ocean. At the end of the show, one of the Watermen hugged Krutak, declaring, “You’re one of us now.”

These days, Krutak, who earned his doctorate from Arizona State University in August, is happy to be back home in Washington, D.C., with his wife and baby daughter. He looks back fondly on his travels, wears his body markings proudly and says he’s ready to settle down — though he probably could be talked into getting one more design, a skin-stitched tattoo that involves a needle and thread and was once performed by Inuits across the Arctic.

“That would really bring things full circle,” he says, “since Alaska is where this all began for me.”

'Dragon Edong:' Famous Pinoy tattoo artist in US-territory

GARAPAN, Saipan - Filipino tattoo artist Edward Elenzano, popularly known in the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) as "Dragon Edong," won a major award at the 2nd World Tattoo Arts Festival and Exhibition held in Bangkok, Thailand.

Elenzano, 48, bagged first place in the main "Tattoo of the Day" category at the international tattoo arts festival held from May 16 to 18.

His winning tattoo design is a portrait of his children Anne Gelica, 12; John Edward, 14; and John Mark, 20 -- done on the back of his wife Fe.

"There were lots of talented tattoo artists and expert designs at the festival but nobody else did a portrait just like what I did," Elenzano told GMANews.TV in an interview at his studio.

It took him three hours to get the winning tattoo design done at the festival, where he displayed a big flag of the Philippines and a miniature flag of the CNMI.

The three-day event brought together some 50 tattoo artists from the United States, the United Kingdom (London), Japan, Italy, Singapore, Taiwan, New Zealand, France, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, Canada, and Norway to compete in 13 categories.

Elenzano previously won in the "Best Dragon" category at the same festival when it was first held in Thailand in February 2006.

Rebel ink shifts Pinoy tattoo taboos

MANILA - It might be shocking to see a 9-year-old boy sporting a yellow pencil tattoo on his upper arm, but for his famous tattoo artist dad, it's just a testament to indelible love.

Ricky Sta. Ana, president of the Philippine Tattoo Artist Guild (PHILTAG), explained that the tattoo - a cartoonish pencil with a spider's web behind it - was a gift for his son when he ranked 2nd in his 4th grade class.

The tattoo symbolizes how one should never stop learning.

"Actually, that's not allowed, you have to be 18 to get a tattoo, but it was my gift for him. My son has been asking for it, and his sisters were jealous when they saw it. I always tell my kids to smarten up first before they get tattoos. They have to prove they deserve it," Sta. Ana said in Filipino during an interview at the 9th Dutdutan Tattoo Expo.

Breaking tattoo taboos and promoting a more "meaningful" view of the art is one of the aims of the "2009 Dutdutan" held last Sept. 18-19 at the A. Events Hall in Makati.

The expo, sponsored by Tribal Gear and headed by PHILTAG, also seeks to promote and develop the Filipino tattoo industry so that it can be recognized internationally.

Even with a steep P250 entrance fee, the event still drew hundreds of tattoo artists, musicians, their wives and girlfriends, troops of teenagers, and curious onlookers.

Now on its 9th year, the Dutdutan - a double meaning for both tattooing and sex - featured more international exhibitors from France, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

It had events like tattoo-of-the-day contests, a mixed martial arts fight, concerts, and a bikini contest.

Sta. Ana, who has been tattooing since 1990, said the "Dutdutan" has grown from a simple undergound Christmas party by PHILTAG to a mainstream corporate brand-powered event that clinches a more high-end market.

Pinoy Designs

It’s the Philippine Independence day today June 12th, 2009. Let’s just pay some respect to the Pilipino tattoo artist out there. This tattoo is good, Filipino tattoo artists are good! It’s a cock fighting tattoo design… This is a traditional cock fighting for Pinoys…

Sabong or cockfight, which is believed to have started during pre-Hispanic era, is a turf of activity for Filipinos where demarcation between the rich and the commoners blurs. A game enjoyed by both young and immemorial, sabong is often tagged as a male-oriented “national past time” in which gamblers and playgoers, regardless of one’s social status, place on their bets in equal amount. Sabong can also be a very good window of Filipinos’ traits, one as being innovative. Slain roosters are either deplumed for feather duster or cooked in different dishes.

No it’s not the grouper fish. It’s the great Lapu-Lapu, then king of Mactan, whom you can see in the middle.

Regarded as the first Filipino hero, Lapu-Lapu is the first native who resisted Spanish colonization by Spanish soldiers when its leader—ironically, a Portuguese—Ferdinand Magellan set foot to the Philippine Islands year 1521. Though the Muslim chieftain was killed along with his men during the Battle of Mactan, he will always be remembered as a hero.

Having sad those, Lapu-Lapu can be seen as a central figure in the official seal of the Philippine National Police. His figure was also use in one of the now-defunct one centavo coins. A type of grouper fish which can only be found in the country is named after him. Believe it or not, but an alcoholic drink was also named in his honor.

So when you say Lapu-Lapu, it isn’t only the fish. He’s a hero worthy of admiration…

First called as monkey-eating eagles as they were believed to have preyed on monkeys when first discovered, the Haribon belongs to the Accipitridae family—world’s largest eagle. They can also be compared to human beings sharing the same practice of monogamy. Once paired, they’ll be partners for the rest of their life cycles. Life expectancy for these birds is calculated to be from 30 to 60 years.

The symbols on the white triangle of the Philippine Flag are an eight rayed sun and three gold stars.

The Sun: represents the dawning of a new era of self-determination desired in 1897 after the Spanish-American war and the US promise of independence, which was granted in 1946.

The 8 rays: stand for the 8 provinces that rose in revolt against Spanish rule in the late 19th century.

The 3 Stars: represents the 3 principal geographic areas of the country- Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

The red area of the flag: represents courage and bravery.

The blue area of the flag: represents noble ideas…..

Filipino tattoo artists considered as one of the best tattoo artist in the world… They also do it painlessly (Tattooing)…

Pinoy traditional tattoo culture 'dying'?

MANILA - Singer Bhava Mitra of the folk-rock band Kadangyan performed onstage at the Dutdutan 2009 Tattoo Expo with distinct ethnic tattoos on his upper chest and forearms.

Mitra's tattoo could be dismissed in the sea of inked bodies at the event, but his body art is special because it was done by one of the few remaining traditional tattoo artists in Cordillera.

Mitra, whose parents are from Benguet and whose grandparents are from Kalinga, said he got tattooed in 2004 under a certain "Master Fiang-ud" in Buscalan village near Tinglayan, Kalinga.

He said he consulted his parents and elders first and after careful thought, decided to get a traditional tattoo or "fiatek" (batek, in Kalinga).

Originally, tattoos were bestowed upon the wealthy, on exceptional warriors, and headhunters who would bring home a severed head as a prize.

Mitra said his tattoos would forever remind him of his Cordilleran roots.

"Kasi alam ko balang araw, bilang musikero, mapapadpad ako sa ibang lugar at mapapahalubilo ako sa iba-ibang tao, sa iba-ibang kultura. Connection ko 'to sa mga ninuno ko, sa mga kababayan ko sa Cordillera," he said in an interview at the Dutdutan 2009 expo held last September 18 - 19 at the A. Events Hall in Makati.

(I knew one day, as a musician, that I would go places and meet different people from various cultures. [My tattoos] are my connection to my ancestors, to my people in Cordillera.)

"Kahit saan man ako mapadpad, kahit magsuot man ako ng Amerikana, kahit maging slang ang English ko, alam ko pa rin saan ako galing kasi nakatatak na sa balat ko (Wherever I go, even if I wear American clothes, or even if I speak in slang, I know where I came from because it is etched on my skin)," he added.


Mitra's tattoo makes a gentle U-shape up his pectorals and down both his arms.

On his forearm is a beehive pattern that he said symbolizes a "smooth-running democracy", where worker bees, soldier bees, and the lone queen bee stick to their jobs while contributing to a communal goal.

Mitra said he also asked Master Fiang-ud to tattoo a centipede or "gayaman" on his back.

Lars Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist and Discovery Channel host, noted in his study on Cordillera tattoos that centipedes and other symbols like head-axes and scales are "protective and spiritually charged symbols."

"Among Kalinga, centipede scales were believed to ward off cholera," he said in his study titled "Return of the Headhunters: The Philippine Tattoo Revival" published on

Mitra's bandmates, hailing from Cebu, Samar, and Leyte also have tattoos on their bodies that mark their roots and honor their band's name "Kadangyan" that means "rich in culture".

Rhasamaya, their bassist from Cebu, reportedly bears the markings of the "Pintados", a term stemming from the Spanish conquistadors who landed in Cebu, saw its tattooed inhabitants, and dubbed the island "Islas de los Pintados."

The band even made a song about it.

Vanishing tattoos

Mitra noted, however, that the Cordillera tattoo culture is slowly dying off, if not already extinct.

"Wala na talaga. Kasi isipin mo, 10 years from now, yung mga 95 years old na tattoo artist dun, [tatagal pa ba?] (It's vanishing already. Think about it, 10 years from now, will 95-year-old tattoo artists still be here?)," he said.

The singer also said that many younger Cordillerans have no interest in training under tattoo masters or learning the native tattoo traditions of their area - a fact mentioned in Krutak's work.

"Wala nang interesado ngayon, kasi moderno na lahat. Lahat gusto maging attorney, lahat gustong maging mayor. Lahat ang tingin, masagwa ang isang attorney na maraming tattoo sa katawan. Ang tingin sa'yo punk o siguro artist lang. Ang tingin ng tao hindi puwede sa excecutive na trabaho," Mitra explained.

(No one is interested now because everything's modern. Everyone wants to be an attorney, everyone wants to be a mayor. Everyone thinks it's not proper for an attorney to have tattoos on his or her body. They think you are a punk, an artist, or that you aren't right for an executive position.)

As Krutak's study notes, there have been some movements to preserve FIlipino tattoo culture, like the Tatak ng Apat na Alon Tribe, founded by a group of Filipino-Americans in 1998.


Mitra says modern tattoos somehow continue traditional Filipino tattoo culture in some ways.

He said recent tattoo movements opened up the minds of Filipinos to embrace tattoos as meaningful markings and less as symbols of vagrancy.

Some tattoo artists in the Philippine Tattoo Artists Guild (PHILTAG) still practice "hantab", a tattoo tradition common in the Southeast Asian peninsula that uses plant thorns, natural pigments, and animal bones as tools.

Ricky Sta. Ana, a Fil-Chinese and the President of PHILTAG, stays true to his Chinese roots with trademark oriental designs like dragons, phoenixes, koi fishes, and other "Yakuza-style" tattoos.

On the Filipino side, he makes patterns, elemental symbols, and "alibata" characters.

Lee Albon, a British tattoo artist and PHILTAG member, who is interested in traditional tattooing in the Philippines thinks that Filipino tattoo culture is still alive, albeit in modern ways.

"It may be dying [in some areas], but the idea of tattooing, even in the modern way with a gun. I think the Philippine tattoo culture is growing, it's getting stronger," he said in an interview.

Sta. Ana is particularly interested in reviving Filipino tattoo art.

"We will have unique Filipino designs if we revive traditional tattoos. If that returns, it's better for the tattoo community, it will help make the Philippines known," he said.

Modern meanings

Philippine tattoo designs may have changed, but one thing sticks: that the ink should hold some sort of meaning.

As Sta. Ana puts it: "Dito mo maipapakita 'yong hindi mo masabi. Sa tattoo mo lang mapapakita. So may spiritwal, may rebellion, love, hate, lahat ng klaseng emosyon, napapakita sa tattoo."

(Through tattoos, you can show what you can't say. The things you can only show through tattoos. So there are spiritual [meanings], rebellion, love, hate - all kinds of emotions you can show through tattoos.)

Albon honors his friends and family through portrait tattoos and by allowing his Filipino friends to put their "signature" tattoos on him.

While tattoos should preferably hold some emotional meaning for the wearer, some people still get inked just for the heck of it.

A Singaporean tattoo artist named Eric, who attended the "Dutdutan 2009", said his body tattoos "mean nothing" to him. "I just like the art," he said.

The only tattoo on his body that holds special meaning for him is a dog tattoo on his calf, in memory of his dead pet.

Albon said he comes across customers with this attitude once in a while. "It's basically something [they] want. There's no rebellious act. [They] want to get into this kind of atmosphere with these people."

"Of all the jobs I've had in my life, tattooing has been the most enjoyable because the people - no matter where you come from, no matter what walk of life - you're accepted. And it doesn't matter what color my skin is, 'cause it's red, it's yellow, it's blue. It's the same as theirs," he added.

Mitra cautions younger people who want tattoos to think long and hard first about why they want to "get inked."

"You might regret it," he said in Filipino.

Body art may have varied meanings then and today, but for Albon, Sta. Ana, and Mitra, tattoos are definitely inks that bond them to culture, country, and community.


Although mingor were perhaps the most respected individuals of any Kalinga village, their masculine violence required acts of female mediation and spiritual guidance on behalf of the mandadawak. Of course, some Kalinga tattoo artists were also female and they permanently inscribed a man’s masculinity for all to see. In fact, tattoo artists were the only individuals that could make “real men” in the eyes of the community, since only they had the power to physically transform boys into men through painful tattooing rituals.

But mambabatok also transformed girls into women through the beautiful and intricate tattoos they created. Whang Od told of an old myth that says that women should be tattooed to increase their fertility. That is why many of the women in her village are tattooed and have large families. “I tattooed many of these older women before they reached puberty, because once their hormones kick in…we believe that the tattooing hurts more at that point. Women not only receive tattoos for fertility, but also for beauty, and some women can receive additional marks if their male relatives received some for success in war. Most of their designs came from nature, like rice bundles, ferns, steps or snake scales and especially centipedes which are powerful spiritual guides and friends of the warrior. Some of the women also have tattooed necklaces.”

Other male and female individuals like Whang Od wear small X’s on their faces either between the eyes, at the center of their cheeks, or at the tips of their nose. Some elders stated that these markings were placed on girls who struck (with family weapons) those human heads that were brought into the village. Others said that they are simply beauty marks. For example, when a woman is walking in the village, a man will take notice of her facial features because these tattoos are strategically placed at the contour points and they grab visual attention.

Whang Od’s other tattoos were given to her by her father. Upon closer inspection, her legs are completely covered with faint tattoo tracings which she said were her “practice marks.”

The mandadawak practice similar rituals when seeking to cure their sick patients of illness. In her attempts to determine which evil spirit is causing an affliction, the mandadawak sacrifices a chicken, pig or other animal. With a piece of green leaf, usually an orange leaf, soaked in the blood of the sacrifice, she sprinkles the crimson liquid on the hands and legs of the patient. She prays in a frightful manner over the head of the patient, and demands the evil spirit to accept the offering and to get out or remove the malady from the body.

Interestingly, the Kalinga believe that the smell of orange leaves is disturbing to evil spirits. And after a deceased family member is buried, the thorny twigs of the orange tree are placed at the entrances of the house of the dead for three to five days to keep its spirit from coming back into the neighborhood during the night and haunting anyone in the area. Although Whang Od could not give a definitive answer, probably the reason why she and other mambabatoks use orange thorn tattooing kits (siit) is because they have similar magical properties; evil spirits should always be kept away from the living especially when flowing blood may attract them. This is a common belief among many indigenous peoples that tattoo.


For hundreds of years, the Kalinga have overcome deadly colonial and tribal conflicts that threatened their security and survival in an unkind wilderness. Moreover, Christian evangelization profoundly altered their spiritual and social outlook, and new colonizers in the form of transnational logging, mining, and hydroelectric corporations threaten to usurp ancestral lands that have been, as one elder reported, “nourished by our blood.”

Out of these bitter struggles, however, the Kalinga have continued to be vigilant, courageous, and peaceful even though the 21st century is a time when the dynamism of modernity regularly clashes with their cultural practices and beliefs.

As more and more villagers migrate to towns and cities in search of jobs and college educations, many Kalinga have become dislocated from their ancestral traditions while others remain firmly rooted to them. But as long as the mountains and rivers of the Philippine Cordillera continue to rise and flow, their unity as a people will remain constant as this Kalinga proverb suggests: “From the mountains we derive our strength, the rivers our peace, the valleys our hopes and from the skies, the wisdom of our ancestors.”

For the Kalinga, nature has always provided a kind of talisman against unbridled change and a link to ancient traditions because it is constant, perpetual, and eternal. Nature was the basis from which many Kalinga cultural traditions sprang and none more so than the ancient art of tattoo. Tattooing was a natural language of the skin that gave voice to the ancestors and their descendants who attempted to emulate them by sacrificing their own bodies to make them more lasting and sacred.

Sadly however, Whang Od’s generation may be the last to wear these indelible symbols so closely tied to nature, Kalinga identity, and the ancestral past. And like the marauding headhunters who once roamed the mountains and forests of Kalinga only a century ago, these elders are the last vestiges of an era that will soon fade away into memory; but one that will always remain in story, song, and above all spirit.