After first seeing a traditional Asian tattoo technique in a TV horror scene in the ‘90s, I assumed that the traditional way of tattooing was way more painful than the modern tattoo machine.
When I did research on my maternal Filipino ancestry in 2018, I discovered that not only were tattoos very common in the Philippines prior to Spanish colonization and the spread of Christianity in the 16th century, but the practices have been maintained in some tribes to this day. Although there’s a lack of historical information, I feel that the traditional technique now has the opportunity for revival.
EARNING TATTOOS IN ANCIENT TIMES
There are several words for tattoo depending on the Filipino dialect, but for the purposes of this post I’ll use the Visayan batok to refer to the traditional Filipino tattoo.
Each tribe had different rituals. In the Waray tribe of my maternal ancestors, it was a rite of passage; men were ridiculed if they weren’t tattooed to signify their transition into manhood. Early accounts by Spanish chroniclers described batok worn head to toe as earned signs of nobility and bravery. Generally, the more you killed, the more batok you got.
By the late 19th century, whole-body tattooing had almost disappeared and was limited to just the arms and chest for men.
SPIRITUAL MEANING OF BATOK
What I find more fascinating than the status or aesthetic purposes of batok is the spiritual meaning behind the designs. For both genders in several tribes, batok was believed to survive beyond death, gaining passage to the afterlife. Other designs communicated knowledge from passed ancestors or the gods, or were marks to protect a person from angry ancestors or evil spirits.
MY FRIEND ROMEO GETS BATOK
While I was learning about my Waray ancestors — one of the earliest Visayan ethnic groups — my good friend and tattoo artist, Romeo, had already known quite a bit about batok through documentaries.
He met Filipino-American author and cultural practitioner Lane Wilcken in the summer of 2018, who did Romeo’s batok later that year.
With regard to the pain I originally associated with traditional tattoos, Romeo said, “I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of pain, but I was delightfully surprised that it was very bearable. I think I preferred the pain of the batok in comparison to the pain from a tattoo machine…I know for other people, it would hurt like hell. Everybody handles pain differently.”
WHAT MY BATOK MIGHT LOOK LIKE
When Romeo got his batok, I thought about how cool it would be to get one in the Philippines when I go to explore the culture and practices of my ancestors, if I do my research well enough and correspond with an artist in advance.
I looked forward to illustrating what might be my traditional tattoo. Aside from Waray, I also know that I have Igorot ancestors on my father’s side, and quite possibly Ilocano as well, since he had relatives who spoke the dialect.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find symbols online that were unique to my ancestry. There are a lot of images on Pinterest but it’s too difficult to trace the source and know the accuracy, so instead I’ve included examples of other tribes from Lane Wilcken’s book, Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern, which was the primary source of my research.
Several Filipino creation myths explain that the world began with water and land came afterwards, so a symbol for water would remind me where life originated.
From the land springs natural life, and the fern — specifically the hook image — is specific to the Igorot, who still dwell in the mountains. This would remind me to connect with nature, since I grew up a city girl. The fern hook also signifies harvesting; my ancestors on both sides were farmers.
Finally, both the Visayans and Ilocanos were weavers. It would be amazing to have patterns of both tribes, but I’m not sure if it’s unfavourable to have tattoos of different tribes together.
I would also need to ensure that the symbols I’m getting aren’t meant for men, from other ethnic groups, symbolize life experiences I haven’t had, or contain other unintended meanings.
The more I learn about my Filipino ancestry, the more excited I am to share it with others. Romeo had a similar experience when he learned about batok.
“Western society has made many people feel ashamed of their culture, which is so ridiculous,” he said. “Ancient practices are actually really amazing. It’s something I could be proud of.”
With the amount of information available to tell us about our ethnicities and ancestors, I hope that more people take advantage of the knowledge that exists about themselves, and gain an appreciation for the people and ancient art forms that came before us.
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