Traditional Tattoos: The Identity of Northern Luzon

by Ethnic Groups Philippines

Kalinga father and son21 April 2020

Tabuk – In recent years, there has been a rising interest in the traditional cultural practice of tattooing in the Philippines. Many may mention Apo Whang-Od from Buscalan, Tinglayan, Kalinga as Northern Luzon's tattooing expert. However, many do not know that there are many other tribes in the region who also practice such tattooing. It just so happens that Apo Whang-Od is the oldest living mambabatok (tattoo artist).

Sadly, there is very little known information about the practice of tattooing in the country aside from seeing the practice in the context of the Cordillera's headhunting in the pre-colonial period. What exactly do these symbols mean? How do they represent the lives of the people in the region?

Batek: Tattooing of the Kalinga

The practice of tattooing in the Philippines can be seen in various locations. The general terms used to identify the tattoos are batuk or patik. Even in the same region of the Cordillera, there are variations with the term used: batek (in Kalinga), fatek (in Bontoc), and fatok (in Benguet).

In one of the studies of Analyn Ikin Salvador-Amores, a social anthropologist, she gathered and documented the tattooing practices of the Ilubo, Kalinga. She identified the view of foreign ethnographers to the idea that tattooing was only performed in line with the practice of headhunting. However, it is better to see the tattoos as cultural symbols that represent the complex cultural and social relations of the Ilubo people. They are not simply body ornamentation. The tattoos are connected to the lives of the people through the rituals involved and their symbolism.

Community Identification

Again, from Salvador-Amores' study, she identified the Kalinga tattoos as symbols that represent the community's social action and different rites of passage. She recorded the practices of the Kalinga passage from childhood, adulthood (igam), and old age (baratang/baraker). In such tradition, the rites were completed with boundary-markers in the form of the tattooing ritual. Within a tribe's sphere, they have a manbatek (tattoo artist) who performs the rituals together with the kin groups. The ritual is done by piercing the individual's body with patterns and designs that bear a particular meaning to the stage in their life as well as something the entire community would understand. They use a pat-ik (stick), gisi (tattoo instrument with needles; may be a carabao horn bent over the fire), and gambang (needles). Through this action, the Ilubo people can provide a shared idea to mark a collective memory, which later on also helps the individual Ilubo member have a sense of belonging within the tribe.

A Lost Practice

Even with the intricate life phases involved in the practice of tattooing of the Ilubo, it is already a dying cultural practice. There are still the likes of Apo Whang-Od who still marks tattoos on Filipinos and foreigners alike. However, the Northern Luzon tribes have lost the cultural connection of such acts. As one aspect of the tradition stops, one of the cultural practices gradually follows. In this case, those traditions that ceased were headhunting and the rites of passages. Despite all of these concerns, it is a good thing to remember and understand the history behind the tattooed people of Northern Luzon as well as other tribe members across the Philippines. It is time to learn the stories behind the marks to fully grasp the lives of the people then and have a better appreciation of the remaining men and women who have the marks of the warriors and the culture of the Northern people.