Monday, January 3, 2011

Filipino Tattoos:Ancient to Modern



I first took notice of young undergrads at UC Berkeley sporting baybayin tattoos in the mid-90s.  Elsewhere I wrote about these tattoos as signifying a desire to reconnect with one’s Filipino indigenous roots or ethnic/cultural heritage. I also wrote that perhaps some of the young folks were just riding a wave of popular culture: the modern primitive. As I perused photography books at bookstores and television spectacles about these modern primitives, I began to wonder about the meaning of such practices.

I thought that in these postmodern times when everything is in flux and identities are hybrid, fluid, cosmopolitan and even “homeless”, the body has become the last territory that a person can still have some control over or ownership. Perhaps, I thought, if our lives are so controlled and mediated by business corporations and the corporate media, the body is trying to assert its own authority. Since tattoos are still relatively marginalized in the dominant culture, those who choose to wear them are asserting their own resistance to dominating narratives. In my head, I kept on theorizing about postmodern practices of resistance to the fetishes of capitalism. But something shifted soon after.

In 1997, as I was recovering from a car accident, I asked a henna artist to draw a “tree of life” tattoo on the six-inch scar along along my right arm. A henna temporary tattoo lasts for about 4 -6 weeks. I got this tattoo the day before I enplaned to the Philippines to recover in my Mother’s arms. Naturally, when she saw my arm she squirmed and asked “what have you done?” – thinking that this was permanent.  

I loved this temporary tattoo; it was my way of marking my survival. My second life commenced with this gesture of marking my body, even if only temporarily. My mother was relieved that it was temporary. But I think for the rest of her life she wondered about this strange daughter’s surprises and musings.

Thus, today I sit with Lane Wilcken’s Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern and praising the book for filling in a lot of blanks for me about this ancient practice.
In this book, Lane provides in-depth and wide-ranging perspectives on the connections of Filipino tattoo designs with Polynesian/Pacific Islander myths and practices; what Filipino tattoos signified among specific tribal groups; designs or motifs derived from the animist worldviews of indigenous peoples; and how contemporary Filipino Americans are choosing to tattoo themselves with tribal symbols.

As we[1] attempt to articulate Filipino Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices (IKSP), Lane adds to this body of knowledge with this book. How do we recuperate the relevance of these indigenous practices and why and what for? In this book, Lane documents the answers to all these questions. What comes through loud and clear for me is that these are living traditions. In indigenous communities where the belief that all is Sacred and animated by the spirits of our ancestors, these living traditions of marking the body with beauty is an extension of one’s relationship to the Sacred. Whether it is to signify the courage of the warrior, safe passage into the other life, or protection from malevolent spirits, or to beautify one’s body, or to signify kinship with other created beings, like the buwaya/crocodile – these living traditions are kept alive and their symbolic meanings provide the power that is invoked by the chosen tattoo.

To choose to be tattooed is a decision not to be taken lightly. In their indigenous contexts, the community had a shared understanding of the rituals, the symbolic meanings of body adornment. Today, in the diaspora and in the absence of such communities, Lane writes about the meditation that is required before one chooses to be tattooed. As with Asian and Filipino practices like qi gong, acupuncture, kali – these practices require not only the acquisition of skill but the transformation of one’s world view, values, and lifestyle. It may mean a serious reckoning with colonial history, a conscious decolonization process, a shift in lifestyle choices, a shift in the way we eat or what we eat – all of which are part of the process of connecting to the timelessness and Sacredness of Life.

In this book, Lane’s connection to his great grandmother who was a mamangkit/spirit medium, and his grandmother who was a manghilot, is evident. As the receiver of this heritage he has devoted more than two decades of his life researching and documenting this Filipino living tradition. Using the earlier works of American and European anthropologists who documented Filipino tattooing, Lane is able to recontextualize these traditions in the Filipino indigenous world view.  To me, this is a critical intervention that is needed for us to fully appreciate these traditions outside of the colonial gaze and outside of the construction of “modern primitives.” In doing so, Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern, returns us to our nobility, beauty, wisdom, and…a sense of magic.

Synchronistically, I have been reading about the recovery of indigenous mind (Jurgen Kremer, 1997; 2003) for white folks and for those who have been subjected to colonialism and imperialism.  Kremer refers to the “original instructions” that are given to people and how these instructions need to be taken cared of through ceremony, ritual, dreams; it means to “live in the presence of the past for the future. The original instructions are from the past, we need to bring our present into them, so that creation emerges from the center of our cultures. They contain the information for sustainable living.”[2]

This is the gift of Lane Wilcken’s book; it is an offering and honoring of our Ancestors and their gifts to us. Whether you are Visayan, Ilokano, Gaddang, Kalinga, etc, male or female, modern, in the homeland or in the diaspora – you will find relevant information about your ancestors or about your Filipino history in this book. Even if you have not or will not consider getting a tattoo yourself, you can draw knowledge and wisdom about the ways of our ancestors from this book. You might learn to understand these cultural practices in terms of the validity of the indigenous worldview; for the value of honoring the past in order to honor the present; for valuing our ancestors and their legacy of Sacred Wholeness. You might learn to question the ways in which our ancestors’ practices were portrayed as primitive, barbaric, demonic, or heathen.  I only say “might” because the work of doing so – of questioning, reflecting, valuing – is a process of grieving what has been lost under colonization. It is a process of painful re-membering of the stories and practices we have traded in. But if there is even a glimpse of resonance, of magic, that rises to your awareness as you read the book and look at the photographs, pay attention to that whisper. It is your indigenous soul calling you Home.

For me, I specially like this passage: “A woman’s tattooing was an affirmation of her strength and inherent spiritual power, procreative endowment, and as a form of clothing, an enhancement of beauty and a proclamation of her status. Finally, the tattoos were a form of recognition that allowed the soul of a woman to pass into the afterlife and join the glorious chain of her ancestors.” (57).

[1] “We” here refers to the Center for Babaylan Studies whose mission is to provide a container for Filipino IKSP and articulate their relevance today for Filipinos in the homeland and in the diaspora. Visit
[2] Jurgen W. Kremer, “Recovering Indigenous Mind,” in Revision,  Vol. 19. No. 4, p.33. 1997.


  1. Leny, you have a heartfelt way of writing that reveals to me what I have been looking for. I love the way you write dear sister and teacher of mine. And thanks to Lane for writing this book. And now after both you and Letty have been talking about this J.Kremer, well now I really have to read RIM.

  2. thanks, Perla. this journey has been awe-inspiring because you have been walking along with me. your artistry and my words dance together in the books we've done...
    a book club recently adopted "A Book of Her Own" as their first book of choice. i think it's because of the beautiful art work:-))