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Philippine Tribal Tattoos

Philippine Tribal Tattoos

Tribal tattooing is slowly vanishing in many parts of the Philippines. Once a symbol of beauty, maturity, rank and bravery, knowledge of this ancient Filipino tradition of tribal tattoos is on the verge of being lost. The adoption and preference of modern Filipinos to western influences threatens tribal tattooing, a symbol of their once proud and unique culture. The art of tribal tattooing among ancient tribes were essentially performed in a similar manner differing only in the symbols and ingredients used in the actual tattoo. First, soot and sugar cane juice are mixed and then rubbed onto the skin. Lard, gall and even hen’s excrement is also used in its place.

Traditional tribal tattooing is very demanding and painful. The tattooed skin is injured and irritated. Swelling may last for a few weeks. Because of this, tribal tattooing is done in different sessions allowing the body time to heal. The completion of the tattoo may take months depending on its intricacy.

Tribal tattoos were so commonplace that the Spaniards dubbed the Visayan islands (where they first landed) “La Isla de los Pintados” (island of the painted ones). The pintados used small pieces of sharp metal which was first heated in fire. Elaborate designs are tattooed all over the body and only the hands and feet are left bear. Rubbing black powder made the tribal tattoo permanent. However, women tattooed only their hands.

The “Kankanay” of Benguet use a piece of wood with three iron points called “gisi”. Among tribes of the “Ibaloi” and “Kankanay”, tribal tattoos among males are rarely seen and are done only out of personal choice or whim. Women on the other hand, have their forearms (even up to the knuckles) tattooed with intricate designs making the natural color of the skin almost indiscernible.

The “Ifugaos” used a piece of iron with three points. Among its’ women, the use of leaf patterns, wavy lines and stars from the shoulder blades up to the back of the hand are common. Tattoos on the chest and abdomen are rare. They also use beaded necklaces and copper bracelets to further adorn themselves.

The “Kalinga” used five needles all at once. The males tattoo their arms, chest, back, shoulders and face elaborately. They base the patterns on the ornate design of the “silup” (upper garment) worn by the Northern Kalinga. The tribal tattoo is sported in place of the actual garment. The women of South Kalinga have the most ornately tattooed arms. They paint their faces orange and wear long necklaces which are also worn like a sash.

A more intricate instrument was used by the “Isneg” of Apayao called the “igihisi”. Four or five pins are connected at the end of a piece of rattan. Strings then connect the center to both ends. Rhythmically beating the igihisi drives the pins into the skin.

Today, Filipino Americans searching for their ancestral roots and the truth about their Filipino heritage offer a glimmer of hope in reviving tribal tattooing, a vanishing tradition. Ironically, they are the ones who best understand that for a people to regain their identity they must first be united in taking pride in their own culture.

Published by Damon Yeow

Simply Seeking Purpose. Enjoy the simple things in life and live an uncomplicated existence. View profile

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