The role of ritual and spirituality in diasporic Philippine cultural tattoo practices

It’s impossible to talk about cultural tattooing without talking about colonisation and history, so first, a digression:

Los Pintados

Tattooing isn’t generally thought of as part of modern Filipino culture, unless it’s from a Western context. Tattoos are thought of as marks of a rebellious and suspicious nature, or of someone with a big enough sense of individualism to commit to a piece of art that will stay with them for life.

Not a lot of people know that this wasn’t always the case, and that it’s actually not having tattoos that isn’t traditionally Filipino.

When Spanish explorers first set foot on Philippine soil, they found the islands inhabited by people whose skin were so draped in color they were called “los pintados,” or “the painted ones.”

And what do colonisers do when they come across a culture that is different from theirs? They proceed to erase it. Under the guise of Christianity, the Spanish proceeded to label many indigenous practices “evil,” and this include tattooing. They were so effective in doing this that they managed to erase whole tattooing cultures, not to mention produce dutiful Christian citizens who are quick to judge tattooed individuals as uncivilised.

Nowadays, traditional tattooing isn’t thought of much in the Philippine mainstream unless Whang Od, the oldest mambabatok (traditional hand-tapped tattoo artist) in the country is involved, but in the United States, it’s slowly being considered by Filipino Americans as a way of connecting to their roots.

Cultural tattooing in the Filipino American community was popularised by Las Vegas-based Lane Wilcken, also called Manong Lane, Maong being a male honorific. 

“Those in the Filipino community here in the States began referring to me as a mambabatok but I didn’t really give myself that title,” he says. “I was a scholar first and learned about the lore (and) background information behind batok… for my own… education, but then people began asking me to do the work for them, and so most of my practice is a diasporic practice here in the States and I’ve just been trying to do right by our community over here to the best of my ability.”

Though he is called a mambabatok, he is quick to stress that it wasn’t a title he placed on himself, nor does he come from a mambabatok lineage. “I don’t go around telling people I’m mambabatok. I say I’m a cultural tattooist or cultural tattoo practitioner.” 

A spiritual and cultural practice

Wilcken had been studying Philippine cultural tattooing since 1989 before beginning his practice in 2012, and though he had knowledge of the processes and symbolisms involved, he didn’t have access to batok’s spiritual and ritual aspects “because in most places in the Philippines, it’s extinct… We’ve lost those prayers, we’ve lost the lore that goes along with it.” 

He researched how rituals are done in the ethnic groups that still practice hand-tapped tattooing or had a living practice within recent recorded history, and found some commonalities: “…There are usually prayers to invite the spirits, there are food offerings to the spirits—it’s a type of enticement to show respect and to symbolically feed those spirits or ancestors—and then there’s usually feasting.”

He also incorporated spiritual practices from his mother’s side of the family into his batok rituals, where he is also the manangatang, which is “an Ilocano term (for) the person who makes offerings to the spirits and does the prayers for them.”

Even though his mother’s family had migrated to the USA, they hadn’t lost their traditional spiritual ties. This is rare, even in the Philippines, which is predominantly Catholic. His grandmother was steeped in folk practices, and was considered a healer in their Filipino community. 

“Even though we grew up here in the States, there was still a lot of the old belief system that we practised. One of the more common examples is that if my mom had a bad dream, nobody went to work, nobody went to school that day, that kind of thing,” Wilcken shares. “…or whenever I would visit the Philippines as a child, my mom and my grandmother would always make sure I didn’t offend any of the ninuno (earth spirits) that might inhabit the balete trees (Ficus benjamina Linn.) or anything like that. It’s still very part of their conscious walk through life.”

Julienne Palbusa of Oakland, CA. She is of Kankanaey lineage. She has the Panyat motif on her arm. Photo (Natalia Roxas)

The Polynesian connection

Wilcken moved to Hawaii when he was 19, and it was here where he realised the similarities between Filipino and many Polynesian cultures. 

“The Pacific is really the diaspora of culture, and all these different islands are daughter expressions of a culture that we all originated from. In fact, if you studied (Filipino) oral traditions and you studied Polynesian oral traditions, we all trace our lineages back to these very same people by name,” he says. “And unfortunately, because the Philippines was colonised much earlier than the rest of the Pacific, we have had a lot more damage to our ancestral memory… we don’t remember these old ancestor deities that were honored in the past.” 

That the Philippines shares Polynesian roots is contested, but the cultural similarities have formed the basis of some of Wilcken’s scholarship and formal training as a cultural tattoo practitioner. 

One of the things he discovered is that the inhabitants of what would eventually be called the Philippines had been practising ritual tattooing for about 4000 years, but because of Spanish colonisation, almost all of these practices were lost within the last 500. 

“We’re probably one of the oldest tattooing cultures in the Pacific but how many Filipinos know that we have a practice? Usually they just think, ‘Oh, that’s just an Igorot practice,’ or ‘That’s just a Lumad practice down south,’” he says. “The reason the Spaniards called the islands ‘Las Islas de los Pintados’ before they renamed it after King Philip of Spain is because everyone, to their perception, looked painted. Pintado. They all looked painted because there’s an abundance of tattooing.”

Though Wilcken is self-taught, he was mentored by Su’a Suluape Alaiva’a Suluape of Samoa. “(The) family has been tattooing for over 3000 years… they have (an) unbroken lineage and they’re the most prestigious tattooing family in the Pacific,” Wilcken says. 

His other mentor is Hawaiian cultural restorationist Su’a Keone Nunes who also aims to bring “back the practice of traditional tattooing for the Hawaiian people.”

“He also was very instrumental in the way that I approached my practice and also helped me recreate the tools from the past, which, unfortunately… there’s no one to teach me within the Philippines because it’s extinct,” Wilcken explains. “It was fortunate that our cousin cultures were able to help us fill in the gaps in our cultural memory and help me recover the tools that we find in these excavations but there’s no one to teach us how to do it. 

“And that’s invaluable because having someone from a living tradition teach us how to do that again. There’s less experimentation, there’s less trial and error and mistakes, so I was very fortunate that these two men took me under their wings and guided me in my practice.”

Piecing together forgotten lore

Wilcken’s knowledge in terms of lore stems from decades of study that involved travelling to different places to interview people, procuring rare and out of print books, and scouring random articles for even the slightest mention of tattooing in the Philippines. “…unfortunately, a lot of people here in the States… want to focus on what we have lost, but we really have so much left. We just have to ask and look for it… My study hasn’t just been with books and manuscripts, I’ve also interviewed elders along the way,” he says.

Much of what he had to rediscover is tattoo literacy: which designs belonged to which ethnic groups, and what they meant when tattooed on certain parts of the body. 

“…when you know what the designs are, when you have that literacy, it symbolises the relationship that you have or want to have with those that have passed on the other side,” he says. 

And so what looks like a hexagon, for example, will differ in meaning depending on its size and placement. “…being Filipino is a nationalistic construct, right? The reality is we all come from these different ethnic groups that have their own different expressions of their cultural practices.”

From there, someone literate in traditional Philippine tattoo symbolism will be able to tell what ethnolinguistic group the tattooed person is from, what their lineage is, what is meaningful to them, and so on. “So not everyone gets the same marks,” he says. “For example, you might be Ilocano and you can get the Ilocano marks, but out of those marks you can potentially receive, not all of those might be right for you because you might not fulfil that particular role in the community. You would not put a healer’s mark on somebody who is not a healer.”

Because the marks are so specific, it can be difficult for a non-Filipino to get a traditional Filipino tattoo that isn’t commercial. However, it is not impossible. 

“…when it comes to non-Filipinos receiving these marks, I make sure that I take my time to understand their motivation. If they are participants in our community. If they provide for our community. Are they married into our community? Why do they want this? Why not have their own ancestors on their body, why have ours? Those are the kinds of questions that we ask.,” Wilcken says. “Just because you want it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to tattoo you. Because people will come for a multitude of reasons. Vanity is not a reason to get a tattoo. Looking like The Rock or Jason Momoa is not a reason to get a tattoo. It goes deeper than that.”

Riane Cardenas of O’ahu, Hawai’i. Ilokano lineage, she has the bayabas motif on her arms. (Lane Wilcken)

The process

Determining a person’s motives for getting a cultural tattoo is just the first part of the process. 

There is also an interview of sorts where Wilcken will ask what province their ancestors hail from, what they  do or their family traditionally did for a living, and other questions to determine what kind of tattoo he should give them, how big it should be, and where it should be placed. This process can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. After he has the information he needs to determine what tattoo to give a client, “I will sometimes step out of the room to meditate on it, to pray about it, and make sure that that’s the right marks that they should have, and if I feel confident about it, then I come back in and I begin drawing on their body the designs I feel that they need to have, of course explaining as we go what the designs mean, often where they’re derived from.”

That’s the thing about a cultural tattoo: it is bestowed upon the receiver by the master and not the other way around. The spiritual element inseparable from the act implies that each mark carries, not just the story of the person it is inked on, but of their ancestors as well. This can be challenging because the practice has died out in all but a few remote places in the Philippines, which is why Wilcken places such a huge importance on research, including cross-cultural research between different ethnic groups in the Philippines and its Pacific cousins.

But before a drop of ink touches skin, even before the receiver arrives, the space must be ritually cleared. Wilcken declined to mention how it is done, only that the rituals have been in his family for generations.

The tattooing process itself can be quick, depending on the person’s skin.

“…if they’re mixed with northern European, sometimes that’s problematic because the skin is tougher, it’s less receptive to being tattooed and I have to hit them harder… Sometimes with mestizas, you’ll get that perfect storm of tough skin and elasticity of the Filipina and… the tool just bounces off your skin. I have to make sure the tools are stupid sharp and I might have to hit them harder, which I don’t like to do…. Generally speaking, if you’re kayumanggi (brown), you tattoo great. The browner you are, the darker you are, the more accepting your skin is. And if you use papaya soap, any of the skin whitening, glutathione stuff, your skin is terrible to tattoo. It thins out the skin. I’ve tattooed a few Filipinas that whitened their skin… and the tattooing almost never goes well… Brown is beautiful.”

He used to make his own ink from the traditional recipe of soot, water, and sugarcane juice, the latter acting as a fixative as it ferments, but “you got about a four day window before that becomes suka (vinegar).” Now he uses a commercially made tattoo ink specifically made for hand-tapped tattoos. 

Spiritual practices

Cultural tattooing is as much a spiritual practice as it is a cultural one. Guava leaves are burned to cleanse a space of negative energies and unwanted entities. Tungkod-pari (Cordyline fruticosa), known as the Ti plant or good luck plant, is planted near the door as it is considered medicinal and spiritually protective in many Austronesian and Pacific cultures, including the Philippines. Garlic, ginger, and salt also play a big part in spiritual protection, depending on which part of the country someone’s ancestors hail from. This can affect the way food is offered to one’s ancestors as part of the preparation ritual.

“…if you’re Visayan, you don’t put salt in the food. The food has to be plain because you don’t want to drive off your ancestors. But in other regions, they’ll do… full blown meals sometimes,” Wilcken relates. “Or a pàrticular type of chicken. In the Visayas, they might (use) a white legged white rooster. Even the comb needs to be white. The legs need to be white. The Ilocanos like… the yellow legged white rooster for offerings.”

Sometimes, a tattoo can be used to exorcise an unwanted entity who has taken residence in a human body. “Sometimes people come because they want protection from malevolent entities,” Wilcken says before relating an experience he had with a petite mestiza based in Chicago. 

Even before she arrived, his assistant, who is energetically sensitive, was already feeling weird, and had warned him that something was off. “And sure enough, when she showed up, around her immediate presence it felt very dark and heavy and dirty even.”

They did not know it, but the woman was carrying a tiyanak, which, depending on the lore, can either be an earth spirit that likes to disguise itself as a human baby, or an entity that used to be a human baby that was either aborted or miscarried. In this case, it was the latter. Wilcken didn’t know it, but what was supposed to be a regular batok session would turn into an exorcism.

“Here in the States, and even back home to a degree, people don’t even think about the possibility of a tiyanak, right?” Wilcken says. “We tend to be very, very dismissive of that, which I don’t think is right. But in the old practice, if you did not mourn the baby, you did not make offerings for that miscarried baby, then it has the possibility of becoming a tiyanak.”

The recipient had brought two companions—two white guys over 200 lbs., who helped Wilcken’s assistant is pretty strong herself, stretch her skin for tattooing. But while Wilcken was busy hand-tapping her chest piece, she began to scream and go into a birthing position, lifting everyone up with her. 

“She’s arching onto her shoulder blades and her heels and lifting all of these people who are close to 200 lbs if not more, off of her. Just inhuman strength. And I knew it was happening. The entity did not want her to have what we were putting onto her body, but when the tattooing was done, she got up (and) goes, ‘I feel so much lighter now! I feel so much better!’ And you could see in her face, her whole countenance changed. Before, you could see this darkness about her, you could taste it almost, this heaviness that was with her, and when she was done with her chest piece, she was lighter.”

Wilcken adds that some tools traditionally believed to drive away evil spirits such as stingray tails, which are used to repel aswangs, are sometimes used in batok. In this particular case, he happened to be using a stingray barb as a needle. “I even had some bayabas leaves with me and whenever I would light the bayabas and I would come near to where I was going to tattoo this protective mark on her, the fire would go out, and it happened several times.”

But using a tattoo to exorcise a person of an entity isn’t the end all and be all. The person must still do internal healing to make sure it doesn’t happen again. “I was very blunt with that couple. I just said, ‘Whatever that was has been driven away, but if you don’t take precautions and make changes in your life, it will find another way to get access to you again.’”

Experiences like this are thankfully uncommon, and Wilcken says it’s something that isn’t generally discussed. “There is this spiritual aspect to batok that a lot of people don’t know about and we generally don’t talk too much about because it can be frightening, but that’s another aspect of the practice because it’s more than just adornment. It’s more than just marks of tribal affiliation… or marks of your specific role in the community. There’s a lot of depth of understanding to this that we really don’t appreciate… unless you’ve really taken the time to study it. And we still are just discovering more and more.”

Kymee Burk of Maui, Hawai’i. She is Hawaiian-Filipina lineage. She has the Tungkod ng Pari motif on her arm. (Natalia Roxas)

Batok’s role in diasporic culture

Again, Wilcken is self-taught. He does not come from a mambabatok line, nor does he refer to himself as a mambabatok. He also stresses that his knowledge comes from decades of scholarly work which included interviews with Philippine practitioners and mentorship from Samoan and Hawaiian traditional tattoo artists. That said, his research has been very important, in filling in the blanks of a practice that has been erased.   

In the Filipino American (FilAm) community, batok can also be a way for FilAms to reclaim their roots. “In the diaspora, a lot of us… go through a lot of identity issues. We are in a foreign place, we don’t look like the rest of the people here, and for us, what is there to be proud of as a Filipino?” he says. “Yeah, we have pansit, we have lumpia, we have Manny Pacquiao, but we, especially in the diaspora, we hunger for something deeper to be proud of… We don’t always relate to modern Filipino culture but for some reason or another, the ancient stuff resonates with us….”

While cultural tattooing has been one way for FilAms to find a connection with their ancestors, things can get muddy precisely because most of this practice has been wiped out. Some tattoo artists will call themselves cultural practitioners but will “slap just about anything that comes from the Philippines on another person (because) they’re again thinking in terms of nationalism instead of a specific ethnolinguistic groups that these designs belong to.” 

Another thing he wishes more people understood is that in cultural tattooing, the tattoos are bestowed on the recipient. It’s not like the Western way where the client picks out a design from a clearbook. “One of the things that isn’t really talked about because we’re seeing it through Western eyes is that the mambabatok is also a spiritual practitioner. They are considered connected so the spirits will communicate to them which of the designs is right for them.”

It’s the same way in other Pacific tattooing cultures as well. “In the greater Pacific, among our cousins, not only do the people have no choice, but they don’t even know what they’re getting on their body until it’s done because (the artist) doesn’t even draw it half the time. They might make a few reference marks. And they’re always respected.”

He practices what he preaches. “When I visited Apo Whang Od, I had no expectation to get a tattoo but if it was going to happen, I was open to it. She chose the design. I didn’t have a choice. I let her do everything. It’s really out of my hands because she’s the expert.”

A third thing he wishes more people understood (which has also been the topic of this article) is that batok is a cultural and spiritual practice and not simply getting ink done, and so it has to be respected as such. 

“One of the things that bothers me about what has happened in Buscalan (the village in Kalinga province Whang Od is from) is that people go up there and they haggle for a lower price with the mambabatok. You contrast that with how the Sulu’ape family is approached? People bend over backwards to honor them. Clothing. Money. Livestock. Gifts. Because they understand how important this is culturally,” he says.

“In the other parts of the Pacific among our cousins, sometimes the cultural tattooist holds a higher position than the chief… because they can spill the chief’s blood. Whereas if anyone else did it, they’d be put to death. So that gives you context of how important the cultural tattooist is.

“Unfortunately, again, for us, especially in the diaspora, we don’t have that context anymore. And so you have people go up to Buscalan and haggle for a low price. You’ll have people come through and instead of providing a generous alay (offering) for their ancestors, they’ll bring like, day old siopao. They just don’t know. Our people, unfortunately, especially in the States, are just lost sometimes. So little gets transmitted once they cross over the ocean. Other times, we have people that come through, they do a full kamayan (a feast eaten by hand) for their family and put out all these food because they really respect and want that relationship with their ancestors again.”

Part of Wilcken’s practice is to educate people about how doing this is a disservice to the tradition. “…what we want to do is reestablish that visual vocabulary and the literacy that goes along with it, so that it isn’t just broadly Filipino.” 

So far, it’s been working. There are stories of culturally tattooed FilAms recognizing each other based on the designs and placements of their ink. “The visual literacy is coming back in the diaspora, but there’s still a lot more work to be done to bring our people back to that level again, and I’m unfortunately just one person.”

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Yvette Natalie U. Tan is a multi-awarded author of horror fiction and the Agriculture section editor of Manila Bulletin.