BY: Matthew Bencito

Now that tattoos have become more widely accepted among the modern era, there has been a greater appreciation for regional tattoo practices. American Traditional, Japanese, and Old English are among the styles that have come to fruition in recent generations. Filipino Tribal (Batek) is now also a sought-after style for many young Filipino-Americans, but finding an artist that can give true Batek is tough to come by and many of those few artists will only tattoo on clients that are of Filipino descent. Sometimes if a client is not well educated in the culture behind the ink, the artist might not even give a client a tribal tattoo regardless of ethnic descent.

Although the practice of tattooing was similar across the many tribes of old Filipino cultures, its notoriety did not become known to foreign lands until the first Spaniards were defeated during their first attempts in colonizing the Philippines. They were defeated by a fierce army from the Visayas that they nicknamed “Pintados”, meaning “painted people”. Tattoos were commonly used to give warriors protection, intimidate their enemies, and to signify their status within their tribes.

The most studied and observed tattooing practices in the Philippines are of the northern mountain tribes which include the Kalinga, Bontoc, and Ifugao peoples. The northern Filipino tribes of the olden days are also known as the Head Hunters. After their first kill in a battle, a man would be given their first tattoo, “gulot”, which is normally designed as a simple banded stripe. As a warrior becomes more recognized for their kills, they would receive more and more intricate tattoo patterns until he is deemed worthy to become tattooed on the face. A tattoo on the face would mean that they have become a warrior of the highest level: “mai’ngor”.

Even though Batek has been connected with Filipino men and their roles as warriors, tribal women were also welcomed to become inked as well. For women, the meanings and significance of their tattoos have a few differences that of the tattooed men. Women wore their tattoos as statements of beauty, prayers of fertility, as well as signs of their status in their tribes.

Much of the designs that were and are currently still used in Batek gain inspiration from nature, animals, and also highlighted areas where an individual grew up. For example, if an individual spent most of their life in mountainous regions then many designs would be made to resemble mountains. There are also names for the tattoos depending on what they represent or where they are placed. “Labid” is a vertical design with zigzagging patterns to represent snakes or a crocodile’s scales. “Bangut” is the name given for a design that resembles the face of an eagle or the jaws of a crocodile. “Ablay” is a tattoo on the shoulder, “Daya-Daya” is on the arms, and “Dubdub” is on the chest.

With the revitalization and popularity of old art forms, it’s important to know the origin of what it is that you are practicing, especially with tattoo forms like Batek. Regional tattoo practices have deep cultural meanings that are significant to the people that they represent. If you are going to become marked by symbolism that holds home to a country of origin, learning what they mean and connecting it to a reason of significance is imperative. Even if your blood is tied to an ethnicity, it does not mean that you have done the research and work to represent its people and experiences.

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PINAYSPHERE is a youth arts program founded by Jennifer Benitez that provides not only mentorship and networking opportunities but dialogues on culture and self care for rising FIlipina artists. This group is a safe space that caters not only to Pinay artists, but also gender non-conforming members of the creative community. It is open to youth from the ages of 12-24 years old who are actively pursuing careers in an artistic field, or who value artistic contributions.