Skin as archive of history, culture, identity

10:03 PM September 10, 2013

WHANG-UD, a 92-year-old Kalinga woman, is the oldest practitioner of traditional Kalinga tattooing, a skill she learned by observation. ANALYN V. SALVADOR-AMORES/CONTRIBUTOR

After much prodding, a university professor researching about tattoos got herself tattooed, enduring the pain from a lemon thorn dipped in charcoal, which a 92-year-old Kalinga woman, Whang-ud, used in leaving a permanent snake figure on her left shoulder.

Grimacing in pain, Analyn “Ikin” Salvador-Amores was able to endure the one-hour session somehow, thanks, she says, to Whang-ud’s comforting “ullalim” (a Kalinga chant).


Although her eyesight is poor, Whang-ud has been known in international media as the “last” and “oldest” practitioner of Kalinga tattooing, a skill she learned solely by observation.

Amores’ snake tattoo is not an ordinary ornamental design. It has a story, derived from the epic of Banna, a legendary Kalinga hero who gifted snakeskin to Lagkunawa, a woman he abducted and to whom he later proposed marriage.


The assistant professor of social anthropology at the University of the Philippines (UP) Baguio authored “Tapping Ink, Tattooing Identities,” a 467-page anthropological account about Kalinga tattoos. The book was launched at UP Baguio in July.

Published by UP Press, the book examines tattoos as a “cutaneous (referring to the skin) bodily archive for the Butbut people of Kalinga (province).”

The Butbut people are known for their boldness, courage and bravery. The slain Macliing Dulag, who helped lead his tribe in fighting against the World Bank-funded Chico River Dam project in the late 1970s and early 1980s during the reign of the late President Ferdinand Marcos, was a Butbut chieftain.

Tattoos as repository

“Tattoos are inseparable from the person’s body, which in turn represents the Kalinga self,” Amores writes. “Tattoos as markings can also be seen as remembrances on the skin and a cutaneous ‘archive’—a repository of stored memories, remembrances and other information. Essentially, tattoos record the biography of the wearer.”

One learns from the book the meanings of different tattoo designs. For instance, elders say the snake pattern provides camouflage to enable a warrior to remain undetected and safe from enemies during those days of tribal wars in Kalinga’s past.

The same snake tattoo serves as a talisman and body armor against enemy attack, or to protect women from the spirit of the enemies of the “lalapuan” (blood feud) or enemies of warring groups. This design, Amores notes, is found on the chests and arms of both men and women.


Besides examining tattoos as imprints of the past, the author analyzes their decline, continuity and transformation. Surprisingly, one reason for the decline is economics.

“Even if you go to the market in Tabuk (Kalinga’s provincial capital), these tattoos cannot buy anything now. The vendors would refuse; these tattoos could not even buy three heads of fish,” Amores quotes tattooed elder Pu-uyan.

Despite the view of the likes of Pu-uyan, Amores argues that the decline in status of traditional tattoos is not solely due to a general loss of understanding or awareness of tradition.

It reflects a simple change in preferences for new and different forms of tattoos, she says.

So to suggest that tattooing is in “demise” or a “dying tradition,” as a foreign author wrote in 2010, may not be entirely accurate, she says. “The practice has gained renewed significance in the context of 21st century identity politics,” she notes.

Although traditional Kalinga tattooing, using thorns and charcoal, is declining, traditional designs are being replaced by more figurative and graphic ones among the Butbut people and in northern Luzon in general, Amores says.

The author also features a renewed interest in Kalinga tattoos, which helped non-

Kalingans and foreigners with Filipino blood trace and rediscover their “Filipino-ness.”

Revival beyond Kalinga

“I was never fond of tattoos. I always believed I would never get one. But when my brother came back from Buscalan (in Kalinga) with photos and new tattoos, I knew immediately I had to pay a visit to Whang-ud. It was a memorable trip, especially as the village is far and difficult to get to but more so because it was a privilege and honor to be a recipient of such an old tradition,” Amores quotes Raphael Kiefer, a 26-year-old Filipino-Swedish.

Filipino-American Peace Corps volunteer Reynaldo Pellos, 35, shares the same experience.

“I searched for my Filipino roots by reading books on Philippine history and on Internet sites that contained Filipino customs and traditions. When I read about Whang-ud on the Internet, I felt my ‘Filipino-ness’ could be made permanent through tattoos,” Pellos tells the author.

Love affair with tattoos

As a UP graduate student in 2000, Amores submitted three topics for her adviser to consider.

One was about the “hilot” (traditional massage practitioner) as she was interested in “exploring the Filipino touch.” The other was about “suman” (rice cakes) as her way of rediscovering the “anthropology of food.”

The third—which, she says, “I was nervous about”—was on tattoos.

“For the two topics, I already made the rounds, visiting the hilots in Baguio for massage and tasting and eating all the suman all over the Cordillera, [which gave me] good data to start with,” she says.

But not for the tattoos. “I had a difficult time finding sources in the library about Cordillera tattoos, or Philippine tattoos in general—at that time, there were scarce literature on this subject,” she says.

Such curiosity and the need to know more about tattoos “piqued my interest to embark on serious research on this least known subject in Philippine arts and culture,” she says.

Amores’ thesis adviser, professor Francisco Datar, redirected her interest to study tattoos instead. This brought her to Kalinga and to the Cordillera villages, finding and talking to tattooed men and women in the region.

She pursued the same topic when she went to the University of Oxford for her postgraduate studies in 2006. There, she looked at the cultural history of tattoos from various archives. In 2008, she pursued her doctorate in social and cultural anthropology at the same university.

Supervised by professor Robert Barnes and his wife, both renowned anthropologists working on Southeast Asia, Amores pursued to research and write about what she felt was lacking in available written literature about Philippine tattoos: How does it feel getting tattooed? What is their significance? And why tattoo?

She found that most of the literature available were from visual sources, such as drawings, illustrations and photographs based on missionary reports, colonial writings and travelogues at the turn of the century.

Her research journey gave birth to “Tapping Ink, Tattooing Identities,” her first dissertation. The book may yet be the most comprehensive anthropological account about Kalinga tattoos written by a Filipino author.

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