The Philippines’ dying art of Kalinga body tattoos

Somewhere among the Cordillera mountains of the Kalinga district in Northern Luzon, lives Whang-Od, a centenarian, who with her wrinkly old hands is the sole crusader keeping the tradition of Kalinga body art alive. Whang-Od belongs to a generation of people from the Philippines’ Buscalan community, who are probably the only few people left with elaborate inked designs on their body.

What is also intriguing is that 102 year old Whang-Od seems to be one of the last tattoo artists keeping this form of tribal body art alive in the Philippines.

Kalina tattoo artist
Traditional Tattoos | ©David Stanley/Flickr

Kalinga body art and tattoos have a long, rich history, that inextricably ties it to the life and culture of the indigenous community. Unlike modern day tattoos that only have a personal connection with the wearer, the Kalinga tattoos have important social and cultural connotations.

Their social symbolism is what sets them apart from modern tattoo art as we see in our cities. While tattooed Kalinga men were considered to be men of valour and bravery, tattoos on Kalinga women’s bodies would signify them coming of age, ready to take on marriage and motherhood.

The history and significance of Kalinga body art

An art so pure and sanct did not just come out of nowhere. Primarily known as a warrior tribe, the Kalingas have, throughout history, fought for and defended their community. The infamous and deadly headhunting Kalinga warriors were not only ruthless on their enemies, they also kept a count of the number of kills.

To celebrate these victories, the warriors would get special markings on their bodies designed in a certain pattern. This was how the Kalinga body tattoos became a sign of bravado. 

However, the act of tattooing a returning warrior’s body was more than just a fun exercise. The designs would be based on the number of enemies killed by the warrior, number of wars fought and the level of skill displayed in the battle ground. In a way, each warrior earned his own tattoo.

Designs typically included representations of the python snake or centipede and sometimes the rice terraces of Northern Luzon region would also make an appearance.

The story was a little different for the women in the Kalinga community. For women with such tattoos on their body, it was considered a sign of beauty and strength. In fact, in order to make their daughters more desirable, Kalinga parents would pay to get their daughter’s bodies decorated in ornate tattoos.

From as early as 13 years of age, Kalinga girls would be sent to a tattoo artist like Whang-Od to initiate the process of inking their bodies.

The tattoo-making process

Not only did the Kalinga tattoos had to be earned by the wearer, the tattoo making process itself needed them to have nerves of steel. Long, painful and often involving risks of infection, the process of creating traditional Kalinga tattoos from start to end can easily give jitters to an onlooker. The tattoo designing process a great deal of skill and is incredibly labor-intensive for the artist. Hence, in the Kalinga community, this ancient art is serious business, not one to be casually meddled with.

Kalinga tattoos
©Tilly Holland/Flickr

The instruments used by Kalinga “mambabatoks” (tattoo artists) may come across as rudimentary, especially if compared to their modern counterparts. While the primary ink-tapping instrument is made from bamboo, the needle used here is the thorn of a pomelo or lemon tree. The ink is nothing but a mixture of charcoal or soot mixed with water, which is transferred onto the skin by vigorously piercing the skin with the needle to create the desired pattern.

Needless to say, receiving a tattoo in this manner is extremely painful and it is not uncommon to see parts of the pierced skin bleed as a result during the process. So it is only fitting that men who used to display strength and bravery on the battlefield, qualified to receive elaborate tattoos multiple times over the course of their lives. With every big achievement in the battlefield came a new mark on their body, almost like a badge of honor.

What lies ahead for Kalinga body art

Despite this ancient body art having so much significance in the local community, it’s rare to find a young Kalinga man or woman with fresh tattoos on their body. Not only is it because there are barely any tattoo artists left apart from aging Whang-Od, it is also because full-body tattoos have a completely different connotation in the modern world.

Because body art has come to be associated with a certain lifestyle, it is not surprising that young members of the Kalinga community are mostly averse to getting such visible designs made on their bodies. At this point in time, the last signs of Kalinga body art can only be seen on the aging survivors who are quickly dwindling in number. 

As the years go by, it won’t be long before Kalinga tattoos, as a tribal art form, are no more to be seen among the indigenous people. Luckily for us, Whang-Od’s young niece is heard to have taken interest in this dying art and is learning the ropes of the trade from her legendary aunt.

Who knows, maybe someday she will be the one carrying forward Whang-Od’s legacy and helping to keep this traditional art alive!

Chandrika Ghosh

Chandrika Ghosh

Full-time travel blogger & writer from India on a mission to live life on her own terms. Perpetually suffering from itchy feet syndrome. Can be found zoning out into the distance when not typing away on a laptop. Survival strategy - tea & coffee.
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