BOOK REVIEW: FILIPINO TATTOOS – Ancient to Modern

by Rose Churma

This is the first study of ancient Filipino tattoos, a cultural practice connected with ancestral and spiritual beliefs. It is also an art form that has existed in other cultures and was reintroduced in the Western consciousness by people inhabiting the multitude of islands in the Pacific.

The book describes the tools used in marking tattoos and explores the meaning of individual tattoo designs in context with its cultural setting. For certain tribes in the Philippines, the use of tattoos enhances attractiveness, promotes fertility, is a record of achievement and bestows honor to the individual. It is also considered as a “symbolic binding of the individual to their ancestors and posterity.”

This publication contains fascinating visuals and images of tattoo designs, photographs of individuals showing off their tattoos, sketches, drawings, and maps of both ancient as well as contemporary times.

An interesting chapter is the section on modern Filipino tattooing. If the ancient perception of tattooing is on conformity, the modern one is on rebellion. Many parents can empathize with the shock of seeing one’s daughter of son marked with designs—some strange, others familiar.

Apparently, the depiction of the Philippine flag is popular or variations of the flag’s sun and three stars. The sun in the Philippine flag has eight rays which represent the eight provinces that rebelled against Spain, and the three stars represent the three main island groups: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

As I was reading this book, my daughter saw it at my desk and took immediate interest. And true to the observations of the author, she shared to friends how she plans to add the Philippine sun design to her tattoos her way of showing pride of her Filipino roots!

Another popular trend for Filipino Americans is the use of baybayin script, used during pre-Hispanic Philippines usually used for commerce to record transactions or for important historical events. In Mindoro, baybayin was also used for poetry or as a form of artistic expression. The most popular were the baybayin symbols for “ina” or mother and “ama” for father.

Another popular tattoo emblem is the ling-ling-o which is a fertility symbol and represent the reproductive organs of the woman. Another contemporary form of the tattoo is the “tribal look” whose designs are based on indigenous designs from Polynesia, Micronesia and Southeast Asia.

Apparently, this “tribal tattooing” has grown in popularity, but the author laments the fact that contemporary tattoo practitioners juxtapose the designs out of context since few understand the symbolism behind these designs.

This publication is a collectible that should be treasured. It is one of a kind and irreplaceable. It is obviously a labor of love for the author, as well as a spiritual journey to understand and appreciate his ancestry.

Lane Wilcken comes from a family of eight children of mixed heritage. His mother is a native Ilocana from the Philippines, and his American father is of English and Scandinavian descent.

He has been researching the indigenous past of the Philippines and the Pacific Islands for nearly two decades. His interest in tattooing was due to his desire to strengthen pride among Filipinos and “to reunite Filipinos symbolically and spiritually with their estranged ancestors.”

ROSE CRUZ CHURMA is a retired architect who now has the time to do the things she always wanted to do: read books, write about them and encourage others to write. Her online bookstore, Kalamansi Books and Things (facebook.com/kalamansibooks), promotes Filipiniana books and publications by Filipino-Americans. Email her at kalamansibooks@gmail.com

Read More Book Review:
BOOK REVIEW: THE STATE DEPARTMENT BOYS – Philippines Diplomacy and Its American Heritage
BOOK REVIEW: Ilocano Responses to American Aggression 1900-1901


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