From tribal tattoos to indigenous materials used in clothing, Filipino symbols and traditions are replete not just with meaning but with beauty
When I was a little girl, one of the (very few) highlights of my life was the yearly Pintados festival, where dancers and performers from all over my province would compete to have the most ostentatious, enthusiastic display of colors and choreography. The Pintados Festival was founded by my mother’s brother, so it had become a source of family pride and thankfully for me, a girl who wasn’t allowed any social life, a family affair. It was the only time I could legally join in on a celebration. I was allowed to wear a white shirt and smear paint on passersby, and to allow them to smear theirs on me. Pintados became a splash of color in my otherwise gray existence—the smear of art in the concrete, drab slab that was my life.
Pintados, just like other festivals, brings to the fore the customs, traditions, and art of a people. When the Visayan warriors tattooed their faces, they did not think of it as art. They were simply symbols, a way of identification, a way of life. The Spaniards fought against fierce Visayan warriors whose bodies were covered in tattoos—the more elaborate they were, the better the foe. Tattoos on faces were beautiful, but they were also bragging rights—only the strongest had the right to have their faces tattooed.
As with most Filipino folk art, they are first and foremost, functional. This is the kind of aesthetic—function before art—that is replicated everywhere, among the Yakans, in Ifugao, the Bagobos, or any of the 110 ethno-linguistic groups that have distinctive adornments and markings.
In the highlands of the Cordilleras, among the Ifugaos and the Kalingas and the Bontocs, tattoos painted on the body counted as a rite of passage from boy to man. In certain tribes, a victorious kill deserved a marking, so that more marks meant more kills. These beautiful symbols were rendered in a way that those who were marked were given special privileges for the rest of their lives. Tattoos were also believed to confer a special kind of power and protection on a warrior, so that they are protected in battle. In women, each symbol is imbued with meaning—a blessing of fertility, protection, or a mark of beauty.
Hundreds of years later, tribal tattoos connect us across the centuries. While Whang-Od may very well be the last remaining mambabatok—they believe that the tradition has to be passed down bloodlines—Filipinos abroad who are longing for a taste of home have etched it into their skins. In Los Angeles, members of a group that call themselves Tatak ng Apat na Alon have been trying hard to bring back this ancient Filipino art form. They are reviving the ancient practice of tribal tattoo—even in its most painful, laborious way—as an homage to their heritage.
Further down south, in Mindanao, the Tboli live in artful splendor. Their resplendent regalia is markedly different from their very simple way of life—fishing, farming, and salt-of-the-earth pursuits. This indigenous tribe has found a way to elevate the simple abaca plant into a material known as T’nalak, the woven textile of the Tbolis. Inspired by their dreams, they carry their art into fabric, using the Ikat method—another tedious process. The abaca plant is cut down the trunk, halved, stripped into ribbons, shred into individual fibers, and then dyed using natural dyes from leaves grown locally, which then create the colors of black and red. The blouses are decorated with embroidery, beads, and appliques.
Just like with many tribal pursuits, the Tnalak is full of symbolism, seen as a gift, and as blessing. They have become art, but as with most Filipino folk art, they are first and foremost, functional. This is the kind of aesthetic—function before art—that is replicated everywhere, among the Yakans, in Ifugao, the Bagobos, or any of the 110 ethno-linguistic groups that have distinctive adornments and markings.
The way that our ancestors have gone about their daily lives—from the careful and meaningful architecture of their homes like the bahay kubo, the bale (a brilliantly designed and structurally forward Ifugao house that is cloaked in simplicity), the striking Ivatan house, the impressive torogan (Marano house), and the Badjaos’ stilt houses and houseboats to the colorful outriggers like the vinta of the Moros, to the weaving and the clothing, history shows that Filipinos have always been clothed in beauty—even more beautiful because it is meaningful.