Skip to body

Museum of Culture and Environment

College of the Sciences
Give to COTS

Follow Us

 flickr icon instagram icon

Creating a Puzzle Room at the Museum

Puzzle Room Video


Art on the Skin: Tattooing

Section 4 of "Binding Culture: Living Landscapes and Material Life in Northern Luzon, Philippines" (Museum of Culture and Environment)

Section 4 subsections:

Art on the Skin: Tattooing

Tattooing in modern Western societies emphasizes individual self-expression. On the Cordillera, in contrast, tattooing creates standardized distinctions between genders and expresses rank and social achievement. While tattooing arts are declining in the region, there are still a few surviving practitioners, especially in Kalinga communities. Tattoo patterns known as python, lizard, bird, and centipede also appear in woven garments for both men and women.

Male Tattoos and Warfare

Throughout the northern Cordillera, male tattooing practices (known as batok in Kalinga) have been linked to a warrior’s courageous actions. Tattoos were often associated with the traditional practice of “taking heads” to settle village disputes and make sacrificial offering to village deities. The “taking of heads” was part of a broader system of peace pacts (buddongs), in which alliances among villages were made, and then broken in response to local incursions or disputes. Bone fragments from captured heads were ritually installed in the village sangasang, or shrine, on the outskirts of the village. The shrine and fragments served to protect the inhabitants, effectively turning “enemies” into “village guardians.” Jaw bones from heads taken in a raid might serve as “handles” for ritually significant dance gongs (gangsa), played during celebrations marking successful conquests.

During World War II Kalinga, Ifugao, Bontoc and other Northern Cordillera groups served alongside American troops against the Japanese occupying forces and, after the war, warriors marked their achievements in combat by receiving traditional chest and shoulder tattoos reserved for warriors, marking the number of enemy foes killed. Tattoos from this period reflect eagle-shaped patterns adapted from silver coins in use during the American commonwealth period, 1935-46. 

Where did headhunting come from? Two sacred stories.

“The Moon, a woman called “Kabigat,” was sitting one day making a copper pot, and one of the children of the man Chalchal, the Sun, came to watch her. She struck him with her molding paddle, cutting off his head. The Sun immediately appeared and placed the boy’s head back on his shoulders. Then the Sun said to the Moon: “Because you cut off my son’s head, the people of the Earth are cutting off each other’s heads, and will do so hereafter.”” 

citation:  Albert Ernest Jenks, The Bontoc Igorot. Manila: Bureau of Public Printing, 1905, pg. 175

“The people of Bontoc, however, say that their god, Lumawig, taught them to go to war. When, a very long time ago, he lived in Bontoc, he asked them to accompany him on a war expedition to Lagod, the north country. They said they did not wish to go, but finally yielded to his urgings and followed him. On the return trip the men missed one of their companions, Gu-ma′-nûb. Lumawig told them that Gu-ma′-nûb had been killed by the people of the north. And thus their wars began—Gu-ma′-nûb must be avenged.” 

citation:  Albert Ernest Jenks, The Bontoc Igorot. Manila: Bureau of Public Printing, 1905, pg. 175)

When did Headhunting End?

Headhunting practices were officially banned by Jesuit missionaries under American colonial rule, and by the Philippine national government. The last beheading practices evidently took place in the 1970s. In some areas, substitute headhunting rites with wooden figures are believed to safeguard the rice crop.

Women’s Tattoos

Women’s tattoos on the Cordillera are now relatively rare. In the past, extensive tattooing was believed to enhance a woman’s beauty and fertility, and provide spiritual protection as she moved through the life cycle. Among the Ilubo Kalinga, women received special tattoos at menarche to aid in safe menses. Other tattoos were obtained prior to marriage, to separate a young woman from childhood and to heighten her attractiveness during courtship. Later in life, mother  and child would receive x-shaped lin-lingao marks  to drive away dangerous spirits of the dead following head hunting raids by men. Extensive tattooing was also believed to aid women in childbirth; indeed, women who refused to submit to the painful tattooing process were likely to be considered barren. Upper body tattoos were considered the equivalent of a beautiful garment and were proudly displayed at festival and ceremonial occasions.

More recently, many young women have refused to be tattooed, in part because of discomfort over photography by tourists and foreigners, who may ask them to remove their garments for picture-taking. Traditional tattooing techniques are extremely painful to endure which also contributes to the decline of the practice.

Next Section:  The Social Skin: Textiles

Previous Section:  Small Prey, Big Baskets

Exhibition Sections

    To Bind Together
    Rice and Culture
    Small Prey, Big Baskets
    The Social Skin: Tattooing
    The Social Skin: Textiles

Previous Section: Small Prey, Big Baskets

Take the Next Step to Becoming a Wildcat.