Dulce Cuna-AnacionTATTOO AS PRE-COLONIAL LANGUAGE:Let me get right to the point. I was made to dissect into the knowledge of the Pre-Colonial Pintadotattoos into finding whether the practice was a means of visual or non-verbal language during Pre-colonial Philippines. As historians assume, there is no anthro-cultural transference of the Pintadophenomenon to today’s tattooing culture since the axe of colonization, yet it still exists today as a visualand non-verbal form of communication or a recorded tableau of ancient concepts of survival. Manyresearches of this kind should rely on first-hand knowledge from the subjects they were studying, butthe Pintados have long been gone and what an individual researcher could do is speculate what thesegroup or society wanted to say with their tattoo practice in their time and their milieu. Of course, withrecords of Chirino, Morga or the Boxer Codex, we could conclude that Tattooing indeed was a verypopular practice amongst the peoples of the Asian-Pacific rim, Australia and Micronesia, upon contactand visits from the Western and European journeys in the 1600s…and even way, way back in the 1stcivilizations of the world.I would like to elucidate what “TATU” means. The term is understandably generic. For lack or absence ofa name aside from “Pintados”, I choose the term “tatu” or “tatau” (Tahitian) meaning “to mark”, “tostrike” which is the act one native tattoo artist does to his model with the use of a tattoo wand orstick with a long handle and a sharpened comb-like “tooth” at the end. The Kalinga call it “patik” or“batik” or “patiktik”, but today it is referred more as the act of tattooing, than the instrument alone.Together with a mallet the tattoo act is likened to “tapping”, which is, hammering the sharp pointsdirectly to the skin or slightly wounding it. To the wound, dark soot, or dark sap from a special plant isadded and embedded to the grooves, thus darkening the wound.Tattoos have always had an important role in ritual and tradition. In Borneo, women tattooed theirsymbols on their forearm indicating their particular skill. If a woman wore a symbol indicating she was askilled weaver, her status as prime marriageable material was increased. Tattoos around the wrist andfingers were believed to ward away illness. Throughout history tattoos have signified membership in aclan or society. Even today groups like the Hells Angels tattoo their particular group symbol. TV andmovies have used the idea of a tattoo indication of membership in a secret society in numerous times. Ithas been believed that the wearer of an image tattooed upon him calls upon the spirit of that image.The ferocity of a tiger would belong to the tattooed person. That tradition holds true today shown bythe proliferation of images of tigers, snakes, and bird of prey, etc.Thus we come to the issue on why tattoos may have been a method of language and communicationamongst the pre-colonial peoples of the Philippines. Why did these people tattoo? Was it a means offashion or adornment or body modification as assumed by modern-day tattoos? Or was it symbolic innature, as clan, a tribal identity deeply ingrained as a rite of passage.
Tattoos as Fashion and Adornment in Pre-Colonial PhilippinesThe first impression of the western man on the natives could be read in Pigafettas account in Limasawawhen he described the brother of Rajah Siani of that island: He "was the handsomest among thesepeople. His hair was very black and of shoulder length; he had a silk cloth on his head and two largegold rings hang from the ears. He wore a cotton cloth, embroidered with silk to cover himself fromwaist down to the knees. On his side, he wore a dagger with a long handle, all of gold, with its scabbardmade of carved wood. With this he wore upon him scents of storac and binoin (benzoin). He wastanned and his face was all painted... The painted king was called Colambu and the other Rajah Siani."(Blair & Robertson)Pigafetta described the garb on Siani as painted, although the markings were tattoos which wereshared by many peoples of the Islands upon the period of discovery by the Spaniards. He was describingthen the manner of grooming of Pintado men especially those who belonged to the upper structure ofsociety.Why does man tattoo himself? Art historian Gene Weltfish answers the question by a misconception onthe origins of art—that it is natural for all people, especially the “primitive” or early man, to personifyobjects. He describes that the tendency to accent and underline special features of an object is auniversal impulse. The human body is a natural background for décor. People who wear less clothingoften mark their bodies with elaborate designs to make it appear as “haberdashery” or extensions ofthemselves. However, Weltfish notes that this ethnographic custom indicates that people wereborrowing decorative techniques from objects instead of the other way around. Together withtattooing, there was a large number of pendant decors, necklaces, anklets or head nets.Rajah Siani and Colambu, in an effort to exact themselves as true “pieces” of royalty and leadership,became standard bearers of fashion and power in their time and to their peoples by their tattooadornment. This seems to be a hint of a civilized society in the making. Tattoo as adornment andfashion is considered as a political ploy of unification and separation, as stated in apropos by thesociologist George Simmel: “Fashion is part of civilized society, specifically an organizing force of the masses. Fashionunites with others of the same class but to separates from those of a lower class. This class basedapproached can be seen also in subcultures who share values or even in the similarity of the militarywhere medals distinguish rank.”Together with their weapons of spears, shields and jewelry, tattoos became symbols of status, materialpower and gain.A “Bulletin Board” of Motifs:Early motifs in the South East Asian archipelagic rim and the Micronesias noted various crenulations andtattoo designs that John R. Swanton in his anthropological monograph “Southern Cultures” noted thatthe tattooed body “published records of valorous acts performed in war” or “social attributes” of thewearer (whether he was a hunter, farmer, fisherman, pearl diver, basket maker, weaver, widow,
widower, or had many wives). In most cases, certain sentiments are expressed and are of importance tohis tribe or society.The following are typical of early Southeast Asian motifs:These are, however ancient Bornean tattoos as recorded by Robert Heine Geldern in his monograph of“Some Tribal Art Styles of Southeast Asia”. Typical is the motif called the “Aso” or the “dog motif” whichtraces its roots to the Late Chou and Dongson period in China. I would like to remind you a bit of ouranthropological history that elucidates the concept of Diffusion The central idea of this theory is thatsimilar traits appearing in separate cultures are proof of some kind of contact between the cultures, andis best interpreted as due to a diffusion of influence from one to the other or from a parent culture.Trade, borrowing, immigration, imitation are some of the probable mechanisms of transmission.Another interesting motif to note in these tattoos are the spirals as seen in its singular design or double,sometimes joined or interlocking:
Oftentimes, we do associate this spirals to sea waves and movement of the sea as in these tattoodesigns found in bamboo containers from Bahau, central Borneo.Likewise, however, we could also note that motifs such as these come from biomorphic and natureforms like this particular pattern coming from the belly of a tadpole:We are reminded of the “okir” or “okkil” which the Maranaws of our country use to decorate theirpanolongs. All these indicate the close connection of that tattoo society to the sea and water. ThePintado society of the 1600s were peoples whose livelihood and folkways were close to the sea andtraveled mostly to the neighboring islands. Since they traveled a lot, they assimilated some traits fromtheir neighbors. Perhaps thru the theory of diffusion, I could make a probability that the close cousins ofthe Leyte tattoo was that of the islands closely accessible like Mindano and Borneo.However, the following motifs were gathered as tattoo designs from Mindanao(still to be verified):
Photo from “The Vanishing Tattoo Museum”The intricate artistry and symmetrical balance in placement of tattoos in the human body and theconception of intricate motifs and symbols of these pre-colonial tattoo artists evidenced their closeconnections to nature, environment and memory. The skin, documentary photographer Chris Rainierargues, is a sacred geography, "the interface between the inner and the outer, the intimate and theinfinite". In this sense "the human form is the elemental landscape of itself" . It points to the fact thatthe human body is a bulletin-board of stories, tales, that could span epochs, a record that one couldcarry permanently thru life. The pre-colonial tattooed native could have been conscious of his ownpersonal story, that some personal motifs where created. Most of the motifs were earth symbols, ofanimals, birds, amphibians that symbolized the aspects of prowess, vulnerability and regeneration. Tothe women would have been fertility and creativity in domestic skill.Tattoo as Rite of PassageWilliam Henry Scott, in his book “Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture,” explains that thedisplay of tattoos plays an important part in psyching up one’s opponent in battle, he wrote, “Still morerugged were those who submitted to facial tattooing. Indeed those with tattoos right up to the eyelidsconstituted a Spartan elite. Such countenances were really terrifying and no doubt intimidated enemiesin battle as well as townmates at home. Men would be slow to challenge or antagonize a tough withsuch visible signs of physical fortitude.”The location of a tattoo also indicates a warrior’s experience in battle as Scott notes in the followingtexts, “Chest tattoos which looked like breastplates – less frequently, tattoos on the abdomen – onlycame after further action in battle; and still later, those on the whole back, widest field for the tattooer’sartistry. Facial tattoos from ear to chin to eye were restricted to the boldest and toughest warriors.”Just like in modern times, tattoo works then were done by skillful artists who charge for their services.The process is pretty much unchanged over the centuries, which include the tracing of the design on thebody, pricking it with needles then rubbing soot into the fresh wound. The process is very painful, whichis why some men though qualified as warriors avoid the operation for as long as possible until shamedinto it. On this, Scott comments, “The operation was not performed all in one sitting but in installments,but even so, often cause a high fever and occasionally infection and death. Baug or binogok was thehealing period when the wounds was still swollen, and if infection caused the designs to be muddied,they were called just that – mud (lusak).”It was Alzina, in his monograph “Historias de las Islas el Indios de Bisaias…1668” who termed tattooingas “paint”. But it is only one chronicler’s word against the others:"The Bisayans are called Pintados because they are in fact so, not by nature although they are well-built,well-featured and white, but by painting their entire bodies from head to foot as soon as they are youngmen with strength and courage enough to endure the torture of painting. In the old days, they paintedthemselves when they had performed some brave deed. They paint themselves by first drawing bloodwith pricks from a very sharp point, following the design and lines previously marked by the craftsmen
in the art, and then over the fresh blood applying a black powder that can never again be erased. Theydo not paint the whole body at one time, but part by part, so that the painting takes many days tocomplete. In the former times they had to perform a new feat of bravery for each of the parts that wereto be painted. The paintings are very elegant, and well proportioned to the members and parts wherethey are located. I used to say there, captivated and astonished by the appearance of one of these, thatif they brought it to Europe a great deal of money could be made by displaying it. Children are notpainted. The women paint the whole of one hand and a part of the other."A rite of passage is a Ritual that marks a change in a persons social status. The universal phenomenonof tattooing elicits the act “wounding” and “drawing blood” and “scarring” that would exact pain to theindividual thus would mark this phase he had in life: the older you become the more tattoos are addedto your body. In precept, the act of tattooing or its rite establishes entrance to the society of a once“separate” entity. The trauma in which the tattooed person will undergo, and his endurance to its painof the rite brings him to the change of identity from being an “outsider” to being one accepted into thesociety. From then on his sense of identity integrates into the group. Even the rite itself is a language ofsocial change: Change for the Individual, and Change for of the society.Concluding Note:In myriad ways on the characteristics of the pre-colonial tattoos, I could note that the tattoophenomenon is a complex system of communication. It is a language which uses visual and sensorystimuli to effect social and cultural change. It was a way of evolution for pre-colonial peoples and if notfor Hispanic-Christian diasporas, it could have been a ingrained deeply in the Filipino culture as acognitive faculty of language communication.References: 1. Allen, Tricia “Tattoo Traditions of Polynesia” 2. Blair and Robertson, The Philippine Islands, 3. Weltfish, Gene, “Origins of Art” 4. Kennedy-Cabrera, Caroline “Tattoo Art” in The Filipino Heritage, Vol 1 5. Heine-Geldern, Robert, “Some Tribal Art Styles of Southeast Asia”, The Many Faces of Primitive Art 6. Ibid., 7. Rainier, Chris “Ancient Marks. San Rafael: Aware, 2004” 8. William Henry Scott, “Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture,” 9. Francisco Alzina, “Historias de las Islas de Bisaias, 1668”