PART 1 – TATTOOES
By: Glo Abaeo Tuazon
Art we say is in the eye of the beholder. It is described as an expression of one’s creativity and imagination embodied in a physical form for various interpretations or abstract manner as in a practice of some sort. Lifted from the Latin word “artis” it usually connotes skills and crafts. The word itself has meaning beyond simple description. It is sometimes contained or broad in scope, sometimes simple and yet very complicated. Lores on the other hand are seen to be accumulated knowledge over spans of time on certain subjects or matters, or traditional beliefs.
In the Northern Philippine territory, particularly the Cordilleran Region a lot of ancient arts and lores were once practiced as part of their everyday living routines. Something that has been kept and only discovered with the coming of the conquerors in the early 19th century. Fascination was the word most apt to describe the reactions of the foreigners, though some would consider what they saw as savage behaviour (something uncommon, as other countries have somehow similar cultures and traditions too) it was only lately when they stayed with the locals that they slowly perceived the rationale of it all (according to the local interpretations). A day of lecture or research, a week, a month, a year, is not enough time to comprehend all of these. For even between and among the locals, for each tribe or clan, they still have minute to large gaps or differences in presentations and reasons for all the things they do.
Tattooes, tattooes, tattooes. If I would not have had problems with my depleting immune system I could have had some of these, maybe around my upper arm, like a band, or my ankles too. I could have had one embellishing the sorrounds of my navel and would flaunt it like a medal of sorts. Or one at the back of my shoulders, like a medallion or an amulet protecting me from harm. And I would have wanted it to look like the embellishments of those in the traditional past. Like having history written on the body to be read and remembered every now and then.
In the old North, tattooeing is symbolic, especially to the men. In Kalinga (and some in the Mountain Province) the tattooe is a right one must earn. The earlier centuries were so much different when these regions were having their own local and traditional “government” system, with “pangats” or the elders leading them. Clans were at times on guard for invading or marauding neighboring clans, it was a necessity for the men to be trained or brought up knowing the responsibility of protecting the family and belongings. Thus was embedded the warrior status. As explained to me in Sacasacan, Sadanga, it is necessary then for the women folk to go out and do the chores of tilling the fields, tending to livestocks and maintaining the household while the men stays back to protect the village, oftentimes gathering in the “ator” to meet and plan and strategize if necessary. These in some sense applies to most men in these northern provinces. So comes also the connection with the tattoo rights. As much as it is a form of body aesthetics, it is also connotative of a man’s status and the right to flaunt it. Traditionally a tattoo can be had after undergoing works or acts of valor, one which is warfare. In those days when a clan goes to war and brings home a “head or two”, he is considered a great man. He is considered one of the brave and gallant warriors and thus earns his right in the community, a tattoo can be had for that. Not everybody, not even with skills in hunting (for food) or working the land (farming) gives a man the instant right to a tattoo. He has to have other qualities to go with those. The rightful elders who lead these gallant men to good plans and uplifts and protects the community have had these etches on their body too. (Other discussions can be had in my works) In Kalinga men, the patterns are more intricate and mystifying. Each pattern symbolic of something. The “batok” (Batek for those in the mountain province) design of arch on the chest can are also varying from one person to another although they may be depictive of one symbolism, that goes with whoever the artist was who embedded the forms. It so also goes with those on the arms and back. Other artists even in those days (and there are a few of them) have to give in to what their subject wants and needs and those apparently are the reasons for the more “modern” designs exhibited side by side with the more traditional patterns. Like for example the very distinct form of an eagle, or the very distict letters. Other designs include the depictions of rice bundles and ferns, of snakes and centipedes, of spears and eagles. So much more motifs with different interpretations.
The women on the other hand can have it easier. The reason is more for embellishment purposes. I have had subjects from Tinglayan, Kalinga and in different areas around the Mountain Province. Most of them are old now, beyond their 60’s and very obviously no other younger than them bear the scars and marks anymore. Thus it is now a dying art, one that needs saving even if it be in the form of documentation only, the purpose why I and some other interested people go around doing the things we do. In Bontoc Ili, a group of women cheerfully let me take their photos, explaining in part that in those days it is considered beautiful to have the marks, as most young dames of their days did, like a fashion statement. It adds to the allure of the body, especially in those days when going topless is not a taboo and the tattoos sort of dresses up the limbs. In women, most tattoos runs the length of the arm, from the shoulder to the top side of the hand. Patterns of short horizontal and vertical lines (geometrical) sorrounds the arms, interspersed now and then by bold dots and x’s, or the short waves (like a letter S lying down) and the “gayaman” pattern (centipede). These were reasons to bear the pain of owning the tattoos, sometimes it takes days or weeks for the wounds to heal and the swelling to subside. In those days, there were no antiseptics to quell infections and no anesthetics to quell the pains either, it all comes down to bearing with the throbbing pains after the pricking. In any case, most of those I talked to cannot “recall” moments when they thought they have had infections, or they simply have not known it then the fact that not many in those days have had formal educations yet until the coming of the Christian missionaries from Belgium and America when health and sanitation was first introduced and explained. They only speak of the searing pain. One said to me ignorance does have its benefits too. If you do not know, it probably would not happen to you.
How they do it is another matter. Lard was often mixed with soot or pounded coals to make the bluish-black ink (some uses pigments gathered from seeds or plants), it being the most ready and available medium in those days. A tattooing tool of pins or the sharp pricks or thorns of plants were gathered and bundled tightly together in numbers of 6 to 8, inserted on a fashioned tool to hold the pins and for better grip then dipped in the medium and the pricking starts.
For whatever motivated them to get tattooes, it is a very much appreciated form of art. One that a person can carry around, like a mobile art attraction or exhibit, but sadly one that the person also takes to the grave when he or she expires. The great pride that each tribe depicts in all these markings are symbolic of their social and physical being. The traditions and culture of a race are somewhat part of the painfully embedded drawings. The blood and skin adding more emotion and irony to the story of a great people brandishing a way of living, their religion, beliefs, and rites of passages are inscribed with the prick of ancient tools and ancients arts.