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The meaning of this Filipino tattoo method is deeper than skin

An Indigenous way of tattooing is having a resurgence for Filipino Americans aiming to reclaim their heritage.
The meaning of this Filipino tattoo method is deeper than skin
Posted at 4:28 PM, May 16, 2023

There's an Indigenous form of tattooing based in the Philippines called batok, dating back to pre-colonial days.

Natalia Roxas is a practitioner based in Hawaii. She calls it a spiritual ceremony.

Batok involves tapping ink made of charcoal soot to the skin using ancient tools like bamboo sticks, thorns or — in Roxas' case — bone.

"We use bone tools with wooden implements, wooden handles, and as well as a wooden hitting stick, and so how we put the ink on the skin is tapping the skin, tapping these implements onto the skin," Roxas said.

But it's more than just getting inked; Filipino Americans come to Roxas to get rooted in their history. There are prayers, oral histories and connection with their ancestors before they get tapped. Each marking is symbolic, depending on tribal roots.

"I prefer to call it ancestral markings because they are markings that live in their skin," Roxas said. "This has existed for thousands of years in our islands in the Philippines, but due to Christianization and colonization, unfortunately the practice had been put to sleep."

There are 14 to 17 million Indigenous peoples in the Philippines, and many had markings to distinguish their tribes before the Spanish colonized in 1565.

Roxas says there are only a handful of batok practitioners using the ancient tradition around the world. The most famous is Apo Whang-Od, who graced Vogue magazine at 106 years old — the oldest woman to ever appear on the cover.

SEE MORE: 106-year-old Filipino woman is oldest person to grace Vogue cover

"When you have ancestral markings on your body, you show the world that you're not fully colonized, and when wearing your markings, use it as a compass to navigate this modern world with ancestral wisdom. That is why it's important," Roxas said.

Roxas has tattoos all over her body, but she doesn't want to describe her tattoos in detail so they don't get culturally appropriated.

When it comes to non-Filipinos wanting a tattoo, Roxas is very selective on who gets them. Because the markings are symbolic of one's tribe, it is in a sense adopting non-Filipinos into the community. One has to be either married to someone who is Filipino or have contributed or helped the community in a huge way.

"Because when you wear our markings, are you going to go stand for us?" Roxas said.

For Roxas, the ancient art of batok is a connection to the past.

"We can still exist in this modern world,and yet still be guided and be reminded that we are never alone, that we come from a beautiful, rich history," she said.

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