Learning about tattoo practice & symbolism uncovers the beauty of Filipino ancient indigenous ways

Posted on Dec 29, 2010 in A Holistic Approach, ancient symbols, history, people

Before it was even released, I featured this book a couple of times  at this blog. I finally got a copy last month and read it for most of the day that I was home, in  bed with the flu. I noted that the cover and paper are top quality and the book, in its fresh print run, even smells wonderful.

Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern by Lane Wilcken. A book review at amazon.com.

Uncovers the beauty of Filipino ancient indigenous ways

Lane Wilcken’s book Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern is a result of around two decades of research, connecting with tattoo practitioners, masters and enthusiasts, and is also a result of a lifetime of experiencing Philippine traditions directly for him self via his family.

The book of Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern may cover a significant amount of information that hasn’t been published before. It isn’t just a book with photos and drawings of traditional and modern tattoos. This book also has a large amount of information about the history of Philippine tattoo culture, the tools and processes of the traditional Philippine practitioners, the different traditional and modern reasons for tattooing, and more.

Both the traditional and modern reasons for tattooing, that are shared in this book can give people who have Filipino tattoos (and/or otherwise) or are planning to get Filipino tattoos, cause to consider more thoughtfully, even contemplatively, what their tattoos mean for them. Even non-Filipino tattoo enthusiasts can get something out of this book.

Wilcken also dedicates a whole chapter to tattooing motifs and practices that are shared among the Pacific Isles. The two forewords are written by Su’a Suluape Alaiva’a Petel, a master tattoo expert who hails from the oldest tattooing family of Samoa, and by Keone Nunes, a Hawaiian master tattoo practitioner(tofuga). The work of Suluape and Nunes has perpetrated the ancient art of hand-tap tattooing today (misterroadtripper.wordpress.com).

(Side story: After this book was off to the press, Nunes and author Wilcken traveled together with friends to the Philippines to meet with the Filipino master tattoo artist Apo Wang-Od, who resides in the mountainous region of Buscalan. You can read about that trip in an email of Nunes to blogger MisterRoadTripper aka Bob Baxter, editor of tattooroadtrip.com. Entitled “Keone Nunes Visits Buscalan,” the email relates about the trip, meeting Apo Wang-Od, and the differences and similarities between traditional Philippine and Hawaiian hand-tap tattooing. The email also talks about why it was important for Nune to meet the very old, and thus senior (yet still energetic and lively) Apo Wang-Od, who by the way, is also featured in this book).

Because Christian and Muslim religions deem tattooing as pagan, thus evil, most Philippine people no longer practice this ancient art. What’s worse, is that foreign religions not only turned the majority of Filipinos against the practice of tattooing, it also caused their thinking and perceptions to change so much so that Filipinos began looking down on and deeming inferior their fellow Filipinos who still practiced it. Wilcken makes it clear that this tradition is important to uphold and preserve and shares the unseen beauty of the practice. Wilcken is also specific in identifying the northern Philippine regions that still practice tattooing today and is respectful of their regions and identities.

An extraordinary chapter is dedicated to the spiritual aspects of tattooing. This chapter is especially significant because it gives actual examples of different beliefs and rituals that accompany the tattoos. That chapter explains to readers that tattoo motifs were not just a practice to embellish one’s physical appearance, but that each motif, pattern and symbol had a deep meaning that imbued its wearer with specific energies, powers, and protection and in that process simultaneously created lasting and sacred connection between the bearer with his/her community, fellows (Kapwa), and with nature or the Divine, during different stages or actions in their life journey (Lakaran).

I think readers, especially westernized Filipinos, by reading this book, can begin to discover and realize that their ancient culture was more artistically sophisticated and esoterically advanced then their colonizers perceived them or how they themselves were taught to perceive themselves by their colonizers.

With Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern, Wilcken balances out our perceptions of this dwindling Filipino tradition. He does a valid and truthful revelation of the beauty and meaning of Filipino tattooing. Wilcken’s book uplifts the traditions of tattooing from decorative or supposed superstitious devices of so-called primitives, savages, and from the non-understood fringe movement of new tribalism. The book also enlightens tattoo enthusiasts and mere curious readers, such as myself, to the meaningfulness of the original traditions and even the practices that are persisting today. Wilcken helps the reader find the value and wisdom of ancient and modern Filipino indigenous culture and beliefs. This is an important process that some may identify with the term “decolonization” (for both the colonized and colonizer mind frames).

I want to add, that some of my baybayin and babaylan designs have been taken by others and turned into tattoos on their bodies because the art had deep meaning for them. I met Lane Wilcken recently and began working with him within the Center for Babaylan Studies to research, share, teach, promote indigenous knowledge systems and practices. I know, first hand, that Wilcken has worked on and written this book with the utmost passion for his Philippine roots, and with love and respect for his family and ancestry. He writes in the true spirit of Pakikipagkapwa—Sacred Interconnection with all Life.

Thank you, Lane Wilcken.

Here is a summary from the Table of Contents for Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern:

Foreword by Su’a Suluape Alaiva’a Petel
Foreword by Keone Nunes
Testimonial by Leo Zulueta

Chapter 1 – Early Accounts and Fragments of Philippine Tattoo Culture
Chapter 2 – The Tattoo Process and Tools
Chapter 3 – Reasons for Tattooing
Chapter 4 – Facial Tattooing
Chapter 5 – Spiritual Aspects of Tattooing
Chapter 6 – Shared Tattooing Motifs with the Pacific Isles
Chapter 7 – A Selection of Filipino Tattooing Motifs
Chapter 8 – Modern Filipino Tattooing



  1. Thanks, Christian. Lane's book is full of info and it deserves a detailed review. The kudos go all to the author. peace

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