Batek: Traditional Tattoos
and Identities in Contemporary Kalinga,
North Luzon Philippines
Analyn Ikin V. Salvador-Amores
In the early 16th century, traditional tattooing is widespread in the Philippines, but very little is known or written about the practice. Sources for the study of traditional tattoos in Northern Luzon are very inadequate and merely make vague statements on the function and symbolic meaning of tattoos, as well as the relationship between the practice and culture as a whole. The statements likewise reveal a distinctly ethnocentric deportment. Until today, tattooing and tattoo designs in the Cordilleras are best understood within the context of headhunting. Headhunting was the only known reason for tattooing, and, to this day, no one knows exactly what tattoos signify. This paper provides insights into the roles and functions of the tattoos, and how the tattoos (batek) become cultural symbols of the intricate rituals brought about by community regimens of the Ilubo, Kalinga. No longer practiced, the batek of the Ilubo is a visually powerful rendering of symmetry and unity of designs. Batek now serve as an archive of culture for the group. Keywords: Tattoo, rites of passage, body adornment, identity, Kalinga INTRODUCTION
My anthropological interest in body ornamentation,
specifically in traditional tattoos, began in 1990. I met an old Bontoc woman who sold balatinao (red rice) in one of the old market stalls in Baguio City. She was known to me only as Apong (grandmother), and her tattooed arms fascinated me each time she would pick up
Humanities Diliman (January-June 2002) 3:1, 105-142
the grains and place them on her palm. The thick, black, geometric tattoos seemed to me quite odd and outlandish. They were different and out of the ordinary, and I was then unaware of the fact that my reaction was indicative of my ethnocentric bias. My unfamiliarity with her tattoos revealed the consequence of my “modern” values. Each time I bought her red rice, I would look at her wrists and upper arms, and admire her beautiful tattoos. She concealed them by wearing long sleeves. Eventually, she acceded to my endless requests for her to show me her tattoos. After some time, I did not see her anymore. I was told that she had kidney failure, and was brought back to the province. She never came back.
I regret that I did not engage her in conversation on the
secrets of her fatek, the local term for her tattoos. The only thing I knew was that she was from a village much farther than Mainit in Mountain Province, Northern Luzon.
It was only then that I realized that fatek, as well as the
older generation of Igorots (the collective term to refer to the ethnolinguistic groups in Luzon), are the vestiges of a valuable culture and tradition. I thought of the questions that I would ask Apong if she were still alive: why do they tattoo their body? how are the fatek made? and what do the designs stand for?
My passion for the fatek of the Cordillera grew, and I found myself scouring the Philippine National Archives, Lopez Museum and Archives, Rizal Library, UP Main Library, Museum of
Anthropology and the Special Collections of the University of Michigan, but I could not find ample data on the subject, except for old photographs and short sentences on tattoos. It also brought me to Kabayan, Benguet where the lost mummy, Appo Anno,
stolen by foreign antique collectors, but later retrieved by the National Museum, was finally returned to his home in 1999 after 87 years. The mummy is clad in elaborate body tattoos (fingertips, wrists, toes, legs, buttocks, back and chest), and I was hopeful that its return would be an opportunity to study his tattoos. This, however, was not to be the case especially after the Benguet people and the National Museum prohibited anyone from touching or
examining the mummy. The seated mummy is held sacred by the...