Inked Women

The Philippines is home to over 7,500 islands, being divided in three major groups, and is a melting pot of different cultural practices, traditions and groups. Despite the country’s existing modern communities, some of the indigenous groups of the archipelago are still able to hold on to their cultural identity.

Amongst these indigenous tribes is the Kalinga Tribe that reside in the province of Kalinga in the Cordillera Region of Luzon.

There are a number of sub-tribes that live in the region, but the province of Kalinga is known for its head-strong people that uses body art to convey their pride for their tribe.

In the modern landscape of the 21st century, being a woman with tattoos seems to be taboo or carries a stereotypical stigma. However, for the women of the Kalinga tribe, it carries the symbol of beauty, maturity and fertility.

Since the 16th century, it is said that this practice was seen as a rite of passage for young Kalinga women. Despite some of the younger Kalinga people choosing to opt out of this practice, some still choose to honour the practice by immortalising the intricate art on their skin.

While the men of the tribe usually get their tattoos as rewards for defeating the enemy or for bravery, a badge of honour of sorts to gain social status and/or respect from the tribe.

Many of the art used for the tattoos are inspired by everyday objects, such as ladders and rice terraces. Sometimes, depending on the placement of the tattoo, it could also show the social status of the person.

In this day and age, tattoo artists have automated needles to apply the tattoo to the skin with ease. But the tribe chooses to stick to their roots. Depending on the tattoo artist (mambabatok), the tools used would be different.

Tools, also called the gisi, could be made out of the horn of a water buffalo, sharpened bamboo and sometimes lemon thrones as well.


The traditional process is painful but is a rewarding experience for the tribe member getting the tattoo.

Carrying the honour of the celebrated traditional art and technique, Apo Whang-Od has become world renowned for being the last mambabatok in the entire region. Despite being well into her 90’s, Whang-Od is not going anywhere without passing the art on to the next generation.

Whang-Od is passing the long-established technique of hand tapping and the intricate designs of tribal patterns to her apprentice and her 13-year-old granddaughter. 

These days, the Kalinga tribal tattoo has become popular amongst tourists. However, because of prejudice towards tattoos and traditional thoughts, many still frown upon this ancient body art that is highly respected by the tribe.

It is no stranger to everyone that with the changes of time, comes the changes of perception of people towards cultural practices and tradition.

What was once a time-honoured tradition and prided art form, has now become too bold and eccentric for others.

Concrete wanderers, such as ourselves, tend to be afraid of a body covering tattoo design—or any design in general—due to its unconventional nature. When in fact, it has become a norm in our urban jungle without anyone noticing.

This type of stigma towards body art is one of the reasons why the traditional Kalinga tattooing practice is drawing near extinction.

Though there are some elders, such as Whang-Od, who are trying to preserve the traditional body art. But it is not just about the technique and the pattern that needs to be preserved, it is the cultural identity.

The Kalinga tribe live to be passionate and unpretentious people, preserving their art and their way of living will be saving the tribe’s cultural identity. 

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