Devin Israel Cabanilla lying on the ground as Lane Wilcken works with assistance • Courtesy

There is an ancient and traditional form of tattooing from the Philippines that is nearly forgotten and largely disconnected from other Asian Pacific cultural knowledge. I decided to seek out one of the few practitioners in the United States who gives tattoos in the same way done centuries ago. It was not just a tattoo appointment at a shop, it was meant to be a ceremony with community.

So I called all my relatives, aunts, cousins, siblings, and told them to attend. The first question from many of them was, “What are you going to get?” My reply was, “I don’t know.” 

“What do you mean you don’t know?!”

Lane Wilcken is a renowned Filipino American traditional cultural tattoo practitioner. Several years ago, before the pandemic, I attended one of his workshops at the Seattle Center. It was a mindblowing and soul penetrating experience.

His work uses no machinery and no needles, and each tattoo tool is handcrafted. The transference of ink into skin can be done with a thorn, or other sharpened natural tool. The penetration of the tool is done with a small hammer, and then a long period of rhythmic pounding into flesh.

During the first demonstration workshop, Wilcken raised a profound statement: “This sound you hear, the wood clacking and tapping, this is the same sound your ancestors heard through all their generations. Now you get to hear it.”  With that sound echoing in the demonstration area, I became mesmerized.

What cultural experience might we share with our relatives and ancestors beyond food and language? Filipino Americans, in some circles, are re-experiencing and decolonizing their understanding of the world. Sometimes this is done with much criticism by Filipinos in the Philippines.

The next part of my journey was asking someone who had undergone this process. So I reached out to Mel Orpilla, a member of the Mark of the Four Waves group, also known as Tatak ng Apat na Alon. Orpilla’s advice was unexpected as I sought to know what symbols may be right for me.

“Look at ancient paintings and photos of Filipinos and feel what symbols are calling to you,” he told me.

The Mark of Four Waves’ goal is to revive and make Filipino tattoos relevant again among our people. Others call this pre-Philippine tattooing, as the archipelago itself was never unified under one name when these tattoos were prevalent.

Tattoos were so normal in our ancient island archipelago that Spanish explorers original name before the Philippines was “Las Islas de los Pintados,” or the Land of the Painted Peoples. Before this, the term “tattoo” actually derived the Filipino term “tatak.”

What we know in modern times as a tattoo comes from western sailors traveling the Pacific and encountering “tatau,” a word used in Tahiti and Samoa. There is transference here from the Philippines again. In all cases the similarity comes from the sound of bamboo or wood clacking and tapping. “Tak, tak, tak, tatak, taktak, tak, tak, tak, tak, tatak…”

Across the Pacific, we once shared a common onomatopoeia. In further back in my research, I encountered that in Indonesia the term “tau tau” means a bamboo statue or effigy of a man. Regardless whether this is a direct connection or not, there was once a conceptual understanding that spanned people separated by oceans. Even if their language was not exactly the same, the idea of who they were was present on their skin and in the rhythmic pace they shared.

As gatherings picked up again following COVID-19 restrictions, Lane Wilcken resumed traveling to cultural events. During the past Pagdiriwang festival at Seattle Center, I shared the weekend tattoo demonstration with Wing Luke Executive Director, Joël Barraquiel Tan. He received a small band of marks around his forearm.

Again, I reached out to another Filipino elder for advice. He guided me to treat the event as a ceremony, not just a demonstration, but a sacred event. I began to perceive Filipino tattooing as our collective community and ancestors recognizing our being as a person and signified in the ink. Tan and Wilcken both shared with me the protocols for the ceremony: an offering to my ancestors would be required.

On the day of, I woke up early and went to my cousin’s fried chicken restaurant in South Seattle. One thing I wanted to do intentionally was to ensure as many elements of cultural tattoo were entwined with my family. The chicken place is Drae’s Lake Route Eatery off of Rainier Avenue, if you were wondering.

Devin Israel Cabanilla (right) eating chicken at Drae’s Lake Route Eatery before the ceremony • Courtesy

My niece was handling the register that morning, and I proclaimed, “I need five pounds of fried chicken!” I explained to my cousins at the restaurant why I needed all of that food. “Make sure to make one of them extra raw for the spirits,” they tease, all of us hollering in laughter.

According to Lane Wilcken, this banter and mockery of the tatak recipient is very normal, and very traditional, and he even encouraged it during the ceremony as the inking began.

Wilcken has called his cultural activity a “Batok” ceremony. This term is another derivative onomatopoeia from a different island region of the Philippines. The tattoo itself is less about aesthetics and very much about spirituality and collectivism.

He opened with a prayer in the Ilokano language, which is spoken in the northern Philippines. I appreciate this as it is the only family language I learned from my father’s side, and I don’t speak a lick of the more popular Tagalog language. So hearing someone else speak my home tongue was a treat in itself.

Afterwards, I brought forward the snacks, food, and chicken for the ceremonial “atang” offering to the ancestors. I gave a short Ilokano prayer and poured out some whiskey as well. 

Then what some worried would be a traumatic experience turned into a very calm one.

Before any tapping or hammer pounding began, the assistants laid their hands on me and prayed. The pain associated with tattoos was not what I thought it would be. Wilcken chose a shoulder cap design on my shoulder, my only choice was the left side or right side. When I said left, even that wasn’t really my choice. Wilcken felt I should have an Ilokano creation motif based on the deity Lumawig.

He asked me twice if I wanted it on my left. I confirmed left. Then he explained, “Well, your paternal patterns usually go on the right because it’s your dominant hand.”  I responded, “We are good, then, because I’m left-hand dominant.” More jeering and learning commenced with strangers and relatives.

While I laid on the ground, two others kept my skin taut as Wilcken worked on tapping in the design. Strangers in the Seattle Center joined the crowd of children, friends, and relatives, watching and listening as the mark of my ancestors entered me with percussion.

Wilcken then revealed another lost connection. The deity Lumawig was more widely known by a similar name in popular culture. In the Philippines he is known for using a hook, exploring water, and transforming into a hawk. Lu-MAWIG is known as “Maui” in Hawaii. Similar symbols were used in my marking that are used across the Pacific. Another connection was made and revealed, which in another era of the world, would have been obvious just by the patterns we shared. 

In the aftermath of the event I don’t know that I feel anything more than a sense of completion. The subsequent days of healing were not filled with stinging on my skin, but aching in my shoulder muscle from the tapping. It wasn’t any worse than a regular tattoo with a motorized gun. It healed fine.

I am left with the satisfaction of knowing that I connected my children, friends, and elder relatives to a sound all of us were supposed to have known before colonization. I received a symbol, but my community received an echo from time and a world forgotten.

Lane Wilcken will be coming again, in partnership with the Wing Luke Museum and the Burke Museum. Look for details as we hammer it at the Wing this winter.  

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