“The most destructive aspect of colonization is discounting your Ancestors’ Wisdom,” said Lane WIlcken, a Filipino American batok practitioner. Speaking at the Filipino American National Historical Society Archives in Seattle on Jan. 19, Wilcken presented the importance of batok, ancient Filipino tattooing, in understanding pre-colonial Filipino history and culture • Photo by Kimberly Quiocho

The sounds of a striking mallet, a pomelo thorn at the ready, and apprentices gently stretching parts of the skin– soon to be etched with hand-tapped patterns chosen by the ancestors. Once it is all said and done, the tattoo’s receiver will look in the mirror and see ink traces imbued with history.

Ancient tattooing in the Philippines, most commonly referred to as “batok,”  was profoundly significant to pre-colonial indigenous groups. When the Spaniards first came to conquer the Philippine Islands, they referred to the area as Las Islas de los Pintados, or “the Islands of the Painted Ones.” Indigenous tribes throughout the archipelago call “batok” by different names and with varying styles.

Lane Wilcken, one of the few practitioners based in the United States, held an open panel at the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) Archives in Cherry Hill to introduce the craft in its many forms to Seattle community members. 

The workshop titled “Batok, Tattoos, and Rediscovering the Filipino” was held in collaboration with Seattle University’s United Filipino Club (UFC) and the University of Washington’s Filipino American Student Association (FASA) as part of Wilcken’s week-long visit to Seattle, which included a talk at the Burke Museum in University District. 

“I went to three workshops of his while he was in Seattle and I learned more every time,” second-year UW student Delano Cordova said. “The biggest thing that struck me while I was at the workshops [was] how much culture, history, and tradition was held within this one practice.”

Wilcken uses traditional handmade tools for his practice. His apprentices hold down parts of the body to stretch the area for proper tapping • Courtesy Jonathan Bautista

Batok practitioners like Wilcken are widely recognized by the mainland and diasporic Filipino communities as “mambabatok,” who specialize in ancient hand-tapped tattoo techniques with hand-made tools, many of which are no longer used in the Philippines. 

“My practice is spiritual,” Wilcken said during his workshop. “It includes meditation and prayer before composing batok arrangements according to the designs and symbols of a person’s specific ethnic group and their personal experience. The actual application of the batok is done as a ritual, with chants, food offerings, and prayers as part of the process.”

Wilcken emphasized the distinction between Western tattooing and batok, noting the importance of his title as a practitioner and not artist. According to Wilcken’s book, “Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern,” tattoos were a rite of passage for their receivers and a way to connect deeply with one’s ancestors.

“Tattoo artists] are composing things often from a more aesthetic point of view,” Wilcken said in the workshop. “If they are putting some of the traditional designs on it, it’s usually because they have superficial understandings of those designs.”

The influence of Western culture has not gone lost on batok tattooing either. Apo Whang-od of the Butbut people, who was recently featured front-cover in Vogue Philippines, is perhaps the most recognizable and oldest mainland Filipino mambabatok at 106 years old. According to Jonny Bautista, one of Wilcken’s apprentices, Apo Whang-od’s practice functions with some Western tattoo shop influences. 

She and the women of the Butbut tribe tattoos over thousands of tourists and locals every year, letting them choose hand-tapped tattoos traditionally meant for specific Indigenous groups in the Philippines. To accommodate batok’s growing popularity, the Butbut women sometimes cut the ceremonies short or do not have the ritualistic aspect at all.

The traditional tools used • Courtesy of Jonathan Bautista
The traditional tools used • Courtesy of Jonathan Bautista

“It’s not a bad thing,” Bautista said in an interview. “They were able to sustain their livelihoods. They [could] get medicine, rebuild their houses, and fix their infrastructure from the amount of money they receive from foreigners coming. Creating opportunities for their children.” 

Wilcken and his apprentices operate differently, hoping to keep the spiritual aspect of batok nurtured for future generations to practice. If people from countries with similar cultures of Indigenous tattooing want tattoos with styles from their heritage, like fellow Austronesian peoples in Hawaii or similar traditions in Indigenous America, they ask direct permission from tattoo leaders in those cultures. 

To be from a culture where tattooing is not a part of your culture’s history and request for a traditional tattoo is a different story. Bautista stated in an interview that foreigners without Filipino ancestry are unable to receive tattoos from Wilcken unless they have done deep work in solidarity for the Filipino community or are married to someone within the culture. 

Wilcken and Apo Whang-od’s practices both deconstruct the taboos that are associated with tattoos, adopted from the Western connection of tattoos to criminals.  

“Now because of mambabatoks like Apo Whang-Od, the narratives of tattoos are changing,” Bautista said. “That’s a big deal. The next generation of Filipinos in the Philippines and even Filipino Americans, are gonna know that tattoos are normal for us. Isn’t that amazing?”

Wilcken and his apprentices hope that the legacy of batok can grow outside of Western norms. Through workshops like these and through their practice, they are preserving the spirituality of batok so that the Painted Ones legacy can live on.

Lane Wilcken at work • Courtesy of Jonathan Bautista
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