Sunday, May 25, 2008

Resurrecting the “Pintado” Tattoo

Resurrecting the “Pintado” Tattoo

Paper delivered at the “TATU” Symposium, Leyte Heritage Festival 2008, Price Mansion, May 18, 2008, Tacloban City

By: Dulce Cuna Anacion, M.A. Art History

There are many Ethno tribal motifs proliferating to this day because the art of tattooing has became a popular, albeit lucrative endeavor. Tribal motifs like those gathered by collector Lars Krutak and “Indiana-Jones”-like researchers Vince Hemingson and Thomas Lockhart have been discovered and recreated, but none has ever delved into the mystery of the vanished Leyte Pintado tattoo. Of course, since the local inhabitants’ practice of tattooing was abruptly stopped by the Jesuits in the 1600s with religion, tattooing in the island of Leyte has extremely vanished and all we could do now is merely speculate on the tattoo motifs and designs which were recorded by the Jesuit priest and chronicler Francisco Ignacio Alzina, who also avers that the tattoo phenomena is a universal experience. He had great misgivings on the practice and considered it as a “work of the devil”:

“I am inclined to think that these people imitated the custom
from newcomers to the Islands; or that one of their braggarts
started the practice himself to give an appearance of greater
ferocity; or that one of their ancient priestesses instigated it.
These devil-women, to whom the devil appeared in a tattooed
body might have started the custom in imitation of him. (I am
told these women practice their calling even before Faith
reached these Islands). Whether this custom was started by the
people themselves or whether their common enemy taught it
to them for his own ends (none of which was good), it is a fact
that all Bisayan men tattooed themselves with the exception of
those they call Asog.”

It was Alzina, in his monograph “Historias de las Islas el Indios de Bisaias…1668” who termed tattooing as “paint”. But it is only one chronicler’s word against the others:

"The Bisayans are called Pintados because they are in fact so, not by nature although they are well-built, well-featured and white, but by painting their entire bodies from head to foot as soon as they are young men with strength and courage enough to endure the torture of painting. In the old days, they painted themselves when they had performed some brave deed. They paint themselves by first drawing blood with pricks from a very sharp point, following the design and lines previously marked by the craftsmen in the art, and then over the fresh blood applying a black powder that can never again be erased. They do not paint the whole body at one time, but part by part, so that the painting takes many days to complete. In the former times they had to perform a new feat of bravery for each of the parts that were to be painted. The paintings are very elegant, and well proportioned to the members and parts where they are located. I used to say there, captivated and astonished by the appearance of one of these, that if they brought it to Europe a great deal of money could be made by displaying it. Children are not painted. The women paint the whole of one hand and a part of the other."[2]

Legaspi in 1565 made a similar observation when he set foot on Leyte. " The torsos, thighs and arms of the men were tattooed with pigment deep in the flesh; most of them wore only bahag to cover the loins; gold pendants hang from their ears; and the chiefs also wore gold anklets."(Documentos Ineditos)

Despite this proselytization, Alzina described in text, rare motifs found in the Pintado tattoo, but there were no exact illustrations of it as that found in the Boxer Codex, a manuscript of written text and illustrations which Alfredo Roces suggests in “Boxer Codex in Filipino Heritage: The Making of a Nation” that the artist did not actually visit the places mentioned from the text, but drew from imagination. Boxer notes that the descriptions of these countries are not original. The account of China, for example, was largely based on the narrative of Fray Martin de Rada. The technique of the paintings suggests that artist may have been Chinese, as does the use of Chinese paper, ink and paints.”[3] However, those found in the Boxer Codex come close to evidence of how the Pintado tattoo looked like.

In finding out the tattoo of Leyte, we formulate the following question:

What were the shared traits and customs in tattooing found in neighboring cultures which we could speculate the Pintado tattoo?

Early Tattoo Patterns in Leyte

The first impression of the western man on the native in Leyte could be read in Pigafetta's account in Limasawa when he described the brother of Rajah Siani of that island: He "was the handsomest among these people. His hair was very black and of shoulder length; he had a silk cloth on his head and two large gold rings hang from the ears. He wore a cotton cloth, embroidered with silk to cover himself from waist down to the knees. On his side, he wore a dagger with a long handle, all of gold, with its scabbard made of carved wood. With this he wore upon him scents of storac and binoin (benzoin). He was tanned and his face was all painted... The painted king was called Colambu and the other Rajah Siani." (Blair & Robertson)[4]

Pigafetta described the garb on Siani as painted, although the markings were tattoos which were shared by many peoples of the Islands upon the period of discovery by the Spaniards. He was describing then the manner of grooming of Pintado men especially those who belonged to the upper structure of society.

Before I go on to the discussions of early patterns, I would like to elucidate what “TATU” means. The term is understandably generic. For lack or absence of a name aside from “Pintados”, I choose the term “tatu” or “tatau” (Tahitian) meaning “to mark”, “to strike”[5] which is the act one native tattoo artist does to his model with the use of a tattoo wand or stick with a long handle and a sharpened comb-like “tooth” at the end. The Kalinga call it “patik” or “batik” or “patiktik”, but today it is referred more as the act of tattooing, than the instrument alone. Together with a mallet the tattoo act is likened to “tapping”, which is, hammering the sharp points directly to the skin or slightly wounding it. To the wound, dark soot, or dark sap from a special plant is added and embedded to the grooves, thus darkening the wound.

Why does man tattoo himself? Art historian Gene Weltfish answers the question by a misconception on the origins of art—that it is natural for all people, especially the “primitive” or early man, to personify objects.[6] He describes that the tendency to accent and underline special features of an object is a universal impulse. The human body is a natural background for décor. People who wear less clothing often mark their bodies with elaborate designs to make it appear as “haberdashery”[7] or extensions of themselves. However, Weltfish notes that this ethnographic custom indicates that people were borrowing decorative techniques from objects instead of the other way around. Together with tattooing, there was a large number of pendant decors, necklaces, anklets or head nets.

Early motifs in the South East Asian archipelagic rim and the Micronesias noted various crenulations and tattoo designs that John R. Swanton in his anthropological monograph
“Southern Cultures” noted that the tattooed body “published records of valorous acts performed in war” or “social attributes” of the wearer (whether he was a hunter, farmer, fisherman, pearl diver, basket maker, weaver, widow, widower, or had many wives). In most cases, certain sentiments are expressed and are of importance to his tribe or society.

The following are typical of early Southeast Asian motifs:

These are, however ancient Bornean tattoos as recorded by Robert Heine Geldern in his monograph of “Some Tribal Art Styles of Southeast Asia”. Typical is the motif called the “Aso” or the “dog motif” which traces its roots to the Late Chou and Dongson period in China. I would like to remind you a bit of our anthropological history that elucidates the concept of Diffusion[8] The central idea of this theory is that similar traits appearing in separate cultures are proof of some kind of contact between the cultures, and is best interpreted as due to a diffusion of influence from one to the other or from a parent culture. Trade, borrowing, immigration, imitation are some of the probable mechanisms of transmission.[9]

Another interesting motif to note in these tattoos are the spirals as seen in its singular design or double, sometimes joined or interlocking:

Oftentimes, we do associate this spirals to sea waves and movement of the sea as in these tattoo designs found in bamboo containers from Bahau, central Borneo.

Likewise, however, we could also note that motifs such as these come from biomorphic and nature forms like this particular pattern coming from the belly of a tadpole:

We are reminded of the “okir” or “okkil” which the Maranaws of our country use to decorate their panolongs. All these indicate the close connection of that tattoo society to the sea and water. The Pintado society of the 1600s were peoples whose livelihood and folkways were close to the sea and traveled mostly to the neighboring islands. Since they traveled a lot, they assimilated some traits from their neighbors. Perhaps thru the theory of diffusion, I could make a probability that the close cousins of the Leyte tattoo was that of the islands closely accessible like Mindano and Borneo.

However, the following motifs were gathered as tattoo designs from Mindanao(still to be verified):

From “The Vanishing Tattoo Museum

These motifs are a typical of ridges and repeating calligraphic lines that symbolize or associate itself to “access” or “climbing”, as in mountains and loftiness where one is close to the sky or stars. Angled lines and pyramidal shapes could be said as reminiscent of rice terraces or rough mountainous regions. Repeating or alternating patterns are atypical of tribal tattoos or basic to primitive designs.

The particular Mindanao motif shares the same pattern with the Igorot, Kalinga in the Northern tribes of the Philippines:

Worcester/Jenks Photos

But what is most interesting are the criss-crossing, zig-zag and striped line patterns of weaving found in the tattoos of women from the Iban tribes of Borneo. To the Iban women of North Borneo, tattooing was a mark of high social standing[10]

“The Kayan believed that a tattoo is like a “torch” in the world of spirits and that without it they would be engulfed in utter darkness. They believed that only tattooed women were able to bathe in the legendary Julan river and collect the pearls that lay on its bed, while the Biajau were convinced that in paradise tattoos turn into gold and take the place of clothing. There's no doubt that tattooing was thought to confer great beauty. Young Kayan girls were probably comforted – while undergoing the torment of the tattooist's needles – by the legend of the pheasant, which was believed to have been tattooed, at the dawn of time, by a caucal (a tropical bird similar to a pheasant) and to have become the most beautiful bird in the forest, instead of staying the dull, insignificant creature it originally was. The number of tattoos Kayan women had depended on their standing. A young slave was only allowed a single line along her legs, drawn freehand and called “Ida teloo” (three lines). A young girl, if free but of humble extraction, could wear a slightly more elaborate tattoo, called an “Ida-pat” (four lines), whereas the daughter of a chief would have highly elaborate tattoos on her forearms, on the backs of her hands, on her legs (from the top of the thighs down to the knees) and on the tops of the feet.

The ninth day after new moon was considered a propitious time to start. The girl's brothers had to be in attendance, taking turns, and special food was prepared every day for the girl and the tattooist. The work was in pre-established stages, often with long intervals between one and another. The back and backs of the hands were tattooed first, then the tops of the feet, the forearms and lastly the thighs to just below the knees. The arms were divided into longitudinal sections, bands containing the following symbolic patterns: concentric circles, spirals, two concentric circles representing two full moons joined together (the most important motif), a series of horizontal zig-zags, entwined tree roots, a tuba, the ribs of a boat and the “Kayan hook”, two linked spirals.

Tattoos could vary from person to person but certain figures were always put in the same position. The symbol representing the roots of the tuba, for example, was always placed in the top half of the arm (women used these poisonous roots to catch fish). The design considered most important was the two full moons. Interestingly, each band always contained a small detail preventing it from being perfectly symmetrical. The back of the thigh was usually decorated with a linear pattern, the number of lines making up the pattern depending on the girl's social standing. The front and side parts were completely covered by the patterns described above, often embellished or modified, including the following: Balalat lukut, Tinggang, Hornbill, Silong, “Tailless dog” (only in the Rajang area). The final leg tattooing session – decoration of the kneecap – was particularly solemn because considered the conclusion of the whole operation.”[11]

Tattoos on the leg and thighs of an Iban woman Tattooing in the Iban region is done by a woman

In similar treatises, these repeating and “striped” lines were joined with motifs of birds, scorpions, insects or flowers, depicting that tattoos were foremostly cosmetology and marks of beauty. Also, older women displayed “weave” marks and criss-crossing lines which could symbolize the order of their social status as weavers and basket makers.

In Leyte, weaving (paglalara) has been an ancient and age-old craft. The history of the Eastern Visayan is cross-cultured, embellished and influenced by the many cultures in a manner of cross-currents (“Sungduan”) being geographically situated in the navel (pusod) as the crossroad of the South East Asian belt. The womens’ motifs are likened to the criss-crossing lines of the Leyte baskets, mats that they weave, and the cultures that they assimilate. We then could speculate the intrinsicness of the vanished Pintado tattoo to be as eclectic as the various patterns they have assimilated from the Iban, Dyak Borneans, symmetrically arranged like that of the Kalinga, Igorot, Maoris and Marquesans, yet speaking of the grace and fluidity of the Eastern Visayans, deeply rooted in meanings of social folkways and self-identity.


“The Vanishing Tattoo” from


[1] Alzina, Francisco S.J., “Historias de las Islas y Indios de Bisaias…1668”
[2] Ibid.,
[3] Alfredo R. Roces, et al., eds., Boxer Codex in Filipino Heritage: the Making of a Nation,
Philippines: Lahing Pilipino Publishing, Inc., 1977, Vol. IV, p. 1003.
[4] Blair and Robertson, The Philippine Islands,
[5] Allen, Tricia “Tattoo Traditions of Polynesia
[6] Weltfish, Gene, “Origins of Art”
[7] Kennedy-Cabrera, Caroline “Tattoo Art” in The Filipino Heritage, Vol 1
[8] Heine-Geldern, Robert, “Some Tribal Art Styles of Southeast Asia”, The Many Faces of Primitive Art
[9] Ibid.,
[10] Edwin H.Gomes, missionary amongst the Iban, Seventeen Years Among the Sea Dyaks of Borneo: A Record of Intimate Association with the Natives of the Bornean Jungles, from Man, Vol. 11, (1911)
[11] Ibid.


Edik said...

ma'am, i was wondering if there are tattoo designs coming from cebu or bohol since you compare leyte and those of the north. does pintados refer to leyteños only?

i've noticed that there have been writings on tattooed visayans but never saying about bohol as part of them.

Savvy said...

Nope, "Pintados" refer to the tattooed natives upon encounter when the Spanish rediscovers landed on the islands (archipelago then), it does not matter where, because we were not divided "provincially" "Pintados" is a WHOLISTIC that time it could also include Borneo, Mindanao and Melanesia...

Stoned Economist said...

Thank you very much for feeding us information and knowledge of our dying culture... maybe you can be one of our guest speakers to our tattoo expo and competitions...

more power mam.

Savvy said...

Gladly, Mr Stoned...

skidow said...

hi ma'am, upon seeing the cultural or as we say as tribal tattoo's, do kankana'ey from bauko mt. province has this kind of tattoos (tribal war tattoos). Because our tribe called as tribo ng alab was one of the tribes that cut the head of on of the chiefs head late years ago...It's a pleasure if you can post our tattoo design along with some informations...mabuhay ang dugong pinoy

Savvy said...

Mr Skidow, I would gladly analyze your tribal may be a key to finding the authentic motifs of the Pintado..