The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga
Photographed by Jake Verzosa
Up in the rice terraces of the Cordillera mountain range of the Philippines live the last few tattooed women of Kalinga. Traditional tattooing is seen as archaic and painful by the younger generations of Kalingas. As an Indigenous group that has successfully fought against colonizing forces, it is losing the practice of traditional tattooing because of the changing perspective of beauty and interpretations of the practice by outside scholars.
Studies on the tradition interpreted the practice to show that men were given tattoos because of brave acts during tribal wars while the women were given tattoos just to decorate their bodies. Men who attempt to get traditional tattoos without acts of bravery are shunned by the community and are now unable to continue the practice without facing criminal charges from the government. Women are unconstrained by the same reasons but are struggling to continue the practice because of the pervasive western interpretations of aesthetics that changed the perceptions of “beauty” in Kalinga. To the women of Kalinga, the batok or the tattoo goes beyond beauty and prestige but it is symbolic of the traditional values of women’s strength and fortitude.
The traditional tattoo is an indigenous body art, an expression of the psychological dimensions of life, health, love and it defines local perceptions of existence. Sadly there is now a decline of the traditional art among indigenous women brought about by the changing perspective of the meaning of the tattoo and its stigmatized practice. It is now considered a vanishing art along with the gatekeepers of the knowledge associated with it.