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History 1

The Real Filipino Roots: How We Became…

The Malay Archipelago, before governments, politics and nationalism, consisted of what we know today as Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. At that time, the Philippine islands were not yet inhabited by humans, only by pre-historic animals.


The first native people that explored the Malay Archipelago were the Aetas (Negritos: which are crossed with Afro-Asiatic and Austro-Aborigines). The Aetas, also known as Agtas, Negritos, or Andamanese (of the Andaman Islands, India), were the first to reach many of these unfamiliar islands and begin to call them home around 15,000-3,000 B.C.E. The Aetas where nomadic, moving with the changes of the weather and food resources. They traveled through the vast regions of the Malay Archipelago, moving from island to island across the South seas. The Aetas mix descent of African and Asiatic roots that came from Asia evolving as a new race of human beings that were physically different from the present day African or Asian peoples.


While the Aetas were settling on some islands, another wave of an intermixed race was making its way down from Asia. The Proto-Malays (of Mongol Asiatic descent) were the 2nd wave to settle the Malay Archipelago (2500 B.C.E.) They were sea farers and farmers and a bit more technologically advanced than other surrounding groups. When they first arrived, there were few territorial fights until the Negritos fled into the hills and jungles. After establishing themselves, the Proto-Malays and Aetas began living together peacefully. They shared information and collectively built a culture that practiced head-hunting and were part of the Malayo-Polynesian (Austronesian: ancestors of todays polynesians) language group.


The third wave introduced civil natives called the Deuteron-malays. They were mixed with the Proto-Malay natives and India-asiatic peoples, who were were Indian, Chinese, Siamese and later, Arabic. These people brought with them diverse influences. The Duetero-Malays in comparison were more advanced, ruling over the majority of the archipelago until the Spanish arrived. After this happened they were pushed further down south.


It was the introduction of the 4th wave that quickly put the Philippine Islands on the map. The Spanish fleet, led by Ferdinand Magellan, reached the islands in 1521. The Castilla (the Spaniards, the Conquistadors, the overseers, the “masters”) did as they do when the colonize. They came with guns and power to force their beliefs and lifestyles on the people. They continued to rape and pillage the islands of its gold and its culture, to make it their own. They intermixed with the native peoples and became the 4th wave.


It was 1998, in the midst of the Polynesian tattoo resurgence, when the first Amangs (Fathers) of the tribe went to Hawaii not knowing what lied ahead of them. They wanted to see how others were reviving the tattoos of their culture.

They felt the spirit of MANA (Sacred Energy) that was present in every turn of that journey and eventually it led them to the most righteous people of the land. It gave them the opportunity to learn about the oral history and folklore of the Polynesian culture which parallels that of the Philippines. The Amangs began to piece together this new information from their Polynesian family with the knowledge they had gathered from their own elders and research. This further solidified their ambitions the revive the tradition of Filipino tattoos.


Hawaiian big brother, ROY, told the stories of his tattoos and encouraged tribe members to focus more on their own tattoos and how it correlated with their own lives and ancestors. ROY introduced the first Amangs to two Polynesians from Tahiti, PO’OINO and COCO. It was captivating to see their bodies also covered with tattoos that represented their ancestors. They celebrated them without shame or worries about the disapproving judgments of todays society.

It was very admirable to see the Polynesians dedication to reviving the traditions of tattoo. Their goal was to accurately represent their ancestral ways of expression with no regard of criticizing opinions of the missionaries, who thought it was a savage and primitive practice. The Polynesians also experienced oppression at the hands of the Europeans, yet they have fought hard to regain the wealth of their tattoo culture that was once extinct. They asked the Amangs why the Filipino people weren’t breaking the mental enslavement of colonization and reviving tattoo traditions. The Amangs had read and heard stories of ancestors practicing tattoo but no one had yet dared to step up and break free to restore this tradition. Our Polynesian cousins helped to spark the idea and fuel the creation of this tribe and it mission.

Since then, we have now grown into an international organization of more than 400 members. We are constantly growing, expanding our knowledge and evolving our impact on the community. Our mission is forever rooted in reviving culture and has developed into many directions.


Sometimes called the ‘Forgotten Islands of Southeast Asia’ as they are located off the main trading routes, the more than 7,000 islands that comprise the Philippines, host a rich mix of traditions. 80 to 90 distinctly different cultures are present on the islands; from the sea gypsies of the Sulu Archipelago (many of whom never step foot on dry land) to the intensely independent Kalinga people (who live in the remote mountainous region of Northern Luzon.)


One consistency amongst all of the islands traditions is tattooing; styles range from intricately delicate swirling designs to bold and simple silhouette motifs. Tattoos have long been a part of the culture that part of the Philippines was dubbed by Spanish explorers as “La Isla De Los Pintados” (The Islands of the Painted Ones) Sadly, over the last half-century, Filipino tattoo traditions have been slowly vanishing. However, that slow cultural suicide will soon come to a halt if the Tatak Ng Apat Na Alon Tribe succeeds in its goals to revive this very important part of our culture.

Tatak Ng Apat Na Alon (Mark of the Four Waves – a reference to the “waves” of immigrants that came to the Philippines) is an international organization dedicated to reviving the traditional culture and tattoos of the Philippine Islands. Tatak Ng Apat Na Alon recognizes the influence, both good and bad, that each wave had on molding the culture of the islands. Their intention is to resurrect the positive, repair the negative and gracefully move into the future while at the same time keeping their roots firmly planted in the past. “A people without knowledge of their history and culture are like a tree without roots” says Amang Hanuno’o, a member of the Tatak Ng Apat Na Alon tribe. Our ancestors are the roots of the tree of life, the branches tell their stories, and the leaves are our parents. Our mission is to support each other as we grow and reach towards the skies. Sadly, so many people of our generation are unwatered seeds just waiting to sprout with the nurturing wisdom and knowledge of our ancient culture.

We stress that these tattoos are not a fad or a fashion statement. They are intended to create a bridge to our ancestors. Each pattern is sacred and has significant meaning, our tattoos are our stories and hold deep individual symbolism. So when others try to copy them it is extremely disrespectful and disgraceful. They can be used as inspiration for your own designs but its better to research your own roots and water your own tree. Tribe members help each other to research ancestral history by consulting with elders and referring to text to create the appropriate patterns; most will only tell the surface meanings behind their tattoos, since it is believed that telling the in-depth meaning will diminish the tattoos worth and deprive the wearer of its protective powers.

The myth of how tattooing was brought to the people goes that a bird fell into a bowl of black ink. Covered with pigment, the bird frantically flew into a warrior, and began to peck at him. Soon the warrior was covered with little black marks that formed a design, and the first tattoo had been inked.


There are different tattoo traditions among each of the Philippines main island groups – LUZON, VISAYAS, and MINDANOU. According to research, the mountain tribes in Northern LUZON developed a highly creative culture and tattooing is still very prevalent among the people who live there. Their tattoos are intricate patterns comprised of straight and curved lines, inked with indigo blue and placed on the chest and arms. Its so popular in the area that it would be difficult to find a person from the interior of LUZON who has never been tattoo. Unfortunately, the practice in rapidly disappearing as many people are now discarding their old traditions and culture.

The men of the VISAYAS, dubbed ‘Pintados’ by the Spaniards, tend to tattoo their entire bodies, whereas the women only tattoo their hands. They all usually get tattooed at an early age, as it is believed that the younger the child is the easier they will take the experience. VISAYAS tattoos are extremely elaborate, they look like complicated etchings (wood carvings) which is ironic because they cut the designs into the skin and press soot or ash into the wounds, leaving only their wrists and feet bare of ink.
The people of MINDANOU tattoo small pieces all over their bodies that seemingly have no connection but are actually anthropomorphic versions of plants and animals. They tend to be more floral with thinner lines. They still use symbolic patterns but tend to use less more sporadic designs.

Traditional Filipino women get tattooed to enhance their beauty. Men’s tattoos are markers of their age, accomplishments, and tribal seniority. Some tribes believe that tattoos have magical qualities, particularly images of scorpions, centipedes, snakes and boats, all of which have especially deep significance to the people who wear these tattoos.


The Tatak Ng Apat Na Alon Tribe has hundreds of members all over the world. Most have been tattooed in the modern way, with tattoo machines, but some have gotten traditional hand worked tattoos. The traditional tattooing method involves the tattooist smearing the skin with a mixture of soot and sugarcane juice. If sugarcane juice isn’t available, another substance such as lard or hens dung can be used. The skin is rapidly pokes with the tattooing instrument, which ranges from the pointed metal pieces used by the Pintados, to the pieces of sharpened wood used by the Kankanay Tribe from Central Benguet.


The most unusual tattooing device was developed by the Isneg tribe from the Apayao Province. Its called “Igihisi” and is made from an ‘S’ shaped piece of rattan (a type of palm) with four of five pins attached to one end. The tattooist places the pins into the skin and then rapidly beats the curve next to the pins, on its convex side, until the pins are deeply embedded into the skin.


TATTOO Magazine®
May 2004 – Issue 177

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