The Preconquest Filipino Tattoos



Patik is the most familiar preconquest Filipino word for “tattoo”. It is a Visayan term that means “to strike, mark, or print”. And it was the 16th-century Spaniards who named the Visayans — correctly, the Bisaya — as the Pintados, which means “the painted ones”.

The Spaniards were also the ones who christened the Visayan Archipelago — aptly, the Kabisayaan — as the Islas de los Pintados, which is now the modern-day Bohol, Cebu, Leyte, Masbate, Negros, Panay, and Samar islands. Hence, this resulted in the popularization of the precolonial Philippine tattoos in the Kabisayaan.

However, despite the saturation of Bisaya tattoos in historical literature, the culture of the precolonial Philippine tattooing was not confined in the Visayan Archipelago — the peoples of Luzon and Mindanao had also practiced this ancient art.


Among the tattoo practitioners of Luzon were the Agtas, and they called their tattoo as pika. As for the coastal Agtas or the Dumagats, they named their tattoo as cadlet.

The Bikolanos of Albay, Camarines, and Catanduanes were tattooed, and they also practiced head binding and observed the dental arts of teeth sharpening, staining, and gold pegging — which were similar to the customs of their Bisaya neighbors.

The Ibanags of Cagayan Valley called their tattoo as appaku, which is derived from the word paku that means “fern” due to its fern-like tattoo motifs.

The Igorot people, specifically the Kalingas and the Ifugaos, called their tattoo as batok and their tattooist as mambabatok. The Igorot tattoo may also be called as whatok by the Butbuts, fatek by the Bontocs, bátak by the Kankanaeys, and bátek by the Ibaloys and the Sagadans.

The Ilokanos had tattoos called bátek, but their tattoos were not as extensive as the patiks of the Bisaya as observed by the 16th-century chronicler Father Pedro Chirino.


In 1521, Butuan and Caraga were mentioned by Pigafetta, and he described that one of its rulers was good looking, perfumed with storax and benzoin, and had three gold spots on every tooth — and was richly tattooed.

In 1563, the painted Boholanos, who were led by Datu Pagbuaya, migrated and established a Malayan kingdom in Dapitan; thus, they became the ancestors of the tattooed Dapitanons.

In 1622, some Recollect priests met the tattooed Kagayanons of the early Cagayan de Oro City.

The Manobos called their tattoo as pangotoeb, their tattooist as mangotoeb, and their tattoo practice as pagpapangotoeb.

And according to a 20th-century account, some Bagobos had their tattoos done by their Manobo neighbors.


The precolonial Philippine tattoo designs were mostly abstract and geometric forms. And it is believed that these tattoos were more than ornamental — they were sacred and held meaning and purpose to each regional tattoo practitioner across the Islands.

Powerful or auspicious animals, such as pythons, crocodiles, eagles, birds, dogs, centipedes, scorpions, crabs, lizards, and other creatures, were depicted in traditional tattoo motifs.

There were also nature tattoo designs, such as sun, moon, rain, mountains, fire, and lightning; and there were flowery patterns, such as lilies, lotuses, ferns, hibiscus, fruits, and various medicinal plants.

Everyday item motifs, such as compasses, ladders, poles, and arrowheads, were used. And other motifs, such as various geometric shapes, teeth, human figures, and names, were made into tattoo patterns.


Generally, a sharp object and a soot mixture were the tattoo materials in the precolonial times. The soot, which served as the pigment, might come from the burnt ashes of bamboo, dongon-dongong, sai-yung, salumayag, or almasiga plants.

This soot was often mixed with little water or some sort of liquid, like hog bile for the Ibanags, and the Spaniards suspected that this soot was mixed with blood. This precolonial soot mixture, which served as the tattoo ink, is called biro by the Bisaya.

As for the sharp object, it was usually a knife, lemon thorns, or other needle-like tools — a hammering stick would be an additional implement if the sharp object was not a metal blade.


In the olden times, the tattooist would draw the sacred pattern on the recipient’s skin with their soot mixture. Next, the tattooist would poke, prick, incise, or puncture the skin, following the tattoo design. Then, the tattooist would rub the fresh wounds with their soot mixture to make it more visible and permanent.


Recent studies reveal that the profession of the preconquest tattooing was not exclusive to one gender. The Manobo tattooists were mostly females, and some were effeminate males who vowed to sexual purity, and they were traditionally paid for their services with beads, leglets, and food.

It is also believed that tattooing was a lucrative profession and highly respected in the olden days. Some renowned tattoo artists would travel to different villages and tribes, for they were highly sought after for their services.

Historical narratives often compared and connected the precolonial tattooing with the traditional embroidery and weaving; hence, the tattoo artists were most likely learned weavers.

Lastly, considering the sacredness of the preconquest tattoos, it may be assumed that the tattoo artists were heavily connected with the area of ancient spirituality and practices, such as Binabaylan, Diwatahan, or Paganitohan.


Conventional wisdom dictates that the preconquest Philippine tattoos were only reserved for the warrior class; however, this popular statement proves to be inaccurate, for a non-warrior male, a female, and even a child, might be permitted or encouraged to have a tattoo. There were varied reasons on why to have a precolonial tattoo:

In the olden times, tattoos were used to identify a person’s tribe and address, and it could even reveal the person’s name, profession, and social stratification.

The Manobos started tattooing their children upon the start of their puberty. As for the Bisaya, they have a term called tigma that means a youth’s first taste of sex, while tiklad is their first victory in love — and they were tattooed for these life events and for laudatory notices.

Animist champions or war leaders, such as the baganis, maganis, mangubats, or datus, were tattooed to commemorate and celebrate their feats. These warrior-type tattoos were likened to medals of honor. Thus, a man whose body was covered with warrior-type tattoos was perceived to be a very powerful and capable warrior.

Tattoos on the face, from ears to chin and around the eyes, were reserved for the greatest and fiercest Bisaya warriors who had successfully protected their villages and eliminated their enemies.

For those who had warrior-type tattoos but acted cowardly, they were ridiculed and called halo, which is a timid black and yellow bayawak or monitor lizard, by the precolonial Bisaya. And those who received warrior-type tattoos but not had defeated an enemy were scorned as phonies.

It is widely believed that the precolonial tattoos provided special powers to their owners, giving them strength, luck, and protection from evil spirits. According to a Mindanao oral tradition, the Manobos had themselves tattooed so that the man-eating giant Ologasi, who preyed on unpainted humans, would not eat them.

An old Ibanag belief mentions that if their deceased were unpainted, their soul could not enter their ancestral land of the dead. This belief is similar to the Kalingas, for their tattoos served as identifying marks to be recognized by their spirit ancestors who would see if they were worthy to live with them in Jugkao, their afterlife.

As for the Manobos, they have a very interesting explanation about their preconquest tattoos. According to their oral tradition, when a person dies, their world would turn into a black abyss, but if one had tattoos, their tattoos would light up and guide their soul to their resting place called Somolow.


We can appreciate the fact that tattooing was observed by the precolonial inhabitants across the Philippines, and these tattoos symbolized the rich cultures of bravery, spirituality, and identity of the early Filipinos — truly, these sacred preconquest tattoo practices are cultural treasures that the modern-day Filipinos can take pride in, a tradition that must be protected and passed on.


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  • City Government of Cagayan de Oro. “History of Cagayan de Oro.” Cagayan de Oro: City of Golden Friendship.
  • Donoso, Isaac, ed. Boxer Codex: A Modern Spanish Transcription and English Translation of 16th-Century Exploration Accounts of East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Quezon City: Vibal Foundation, 2016.
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  • Ragragio, Andrea Malaya M., and Myfel D. Paluga. “An Ethnography of Pantaron Manobo Tattooing (Pangotoeb): Towards a Heuristic Schema in Understanding Manobo Indigenous Tattoos.” Southeast Asian Studies 8, no. 2 (2019): 259-294.
  • Salvador-Amores, Analyn. 2017. “Tattoos in the Cordillera.” Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 29, 2017.
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Illustration Sources: The image detail at the top is from Planting of the First Cross by Vicente Manansala (ca. 1960s), National Museum Collections; the photo source and the image remix is brought to you by Datu Press®.

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