The Preconquest Filipino Tattoos



Did you know that the art of tattooing was practiced by the precolonial Filipinos? These ancient tattoos represented bravery, prestige, power, and beauty. And the preconquest Filipinos have a special word for tattoo — the patik.

Patik comes from the Cebuano language, the lingua franca of the 16th-century Central Visayas, which means to tattoo, mark, or print. In the 1500s, when the Spaniards sailed on Visayan waters, they described that the natives of these islands were black with tattoos. Thus, they named the Visayas as the Islas de los Pintados or the Islands of the Painted People.


Surprisingly, it was not only the precolonial Visayans who practiced the art of tattooing, for the Bikolanos, such as the natives of Albay, Camarines, and Catanduanes, had this similar practice. The ancient Bikolano warriors decorated their skin with artful tattoos, filed and stained their gold-pegged teeth, and practiced head binding.

Meanwhile, in the mountains of Northern Luzon, the brave and freedom-loving Kalinga headhunters of the Igorot people called their tattoo as batok and tattooist as mambabatok. It is noteworthy to mention that the warlike and tattooed Igorot people were successful in defending their territories for the rest of the Castilian occupation that lasted for three centuries.

Whereas, the Ibanags, the people living on the banks of the Cagayan River, they named tattooing as the appaku. And appaku came from the word paku or fern because of its fern-like designs.

Lastly, for the numerous Agtas in the archipelago, they called tattooing as the pika, while for the Dumagats, they named it as the cadlet.


In preconquest times, for men and women, having a tattoo was no easy feat — one had to earn it. Precolonial tattoos were treated like precious pieces of jewelry or medals of honor, which announced the rank and the social standing of the tattoo owner. Their skin paints equated the valorous and exceptional deeds they made; therefore, if they had more tattoos, then they would receive much respect and admiration.


Regional tattoos might be geometric shapes that symbolized powerful or poisonous animals, such as pythons, crocodiles, eagles, dogs, centipedes, and other cunning creatures. And there were also decorative and flowery tattoos, such as lilies, lotuses, ferns, and hibiscus. Thus, a full-body-tattooed man that showcased dangerous animals was believed to be a very powerful and capable warrior.


In the ancient Visayas, warriors would have their first tattoos on their ankles, and as their warring experience grew, they would have tattoos on to the chest, shoulders, buttocks, and back. Tattoos on the face, from ears to chin and around the eyes, were reserved for the greatest and fiercest Visayan warriors who had successfully protected their villages and eliminated their enemies.


Upon research, there’s a Visayan term called tigma that means a youth’s first taste of sex or war, while tiklad is their first victory in love or battle. And the pre-Hispanic Visayans who had experienced these were tattooed for laudatory notices.


It is widely believed that these precolonial tattoos were connected with magic and religion as though these tattoos provided special powers to their owners, giving them a sense of strength, protection, and luck.

The wives of the warriors were also tattooed, for if these women were not lavishly painted, they could not enter their ancestral land of the dead as for the old beliefs of the Ibanags.


We can truly appreciate that the precolonial Filipinos had a system of awards and recognition through these valuable ancient tattoos, which were earned through bravery, hard work, and invaluable services, and these are cultural treasures that the modern-day Filipinos can be proud of.


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  • Manansala, Vicente. (1960s). Planting of the First Cross. Manila: National Museum of the Philippines.
  • Scott, William Henry. (1994). Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Quezon City: Ateneo De Manila University Press.

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