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Los Pintados de Las Islas Filipinas

Updated on April 7, 2016
Photo by Ravi Joshua J Juanite.  Stamp Design by the Author
Photo by Ravi Joshua J Juanite. Stamp Design by the Author | Source

The door opened and a young couple stood by the outside, one cuddling a “maleta,” a term for a small luggage, not the James Bond-type of attaché case introduced by Sean Connery in the 1980s, but a long, rectangular wooden box. He had a tattoo on his right biceps.

His partner, the woman grinned. “Is your son at home?” she asked.

I motioned to my wife and asked for Ravi. My son went down and upon seeing the couple they immediately proceeded to the balcony. It was quite a surprise.

Immediately, the man opened the maleta and my son simultaneously took off his shirt. “Whoa! What is this?” I said to myself. My wife kept silent, just observing. The couple prepared some needles of sort and plugged a portable machine into the electrical outlet.

Wow! My son was having a tattoo for the first time. The year was 2010.

Although he never asked permission from us, I understood. He was already of the right age and had his own self-employed work online. The young people nowadays have acquired a different set of values. They belong to the internet generation.

I never had any tattoo in my entire life and have never entertained having one, but when I did a research on tattoos and the art of tattooing, I was amazed at the realization that my family’s history belonged to an ancient tradition of tattooing culture!

Spain’s Discovery

During Spain’s relentless, unstoppable colonization of the world in the 1500s, there was one country where they found people with attractive but strange artistic marks on their skins: The Philippines. And of all the regions in Las Islas Filipinas, it was only in the Bicayas (now Visayas)—the Visayan islands where they found the painted people. The Spaniards called these people “pintados.”

These pristine islands were inhabited by men and women with tattoos, from their faces down to their legs, and were considered warriors of the region that included Leyte, Samar, Bohol, Cebu and Negros. But the predominantly Pintado-populated islands were found in Leyte and Samar. My grandfather, Eustaquio, hails from Samar island and he had a number of smaller ethnic-type of marks on his back. My father, Antonio was born in Northern Leyte in Tanauan town and both my father and grandfather spoke Waray Visayan, the dialect of the Pintados. My grandmother also comes from Tanauan and was a teacher, trained during the American Thomasite period who retired early. Spanish influence is quite strong in these islands.

Visayan Islands of the Pintados

My mother, Juliana, comes from Southern Leyte where the more widespread Cebuano Visayan is spoken. My father did not have any tattoo. Before the Second World War my grandparents sent him to Manila to study in college. He finished his Bachelor of Science in Commerce from the Jose Rizal College in Manila. When the war broke out, my father went back to Leyte to join the guerrilla movement against the Japanese. He met my mother in Maasin, Southern Leyte where he was assigned, along with other guerrillas, to fight the Japanese.

After the war the entire family decided to migrate to Manila. I was born in Manila—a baby boomer. I used to speak waray in my childhood but over time I seem to have lost the interest and the memory. Now, I’m a product of American culture.

A View of Eastern Samar

Calicoan, Eastern Samar.  Photo by Rhea Canes
Calicoan, Eastern Samar. Photo by Rhea Canes | Source

The Return

In Taoist philosophy and cosmology, everything has a Return, and for no significant reason at all except that Ravi felt he needed to have a tattoo, here he was lying down on his front for a “Yakuza-type” of tattoo on his back. Of course, why should I complain? My son belongs to a long DNA line of Pintados on my father’s side.

I realized I should have had a body tattoo during my younger years, but I have also realized that this thing is quite expensive—and excruciatingly painful, although a strong motivation can overcome any pain. My son could afford to have a full body, multi-colored, modern tattoo since he believes so much in this culture that has become so widespread among the younger and elder generations of the 21st century, and he made good in his online job, even surpassing me in my career earnings.

It was in his generation where a return to becoming a Pintado was realized.

Pre-Spanish Art and Meaning

Based on early historical Spanish accounts cited by G. Nye Steiger, H. Otley Beyer, and Conrado Benitez in their book, A History of the Orient (1929) the Pintados were mostly “men who are known for their tattoo art, which often covers most of their bodies. They apply the tattoos by pricking the skin with sharp pieces of iron and then applying black powder to the open wounds which is absorbed into the skin permanently. The inhabitants of the province of Camarines, located at the eastern end of the (Philippine) islands resemble the Pintados.”

A Spanish historian by the name of Rodriguez writes in 1565 saying: "... these Indians wear gold earrings, and the chiefs wear two clasps about the feet. All the body, legs, and arms are painted; and he who is bravest is painted most."

“Tattoos are indicative of a man's bravery in battle: the more tattoos, the more success. The Pintados are a warlike race; continually waging war on both land and sea for Mangubat (booty). This word means going to other lands in search of conquest, to plunder, raid or to fight.”

Tattoos for the Visayan Pintados are therefore not just for art’s sake but are taken as indicators of a man’s bravery in warfare etched into the skin.

The above photo of a tattooed woman  from Northern Philippines resembles the tattoo of the ancient Pintados.  Photo by Mark Wynn Orca Combo, COEP.
The above photo of a tattooed woman from Northern Philippines resembles the tattoo of the ancient Pintados. Photo by Mark Wynn Orca Combo, COEP. | Source

Tattoo by Brian Gomes

This modern tattoo by Brian Gomes reflects the original ethnic Irezumi Ainu Japanese model.  Tattoo and photo by Brian Gomes.
This modern tattoo by Brian Gomes reflects the original ethnic Irezumi Ainu Japanese model. Tattoo and photo by Brian Gomes. | Source

21st Century Tattoo Culture

The Pintados’ extensive body marks resemble those of the traditional Samoan tattoo of the 1800s although not exactly the same, with sharp-angle or distinctly spheroid geometric designs on their torso’s skins.

Samoa is part of the Asia Pacific Region and has similar cultural characteristics with the Philippines’ Visayan islanders. Samoan islanders show a string of dots formed into curvilinear lines on the face, arms, breast, and the back parts of the body that reflect lighter wave lines. The Pintados show heavier lines along the body contour.

The technology and sophistication included in today’s tattooing culture have radically changed the art form and meaning of the practice. Ancient cultures that developed over time have influenced the design of modern tattoos. One significant model is the Japanese Irezumi that was practiced by the ethnic Ainu for spiritual and decorative purposes. The tebori irezumi tattooing culture practiced today has been known to exist as early as the Paleolithic age.

A leg tattoo.  Photo by Lhisza Lim, COEP
A leg tattoo. Photo by Lhisza Lim, COEP | Source
Arm and breast tattoo.  Photo by Aldrian Mejia Magno, COEP.
Arm and breast tattoo. Photo by Aldrian Mejia Magno, COEP. | Source

Ravi's Tattoo

The Irezumi design model is reflected in Ravi's tattoo (right), a photo during the 2015 Cebu Sinulog, with family and friends.
The Irezumi design model is reflected in Ravi's tattoo (right), a photo during the 2015 Cebu Sinulog, with family and friends. | Source

Today, Irezumi has been used as a basic design model from where other similar designs would be developed, as shown in Ravi’s biceps.

A tattoo artist’s toolkit could include a 2-coil or one coil machine with a needle set and inks of various colors. The original Pintados used only a coal black color from black powder. Today’s tattoo ink materials are either water-based or ethyl alcohol-based. Greater amounts of pigment can be transferred to a person’s skin using an alcohol-based ink material. Pigments are made from oxides, heavy metals and other chemicals that infuse the carrier bases. Each color has a different metal pigment base. Black for example has nickel as its metal pigment base, while red has mercury.

A complete professional tattoo gun kit or machine equipment set that sells at eBay, for instance, includes a one tuned-coil tattoo machine with 4 resin washers for adjustment, rubber bands to provide correct tension against the needle, inks, needles and literature. Five ink materials are available in the market today that includes Kuro Sumi Tattoo Ink, Starbrite, Intenz, Skin Candy, and Mom’s Tattoo Ink. All these ink materials have followed FDA guidelines and are tested for safety. From 75 to 125 colors are available from these types, making tattooing more challenging and exciting.


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