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The Republic of the Philippines (Republika ng Pilipinas), or, as it is commonly called, "The Philippines" is a nation consisting of roughly 7,100 islands of varying size, located on the eastern edge of the Malay archipelago (which includes not only the Philippines, but the territory of Indonesia and Malaysia). It has been known by different names, such as Nueva Castilla (New Castile), and Las Islas de San Lázaro, but the modern name originates from the name Ruy López de Villalobos gave to the islands of Samar and Leyte (located in the eastern Visayas region), Las Islas Filipinas, after King Phillip II of Spain in 1543.

The Philippines is divided into three main regions, with several main islands:

  • Luzon: Luzon, Mindoro, Masbate
  • Visayas: Palawan, Panay, Negros, Cebu, Bohol, Leyte, Samar
  • Mindanao: Mindanao, Sulu archipelago

The Philippines has been settled for at least 50,000 years, although the people who comprise the majority of Filipinos arrived during the Iron Age. The original inhabitants are said to be the ancestors of the Aeta, a hunter gatherer people who live mostly in the uplands of various islands, and are genetically related to the Andamese islanders. Modern Filipinos are related linguistically and culturally to the peoples of Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Polynesia, and Madagascar.

Roughly 170 different languages are spoken in the Philippines, according to Ethnologue, and each of those is generally associated with a distinct ethnic group. The native languages of the Philippines are Austronesian (related to Indonesian, Hawaiian, Maori, and Malagasy). Though the Aeta are distinct from the majority of other Filipinos, they all speak Austronesian languages.

The Philippines has always been a center for trade in South East Asia, thus, with the coming of the Spaniards in the 16th century, cultural shock was low and Filipinos were used to trade with other cultures from outside of the Philippines. For instance, the island group was well known to the Chinese who had settled in the Philippines before the Spanish. The Japanese, too, had settled in the Philippines before the arrival of the Spanish, as merchants and traders; however, with the closing of Japan, the Japanese stopped arriving int he Philippines until the persecution of Japanese Christians by the Shogun in 1614.

Filipinos are usually divided into several main groups, the Aeta, the Mountain Tribes, Lowlanders, and Muslims. The most western of these groups are the Lowlanders, who tend to be Christian, and have been exposed to the most influence from Spanish and American culture. The Aeta have been historically resistant to acculturalization by Spaniards, Americans, and even modern Lowland Filipinos. Both the Mountain Tribes and Muslims (known as Moros in the Philippines) have resisted Spanish, American, and modern Lowland influence as well. Of the groups, the lowlanders have lost much of their original culture; however, all has not been lost.


Tattoos among Filipinos

When the Spanish arrived at the island of Panay (western Visayas), they noted the extensive "painting" the islanders practiced. This painting was actually extensive tattooing. The Spanish gave the island of Panay its original name, La Isla de Los Pintados Island of the Painted People.

Little is easily found published about Filipino tattoos and what the meanings of each of the designs are. Even among the Kalinga, the tribe best known for continuing tattooing in the Philippines, not much is known about what the tattoos mean, although it is said the distinctive torso design is said to evoke the image of a shirt known as a silup. However, there are images in existence which give an idea of the motifs and designs various Philippine tribes used.

Design styles tend to vary depending upon the area one finds tattoos. The Kalinga for instance, who were once known as headhunters, tattoo designs along the arms, arching over the chest and down the torso in great arcs for the men. These tattoos give the appearance of a shirt. Women however, seem to have tattooed just the arms and part of the chest, shoulder and back. The most common motifs are long lines down the arms with series of paired chevrons attached at one side to the lines. Down the center of the arm a net or turtle shell pattern.

From the Boxer Codex, a Spanish-Chinese codex illustrating the various people encountered by the Spanish in the Philippines (and is, of course, not an accurate resource, but it does give a very good idea), designs on men appear to be large zig-zag shapes down the back, smaller, finer zig-zag lines down the arms and legs, a collar of triangles, and medallions on the chest and buttocks. The Visayans were said to be the most heavily tattooed peoples, with only the feet and wrists remaining untattooed. Tribes in Mindanao appear to have favored fine, geometric designs, similar to the cloth weaves of tribes from Mindanao.

Like most tribal societies which practiced tattoos, among men, the tattoo was a method of displaying rank and mastery of the art of war. For women, the tattoo often was a method of beautification.


The techniques used in the Philippines are, by far, similar among all of the tribes. The tattooist would wipe the skin with a mixture of soot and sugarcane juice (or soot and lard, and even chicken excrement!). After, he would prick the skin with a sharp instrument of various design, but usually containing several needles (sometimes up to five). The tapping of the instrument would drive the soot and sugarcane juice into the skin, producing the design. However, among the Panayanon islanders, the design would be pricked into the skin first, then rubbed with soot afterward.

The Modern Age

While tattooing has been lost among all of the lowland Filipinos as a mark of heritage, Filipinos today are beginning to recognize their past and design tattoos which reflect Filipino culture. The group Tatak ng Apat Na Alon— Mark of the Four Waves Tribe intends to bring a greater awareness of Filipino tattooing heritage. Members have designs based upon research done by the tribe which are individual to that person.


Other Filipinos have begun to get words written in the baybayin script. The Baybayin script was the original writing system used in the Philippines before the arrival of the Spanish. Due to prestige of the Latin alphabet, it fell out of favor and is currently only used by the Hanuno'o, Tagbanwa, and Buhid tribes. Baybayin is related to the scripts of Indonesia, Thailand, India, and Tibet (not Arabic as is often incorrectly written, despite Muslim presence as far north as Manila by the coming on the Spaniards).

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