Tattoos are made to be seen | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Tattoos are made to be seen

/ 12:20 AM September 15, 2017

It was painful to watch Sen. Antonio Trillanes’ frustrated attempt at getting Davao Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte to shed his shirt and bare the tattoo on his back during a Senate hearing. And all this talk of tattoos reminded me of the gruesome display in the National Museum, sometime in the 1980s, of a Kabayan mummy. I was told that the museum had more than one mummy in its collection but kept these in storage, and that the one displayed under glass was chosen for its exceptional state of preservation and the tattoos clearly etched on its parched skin, the color and texture of overcooked lechon. I told my students to pay close attention to the details on the mummy and then write an essay on
the ethics of displaying human remains in a museum. Anthropological research or museum education may have been the lofty intent, but the mummy was still someone’s great-grandmother.

To complicate matters, these mummies were stolen from the Kabayan caves in the Cordilleras and found their way through the shadowy illegal antiquities into private collectors at home and abroad. A scandal erupted when the export of some mummies was thwarted by the Bureau of Customs and a photograph of an elegant home circulated showing how one collector used a mummy as a conversation piece by installing it on the base of a living-room lampshade! Eventually the mummies intercepted by Customs and those in the National Museum were returned to the Kabayan caves; the community rejoiced and reinterred its ancestors with an ancient ritual that should guarantee their lying in peace
for a long, long time.


Tattoos have a long history in the Philippines that stretches back beyond the 16th century and the Spanish colonial period. The earliest documentation we have of Philippine tattoo art can be found in one of the illustrations of the Boxer Codex, a manuscript in Spanish written around 1590. It depicts the Visayans then known and described as “Pintados” because their bodies were “painted” with tattoos:

“The Bisayas are accustomed to painting their bodies with very delicate paintings; they make them with heated iron, and they have skillful masters who know how to make them well. They perform this work with such precision and with such perfection that they evoke admiration in whoever sees them. They resemble illuminations [like paintings in manuscripts].”


Two individuals covered with tattoos are depicted such that the viewer can see both the front and back of these ancient Visayan warriors. From afar the tattoos probably resembled clothing. It is fascinating to look at this illustration because each buttock exposed under a G-string is ornamented with a sunburst
design, leading an overenthusiastic academic to declare that these ancient suns form the  unwritten inspiration for the eight-rayed sun on the Philippine flag!

Tattoos on the Pintados were signs of social class and bravery. Each tattoo, like a modern soldier’s medals, displayed the number of battles the warrior had fought and perhaps even the number of enemies he had killed. So when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they introduced clothing to cover nakedness and teach ideas of modesty or decency. Pedro Chirino, a 17th-century Jesuit chronicler, wrote:

“The principal clothing of the Cebuanos and all the Visayans is the tattooing of which we have already spoken, with which a naked man appears to be dressed in a kind of handsome armor engraved with very fine work, a dress so esteemed by them they take it for their proudest attire, covering their bodies neither more nor less than a[n image of] Christ crucified, so that although for solemn occasions they have the marlotas we mentioned, their dress at home and in the barrio is their tattoos and a bahag, as they call that cloth they wrap around their waist, which is the sort the ancient actors and gladiators used in Rome for decency’s sake.”

In ancient times tattoos were a mark of bravery not just in battle but also in the course of enduring the pain to acquire them. One did not acquire tattoos in one sitting; these were imprinted on several occasions, and in some cases the process led to infection, fever, and sometimes death.

Then as now tattoos are made to be seen, not hidden. So let’s wait for Paolo Duterte to prove Trillanes right or wrong.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Looking Back, National Museum, Paolo Duterte, Sen. Antonio Trillanes, tattoos
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