Young woman seeks to preserve indigenous tattoo art in northern Philippines

Jojo Riñoza
Baguio, Philippines

Traditional tools including lemon tree thorns are used to create “pagbabatok” tattoos in a practice that dates back more than 1,000 years, Oct. 8, 2022. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]


Ammin Acha-ur, a full time “mambabatok” (tattoo artist), works at Camp Folkswagen Café Gallery in Baguio, a popular mountain resort city north of Manila, Oct. 8, 2022. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]


Ammin Acha-ur draws a pattern on a client’s arm for a tattoo, Oct. 8, 2022. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]


The tattoo artist prepares for her next client, Oct. 8, 2022. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]


A glass jar holds Ammin Acha-ur’s tattooing tools, Oct. 8, 2022. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]


Ammin Acha-ur sanitizes a fresh tattoo on a client’s arm at Camp Folkswagen Café Gallery in Baguio, Oct. 8, 2022. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

A young tribal artist from Kalinga province in northern Philippines has vowed to continue the indigenous tattoo culture, locally known as “pagbabatok,” and reclaim its history amid an onslaught of tourism and commercialization in her village. 

Once a dying art, pagbabatok was revived after Apo Whang-od, the oldest tattoo artist of the Butbut tribe in Buscalan village, gained national and international renown. With many tourists coming to the village to get tattoos, many tribe members have started tattooing as well.  

But for Ammin Acha-ur, a 25-year-old full-time tattooist or “mambabatok,” culture and history must not be compromised in exchange for economic gain. She aims to preserve the traditional designs and to educate people on the meanings of tattoos. 

“What we want is for our traditional pagbabatok to gain recognition as a unique art and an identity of its own with its historical importance in place,” Acha-ur told BenarNews in an interview in Baguio City, where she lives.  

“It is an important form of art and culture that can only be found in the Kalinga region and should be prevented from disappearing,” she said. 

Pagbabatok, believed to have been practiced for more than 1,000 years, is the art of tattooing a body with tribal designs using a stick, thorn from lemon trees and ink from soot or pine ash. 

“Each batok or tattoo design has a meaning for us in our tribe,” Acha-ur told BenarNews recently. “It is based on patterns we see in nature, like mountains and trees.”

Acha-ur said many visitors have little to no idea about the pagbabatok’s significance and history. 

Each time a customer visits, Acha-ur presents two sets of designs – traditional and contemporary. 

“This will avoid exploitation of traditional patterns and will ensure their integrity because they are separated from designs that focus on personal interpretation,” she said. 

She then discusses the historical and cultural significance of indigenous designs while narrating the history of pagbabatok. 

“They should have at least an immersion with the tribe before they get tattooed. Or they should be informed first so they can learn our history, arts and culture,” she said. “So they can give more value to their tattoo.

“In this way, our story will be passed on and preserved,” she said.


Historically, Kalinga tattoos were seen as the mark of a true warrior headhunter, as they depicted the number of successful killings. The more tattoos one had, the higher his or her place in society.

But this history had served as a double-edged sword for the tribe. 

“Because of colonization from the Spanish to the Americans to the Japanese, religion, and discrimination against ‘batok’ bearers, many of our elders had been discouraged to wear a tattoo. This gave the ‘batok’ a bad identity even among our own people,” she said.  

“Other people in the province, particularly those living in the low lands, would taunt our elder ‘batok’ bearers and call them murderers,” she said. 

Now, around 50 young tribe members between the ages of 13 and 40 are seeking to continue its legacy and history. 

“We are all inspired by Apo Whang-od’s popularity, and we are engaged to continue the traditional way of Kalinga’s tattooing,” she said.


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