Breaking Stereotypes: History of Tattoos in the Philippines

Breaking Stereotypes: History of Tattoos in the Philippines


I am a heavily tattooed person. My right arm is more or less 85% covered with tattoos. I am a teacher and I live in a country where stereotypical people may judge you for having tattoos. I had my share of failures and dismissals from job interviews because of my ink.

In this short article I will try to educate people about tattoos specifically here in the Philippines. What I am after is acceptance or at least understanding and I would like to speak on behalf of the minority of Filipinos who have ink in their skin, whether big or small.

When the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines specifically in Panay in 1521, they saw native men and women painted in black ink. According to Teodoro Agoncillo’s book, Introduction to Philippine History, men and women adorned their bodies with tattoos. Limbs and even their faces were tattooed. During this time having a tattoo can be a beautiful sight to see. For the men, it served as a war record of sorts. For the women: make-up, so to say. The more tattoos the men have, the more respect was given and the more ink the women had the prettier. Tattoos also state an individual’s rank in the society.

According to the book, the first Spanish missionaries who wrote about the Filipinos during this time said that the Visayans were the most tattooed people in the Philippines. For this reason, the missionaries called the Visayans Pintados, and Panay and the rest of Visayas was called Islas de los Pintados.

In Kalinga, tattoos symbolizes a man’s war record. Head hunters and warriors enjoyed such privilege of being tattooed and was given due recognition by the Chief based on his tattoos. Unfortunately, nowadays Kalinga tattoo is a dying art. Wang-od is the only known surviving Kalinga tattooist. She tattoos people using old Kalinga design and the old method of hand-tapping. Recently a known female celebrity went to Wang-od to get a hand-tapped tattoo. She is already 92 years old. So far, the government has done nothing to preserve the Kalingas’ ancient tattoo art. As of this moment, Wang-Od’s granddaughter is keenly studying her grandma’s technique.

With the colonization of Spain, the art of tattooing slowly died. A lot of people were ridiculed and shamed for bannering tattoos in public. It was then associated with prison inmates, Tulisan and Pugantes. Nowadays we can witness people brandishing elaborate and expensive works of art etched in their skins. Nevertheless, stereotypes still exist and they’re here to judge and ridicule.

Industries here in the Philippines specifically in the Food Service Industry and the academe (with the exception of some public universities and colleges) would rather hire non-tattooed individuals. But why do people get tattoos? I have interviewed a few people with tattoos and their reasons differ from one another. But there are also similarities. Here are some of their reasons:

  • Self-expression
  • Tribute to someone who died
  • They appreciate art
  • To get over something or someone
  • Because they feel empowered

Tattoos are meant to be seen. It is not something that you would put “in” your skin just to prove something. It is something that you should be proud of because it will be a part of you forever. Please do not judge us because of our inks. You would not judge someone who had Polio or someone who is an Albino, right? We can do a lot of things, accomplish tasks and go the distance just like other non-tattooed individuals.

In some countries like Singapore, Australia and Canada they do not mind if their employees have tattoos as long as they get the job done. We do not have a specific law here in the Philippines that bans people with tattoos from working because our constitution states that there should be freedom of expression.

The Philippine Constitution actually states in Article III, Section IV that, “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression…” Still most companies wouldn’t hire people with ink in their skin. We can be trusted. A lot of us are doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, scientists, rock stars, athletes, artists and parents. Our tattoos tell stories, they tell a lot about ourselves, it depicts our hardships and victories. Try to talk to us and ask us about our tattoos and we are more than willing to tell you our stories.

* To my tattoo artists Edwin Miraflores and Angelo Narag

Author’s bio:

Jonathan Espiritu is a college professor and a registered nutritionist-dietitian by profession. He is a dad to two little princesses and a tattoo enthusiast. He is also a fan of John Lloyd Cruz.

(Photo credit: James Douglas via Stocksnap.io)


  • Tagaban Mary Vlaire
    September 13, 2015

    I feel you, I'm also a teacher and I plan to have a tattoo. But I'm afraid that I will also be rejected on my interviews because of it. Hope people could be more open mided and be able to appreciate art and self-expression. If it ain't your skin, it ain;t your business.

  • Kathleen Torio
    January 2, 2017

    I’m an education student and I’m also planning to have tattoos in the future. I’m really hoping that one day, Filipinos will be less judgemental and will be more open-minded.

  • ms.paulights
    August 21, 2017

    I’m a SHS Instructor teaching Media and Information Literacy, Communication, Komunikasyon, and Research 1. I have two wrist-tattoos and a large one on my upper back which the tip sometimes peak by the collar of my some uniforms and dresses since its tip is ending on my lower nape. Without my coordinator or any superiors telling me I always use wrist band, making sure that the moment I enter the town where I’m teaching I am already wearing it. For the first six months, new students would bug me about my tattoos which I firmly refues to talk about, sometimes I needed to be harsh so they will stop pushing. My director is also at watch of me because of this so I make sure that I am shielded properly before entering the war zone. I love tattoos and I believe nobody should be stopped from having them, but for future teachers, my advise is that to keep it discreet, cuz it comes in the way of teaching because students become more interested at them than listening to your lesson, and there’s a great chance that they will get one, and parents would always point fingers to the teachers when their chlildren misbehaved. Get a tattoo if you want, but make sure to have them in places you can comfortably hide them with blazers and long sleeves IF YOU’RE CONSIDERING teaching in the future. Let me just mention that Tattooed teachers are not so accepted in the country.

  • judy
    September 7, 2017

    I really really wanted to have a tattoo. Just like the others, I want to express my self and feel empowered. Btw I’m a registered nurse & I don’t see anything wrong about having a tattoo. Unless maybe the tattoo was done in an unsterile way and you had a hepa. My eagerness to have a tattoo is killing me big time. The only thing that’s stoping me is if I would have a problem working here and abroad. 😂 I think nowadays more people are open to having tattoos but not the employers. I guess.😭

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