Batok Tattoos: The Origin and Process

Batok Tattoos: The Origin and Process

Image: Courtesy of Christian Aldana

A Batok tattoo is a culturally prescribed Filipino tattoo. In order to get Batok, one must know their ethnic background and the origin of their ancestors; that way a mambabatok, or tattoo practitioner, can assign the correct set of designs to that person. Batok is hand-tapped–meaning that there are no machines or tattoo guns in use. Mambabatoks use wooden instruments, thorns, and their hands to tap the ink into the body while two or three others stretch the skin tight so that the ink can be deposited.

Christian Aldana, a 25-year-old Filipina from Chicago describes her experience receiving Batok by Lane Wilcken, one of the only mambabatok in the United States. Aldana received her first Batok at the end of January 2018.

(Manong is an Illocono word used to describe older men, often with respectful connotation.)

Have you always wanted to get Batok?
I’ve always wanted to get tattooed in general and to be honest, up until last year I really didn’t know anything about Filipino tattooing practices. I had seen Polynesian tattoo designs, and I knew vaguely that way back our people used to get tattooed, but I really had no idea about the significance or the depth of the tradition, and how wide-spread it was in the Philippines.

Like many Filipinos, I thought it was something that only very specific indigenous communities had did, and that it had died out a long time ago. Through meeting Manong Lane, and just being more deeply amassed in the Filipino community I found out that all of my presumptions were wrong.

Being in Manong Lane’s presence, hearing him talk about our people’s history, actually watching a few Batok ceremonies and helping to stretch for other people–I did that for a couple of other people’s tattoos–I realized through doing it, I was like, “I don’t know what I’m waiting for, I should do this.”

Then I decided at the end of last year that I would get a Batok and then Manong said he would schedule me for the next time he was in town.

How did you get involved with stretching the skin?
Whenever Manong Lane comes to Chicago he usually stays with some mutual friends of ours, and I was just around, honestly. I wanted to be there to witness the ceremony for someone else, and they needed help [stretching the skin.] I never did any training beforehand, and I had never done it before. But once you’ve seen it, and you’re paying attention, and you listen to what he tells you to do, you can do it.

Was being apart of the stretching process difficult? Where you apprehensive at all?
I wasn’t apprehensive, but it was difficult. It’s hard because you’re applying force on someone else’s body for a sustained period of time. It’s hard on your muscles. You’ll be sore the day after from doing it. And obviously, you’re in contact with someone else’s body. I was really conscious of that. I want to make sure that I give a good stretch so that Manong can do his work, and produced a beautiful tattoo, but I also didn’t want to hurt the person or touch them in any way that made them feel uncomfortable.

Do you think that getting Batok has helped you learn more about your culture that you hadn’t previously known about?
Yes, because to get your Batok done, you have to know your family and where they come from.

I know that my mom is from the Philippines and my dad isn’t. And, I know vaguely where my grandparents come from in the Philippines, but I don’t really know what that means. I don’t know if my family moved around a lot, I don’t know how many generations we’ve lived in the same place, I don’t know the history of those places, and I realized when I was asking these questions of my relatives.

Through asking about those things my aunts and uncles told me stories about my grandparents and about their siblings and their upbringing that I hadn’t heard before at family gatherings. I think that it was because before when I asked questions, I didn’t ask questions with a purpose or with an intention behind them, but this time I found myself asking things that I didn’t ask before.

How were you feeling emotionally during and after receiving Batok?
During the tattoo, I felt very safe. The people stretching me were all people that I like and feel good about, and obviously, in Manong’s hands, I felt very safe. I felt–the best way I could describe it is meditative during it. Emotionally, while I was getting the tattoo, I didn’t feel happy or sad or angry, or anything like that. I just felt neutral and calm, because I was concentrating on letting the pain move through me. Accepting the pain, and then letting go of it.

Then, immediately after the tattoo–your body’s been enduring this pain for a sustained amount of time–I felt a little weak afterward. Weak in the knees, but I regained my energy pretty quickly after.

I remember I went into the bathroom when it was done and I looked at myself, and I just immediately started crying. One, because it was overwhelming just to see myself with the tattoo on me. I guess I was crying because I felt complete. That’s not to say that I’ve been feeling incomplete, or not whole, my entire life, but it was like I looked at myself in that mirror, and I looked at that tattoo, and I was like, “This was always supposed to be here.”