The Other_home of subcultures_style documentary_Kalinga_tattoo women_Jake Verzosa_01 INDIGENOUS / May 2014


Photography by Jake Verzosa
Text by Sophie Pinchetti

If you travel the world in the search of the rarest tattoos, you will inevitably arrive here: deep in the misty Cordillera mountains of the northern Philippines. This is the birthplace of the Kalinga headhunter’s tattoo and home to the Kalinga tribe. Over hundreds of years, the art of tattooing has played an essential part of their culture. Still proudly worn by the elder generations of Kalinga men and women, today, this ancestral tattoo is now on the brink of extinction.

The Kalingas’ reputation as fierce warriors precedes them: in fact, Kalinga means “outlaw”. The Kalinga tattoo has evolved from headhunting – the ancient tradition of killing people and taking their heads as trophies, practiced by male Kalingas over the centuries. For every head taken, a warrior received a tattoo. The purpose of headhunting was to ensure territorial protection while also having serious religious implications: heads were offered as a form of human sacrifice of the highest order to the Kalinga’s most powerful spirits and gods. Nowadays, headhunting has lost in favour, with only rumours lingering. As a result of this decline, the Kalinga tattoo is only one generation away from total disappearance.

Although women did not partake in headhunting, tattooing became an integral part of Kalinga culture. In a series entitled “The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga”, Philippino photographer Jake Verzosa chronicles the last authentic remnants of Kalinga tattooing or Batok as it is also known, adorning the bodies of the village elders.

Each village used to have its tattooist, or mambabatok, to incise these ornamental markings into the skin of the community. Today, there is only one master tattooist left: her name is Fhang-Od (pictured above). At 94 years old, she is a remarkable woman, the only member of the tribe still practicing this ancient art. After losing the love of her life at the age of 25, Fhang-Od decided to devote her entire life to Kalinga Batok.


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Agkasil Luguiao, 75 years old


Noble and dignified – such is the appearance of the Kalinga women portrayed by Jake Verzosa. Now based in Manila, Verzosa remembers seeing these tattoos as a child. “I grew up in the northern part of the Philippines (Cagayan Province) which is just adjacent to the region of Kalinga”, he says, “People from the mountains of Kalinga would come down to our town to study and also do business”.

With the support of the Alliance Francaise, Verzosa decided to travel through the villages in the mountains and staying with the communities for several days to document the last generation of women wearing the Kalinga tattoo. “They say that the inked are stronger and wiser in their society. I think it shows in the photographs”, says Verzosa.

Forget going to your local tattoo studio with a bundle of cash – the traditional view of tattoos for the Kalinga is that of earning one’s right to the tattoo. “For the women, it is a symbol of beauty, wealth, stature and fortitude. They are more desirable for men if they have more tattoos”, says Verzosa. For the men, wearing a tattoo is a mark of power, bravery and heroism, completely identified with headhunting.

Etched into the skin of countless generations, some scholars believe Kalinga Batok takes its origin one thousand years ago. Using an orange thorn attached to a piece of bamboo and an ink made up of water and soot, the tattoos are created using a hand-tapped technique, piercing the skin at 90-120 taps per minute. It’s seen as a serious ritual. For the Kalingas, it is crucial to act bravely.


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Lacdag Awingan, 88 years old


The Kalinga tattoo is like an indelible heirloom. Animals and natural geometric forms inspire the designs, with centipedes and python scales notably dominating this inked heritage of the skin. Prevalent tattoo motifs for women also include ferns, rice bundles, flowing rivers, and steps, often relating to the activity of collecting and planting rice. Verzosa’s portraits document these vivid designs conceived centuries ago, speaking of a seemingly unbreakable bond between the Kalingas, their ancestors and their natural surroundings.

Amazingly, this rich heritage has remained largely untouched despite some 400 years of foreign occupation on Philippine territory. It is surely a testament to the fearless, resilient, guerrilla-like attitude and head-hunting practices of the Kalinga, which have contributed to their culture’s quasi autonomous evolution through decades of colonisation and modernisation.

Receiving a Kalinga tattoo is considered a serious religious experience. These tattoos flowed with life’s rhythms, marking significant rites of passage of an individual within the community (such as death, the coming into adulthood, or getting married). The tattoo is believed to perform a vital bridge between worlds. “When I pass on, I will bring my tattoos with me in the afterlife”, says Fhang-Od, “Everything else is left behind”.

The centipede tattoo is a guardian, a powerful spiritual guide, providing protection. Python and centipede together are believed to be the friends of the warriors, earthly messengers of the most powerful Kalinga deity Kabunian – the creator of all things. Through the practice of rituals and animal sacrifice, the Kalinga’s animist religion worships a profusion of nature spirits, mythological deities as well as their ancestors. Acting as a magical talisman against all sorts of evils, the tattoo marks this connection between the material, visible world and the spirit world.


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Kannao Li-ab, 75 years old


But times have definitely changed. With an increasing number of the younger generations leaving their rural home villages in search of new opportunities, the Kalinga tattoo has become one of the most endangered in the world. “Most people in Kalinga today view the stigmatised tattoo practice as archaic mainly because it is associated with head-hunting and the old ways of doing things. They can’t get jobs in the city because people have this association”, says Verzosa.

What’s more, Western interpretations of beauty have increasingly infiltrated the mainstream Philippine ideals of modernity. If men and women were once thought to be more beautiful or ambaru thanks to their tattoos, new canons of beauty are taking over. “I hope these portraits would change their perception of what is beautiful and what should be preserved”, Verzosa says.

For those dreaming of not getting dressed in the morning, the Kalinga style of tattoo is an appealing alternative. Contouring the chest and arms, these ornamental tatttoos were once worn by the female Kalingas as upper body clothing. In order to further enhance their beauty, some women wear tattooed necklines, appearing as if permanently adorned with beaded necklaces.


The Other_Subculture_The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga_Jake Verzosa_WHANG OD

Master tattooist Fang-od Oggay, 94 years old


Today, the Kalinga tattoo is one generation away from extinction. But there is hope yet. If Kalinga master tattooist Fhang-Od is able to pass her talent on to the next generation, this sacred art may be saved. “Since tattooing should be in her bloodline, she is passing her knowledge to her grand-niece who is also a good tattoo artist herself”, says Verzosa. So far, Fhang-Od continues to teach her apprentice, while now also receiving the visit of foreign tattoo enthusiasts to the village, who bear gifts and donations in the hope of receiving a unique Kalinga tattoo.

Fhang-Od has also recently even become something of a celebrity on television, with an entire episode of tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak’s television series “Tattoo Hunter” showcasing Kalinga Batok and Fhang-Od’s home village of Buscalan. It is perhaps conceivable that the increasing tattoo pilgrimages of foreigners will contribute to this ancient tradition’s survival and counter the local view that this art is dispensable.

Younger Kalinga women are now also stepping up to save their heritage, such as Naty Sugguiyao, the head of National Commission on Indigenous Peoples. “She is at the forefront of preserving Kalinga culture. She has all the patterns inked on her skin. As most of the women I have photographed, they wish for their practice to live on. This is a symbol of their beliefs, values and existence”, Verzosa says. With an annual Kalinga Batok Festival now taking place during October, the month celebrating indigenous peoples in the Philippines, a new wave of interest is rising.

Carved into their skin and consciousness, the Kalinga tattoo seemingly transcends mortality as its persistence through generations and centuries testifies. It tells the story of a people’s roots, interconnected beyond time and space.


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Sin-ao Gammod, 81 years old

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Abo Nao Sicdawag, 90 years old

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Bogkayon Suyam, 73 years old

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Agayad Biyang, 81 years old

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Sigway Ngayaan, 83 years old

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Dorpiyang Magguiya, 97 years old


  1. […] A voir autour de Banaue si vous disposez de plus de temps : -Baguio (situé à 6h de Manille), se trouvant à 1500 mètres d’altitude est connu pour être la «capitale d’été» de par son climat tempéré. C’est un peu le point de départ, une halte avant de se rendre à Sagada -Sagada (situé à encore 6h de Baguio) où l’on peut admirer de belles rizières en terrasse, voir un peu plus de la culture locale à travers des ateliers de tissage….. -la vallée d’Echo, où se pratique des rites funéraires un peu spéciaux : les morts sont enterrés dans des grottes sacrées ou dans des tombeaux accrochés à flan de falaise. -Tinglayan/Buscalan, où l’on peut voir les dernières femmes tatoueuses de la tribu Kalinga tatouant à l’ancienne (bel article en anglais) ou en français (lien) […]

  2. […] ces tatouage Kalinga, on dirait le haut d’un vêtement. La série de photos réalisées par Jake Verzsoza est très belle, les tatouages sont tous […]

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