By Felicia Perez
Tattoos have always fascinated me. I remember sitting on my Uncle Lapu Lapu’s lap as a child, giggling and laughing as I touched the picture of a scantily clothed woman on his arm, a tattoo he received while in the army during the Korean War. As I grew older, my attention was captured by the intricate designs on the skin of strangers, friends and family. These “symbols” carried the essence, archetypes and soul of the individual, a skin journal of the self. Yet even with my avid interest in tattoos, I felt hesitant to receive one myself. I couldn’t imagine myself sitting in a tattoo shop, hearing the drilling sounds of the machine with rave music blasting, while a man covered in tattoos and piercings, went about tattooing something “meaningful and sacred” on my body. I knew on an intuitive level that spirituality and tattooing went hand in hand, something that could be found in my Filipino ancestry, but was lost to most Westerners.
As a teenager, I remember distinctly, as if my unconscious mind wanted me to carry the images and auditory sensations throughout time, a film I watched with my parents called “The Bounty.” The film was based upon a historical event of an English crew during the 1700s that mutinied against their captain in the Tahitian islands. Mel Gibson played the leader of the mutiny named Fletcher Christian. There is a scene in the film where Fletcher receives a traditional Tahitian hand-tapped tattoo in the hut of the local chieftain’s daughter. His Tahitian lover is comforting him by massaging his head as women are chanting in the background. His face looks intense, yet peaceful as if he is receiving a sacrament. The sound of the tapping echoes throughout my mind.
I often “forget” my Filipino ancestors as I become unconscious and develop amnesia from the stresses of the modern world, where the mind and ego rule and intuition and spirit go underground. The ancestors are always present in between the world of spirit and this physical plane. They do not want to be forgotten, so they send messages and signs that serve to wake me up, often in dreams, but many times through individuals I feel connected to spiritually. I received one of these wake up calls in an email I received from my friend Leny Strobel about the agenda for the Center for Babaylan Studies (CFBS) weekend retreat held at her home in Northern California. In her email, she mentioned that Philippine tattoo expert Lane Wilcken would also be giving hand-tapped tattoos; an ancient Filipino style of tattooing using a boar’s tusk and wild orange thorns. I felt a rush of excitement and without needing to think about it, immediately responded, “I want a hand-tapped tattoo!”
When I first arrived at the retreat, I felt an immediate sense of comfort, a home coming with kindred spirits meeting collectively as if we had prearranged this meeting thousands of years ago. There was much food, laughter and indigenous Filipino music playing. I could feel that our intentions were pure, sacred and purposeful. I had no idea when I would receive my tattoo, until it was revealed during our circle of sharing that it would be witnessed by the entire group while we told stories of our ancestral tribal myths and folktales. I took a deep breath, knowing at that moment that what I was about to experience would be transformative, beyond my reasoning capacity, beyond the self.
For the tattoo design, I had chosen an image of the sun to be placed on the right side of my back. According to Lane Wilcken, the right side represents my father’s Filipino ancestral lineage. I asked Lane to base the design on a 16th century illustration of a Visayan man covered in tattoos, which was drawn by a Spanish colonizer in a manuscript known as “The Boxer Codex.” The pre-colonial babaylans (Filipino healers) had also honored the sun in their rituals with dance and music. I couldn’t fully grasp it at the time, but I knew there was hidden wisdom in the sun. I now believe my Filipino ancestors were privy to this knowledge.
Ink on skin
Awakens memories from within
The first tap of the orange thorn hit my back with intense force as the sound reverberated within my ears, like sonar waves it opened a gateway into a spiritual realm. I immediately saw myself in a cave with a Filipino man dressed in pre-colonial clothing. His red putong on his head stood out as he kneeled, looking directly at me as I received the tattoo. He appeared to be related to me genetically, an ancestor watching over my initiation into the deeper mysteries of life. As Lane continued tapping, my ancestor’s image slowly began to disappear. I felt like I was somewhere between a waking state and a dream state of consciousness.
The sound of the tapping, like drums used by shamans in indigenous cultures, lulled me into a trance. With the kulintang a kayo (wooden kulintang) playing softly in the background, I felt the comfort of Will and Lorial tending gracefully to the wounds on my back. I felt the gentle touches of more friends, of Titania’s hands as she rubbed my cold feet and Marybelle as she massaged my lower back with her cat-like fingers.
I could hear the group talking about their myths and stories, but from a distance and in muffled voices, yet they were right next to me. I only remember pieces of the stories. The pain, struggles and strength of individual and archetypal experiences sunk within me as each tap of ink entered into my skin. I heard the voices of our ancestors in the voices of the storytellers next to me: Will, Lizae, Catherine, Marybelle, Lorial, Titania, Joanna, Roque and Leny. Each one spoke “truth” that had been buried in order to adapt to the surrounding culture, a culture which doesn’t hold space for grief, connection and wholeness.
I felt something emerging within me, like a dolphin swimming to the surface of the ocean to breathe or lava flowing at a steady pace down a hill. There was a rising sensation flowing through me as I held my trance for four hours long during the tattoo ritual. I felt what was being “birthed” within me was ancient wisdom resurfacing from the past and into the present. It had to be rekindled through indigenous ritual, community, truth telling, emotional connectedness and spiritual aliveness. This type of wisdom cannot be learned through books and Western schooling. It needed to be “experienced” by letting go of the ego or mind and reconnecting with spirit.
What I learned was that the sun design on my back was not just an inanimate object in the universe. It was not just something that took up space or could be described only in scientific terms as a depiction of a star which emanates light and expends its energy resulting in life on earth. What was revealed to me was this: my Filipino ancestors knew that the sun was conscious of itself!
I will forever treasure my Filipino hand-tapped tattoo experience. I feel honored and blessed that I was given the privilege to be a part of something so sacred and ethereal. This story will be passed down to all my descendants, as I now know that I will be present, as an ancestor, during their own Philippine tattoo initiations.