Early Illustrations of Bisayan Tattooing

Because our community here are recently talking about tattoo’s here are some of the well known illustrations depicting the early Bisayans covered in their tattoo motifs. These are mostly from the illustrations in Francisco Alcina’s works and of the Boxer Codex. These are the few resources we have to look to into reviving the tattoo practices among the Bisayans who were notoriously known to be covered with tattoo’s from the face to the ankles, earning them the name “The Pintados”, or the “Painted Ones”, by the Spaniards for a very long time.

Both men and women tattooed, though women only tattooed their hands or arms depending on the region as the sources vary. It was a part of society and if you weren’t tattooed you were seen as an outcast, one who wouldn’t be acknowledged and received by the ancestors into the afterlife. The only ones who were accepted to no be tattooed were the bayoguin, the asog, who were those who possessed both feminine and masculine traits and were considered in precolonial society as a different gender all together. The asog were culturally excused of being a mapuraw, “unmarked”, “natural colored”, “plain”, as they were already respected in society and seen as being closer to the spirits and ancestors and were often spiritual leaders who were often than not babaylans.

We have a few descriptions describing certain tattoo motifs like the labid, the facial tattoos bangut and langi, the dubdub, and the daya. The labid were distinctive inch wide lines that ran both straight and zigzags up the legs to the waist. Dubdub were the tattoos on the chest to the throat, daya were the ones on the arms, and the bangut and langi were facial tattoos only the bravest of warriors. These facial tattoos resembled frightening masks that featured the jaws of the crocodile that were meant to instill fear in their enemies.

The first illustration is a depiction of a native of Capul, an island in Northern Samar that is illusrated in the A Voyage to the East Indies written in 1600.


The second is a depiction a Datu and Binukot from the various illustrations by Francisco Alcina.


The third depiction is of a man and woman who were labeled by Aclina as “esclavo”, slaves. As mentioned on another post there was a hierarchy even within the slaves in the Philippines and the word slave to describe the oripun and alipin should not be used and thought of in the Western sense. (please do read that post for more info on why)


The last depiction is one more famously known which is the colored illustration of the Pintados, by the anonymous manuscript, The Boxer Codex.


Here are some passages by various Spanish accounts on the tattoo’s in the Bisayas.

Francisco Colin’s (1663) comments on the tattoo’s:

“Besides the exterior clothing and dress, some of these nations wore another inside dress, which could not be removed after it was once put on. These are the tattoos of the body so greatly practiced among the Bisayans, whom we call Pintados for that reason. For it was a custom among them, and was a mark of nobility and bravery, to tattoo the whole body from top to toe when they were of an age and strength.”

“The principal clothing of the Cebuanos and all the Visayans is the tattooing of which we have already spoken, with which a naked man appears to be dress in a kind of handsome armor engraved with very fine work, a dress so esteemed by them they take it for their proudest attire, covering their bodies neither more nor less than a Christ crucified, so that although for solemn occasions they have the marlotas (a smock) we mentioned, their dress at home and in the barrio is their tattoos and a bahag, as they call that cloth they wrap around their waist, which is the sort the ancient actors and gladiators used in Rome for decency’s sake.”

Miguel de Loarca (1582):

“The natives of the Pintados Islands are not very dark. Both men and women are well formed and have regular features. Some of the women are white. Both men and women wear their hair long, and fastened in a knot on the crown of the head, which is very becoming. The men tattoo their entire bodies with very beautiful figures, using therefor small [110] pieces of iron dipped in ink. This ink incorporates itself with the blood, and the marks are indelible.”

Antonio de Morga (1609):

“The first island conquered and colonized by the Spaniards was Sebu. [43] From there the conquest was started and continued in all the neighboring islands. Those islands are inhabited by people, natives of the same islands, called Viçayas; or by another name, Pintados—for the more prominent of the men, from their youth, tattoo their whole bodies, by pricking them wherever they are marked and then throwing certain black powders over the bleeding surface, the figures becoming indelible.”

In the Boxer Codex it mentions that the tools used was a an iron or brass point that was heated up in a fire prior to tattooing the person. The ink was known as biro which also describes the soot which helped create the ink and the tattoo was called batuk or patik. This is similar to what is still practiced among the Sulod of Panay in the Western Bisayas. According to Pilipin@ anthropologist, F. Landa Jocano, who helped record and translate the Panay Epic, Hinilawod, the Sulod still use a pointed iron instrument that is dipped in the ink made from the juice of the ripe fruit of the vine langi’ngi (Cayratia trifolia), and powdered charcoal or soot scraped from the bottom of pots and cooking cans. This is similar to what Alcina mentioned and in the Bikolano (who shared a cultural affinity with the Bisayans) dictionary by Lisboa, of a type of black, resinous pitch known as salong which is derived from trees of the genuses Shorea and Pentacme referred to as lawáˈan. In the Lisboa Bikol dictionary, the terms is as follows:

salóng resin; torch or lamp commonly used for lighting; MA‑, ‑ON or MAG‑, PAG‑‑ON to fasten or seal s/t with resin; MA‑, I‑ or MAG‑, IPAG‑ to use a particular resin; ‑AN: sasalngán resin; lamp, torch; ‑ON to be temporarily blinded until one adjusts to the darkness (Said when one leaves a lighted area, or when a torch or lamp is suddenly put out); MAKA‑ to go out, leaving one in darkness (a torch, lamp); MANG‑, PANG‑‑AN to collect resin from trees of the forest; TIG‑ tigsalóng-sálong a dark night (hardly illuminated by the lighting of torches)

lawáˈan tree (typ‑ red lawáˈan: Shorea negrosensis; white lawáˈan: Pentacme contorta and Pentacme mindanensis)

Alcina also mentions along with the black ink there was also the use of a blue ink that was used in the marking of blue tattoos, not as used as often as the black ink but it was used. Unfortunately however he doesn’t go into much detail of the blue ink and what could have been used to create that pigment.


The term batuk itself also meant the marking of snakes or lizards or any design printed or stamped on. There is actually a metaphor that was used toward those men who were tattooed but didn’t do anything to prove their worth and were considered “fake” and were cowards. They compared them to the halo lizard, a large black and yellow lizard that is “tattooed” all over but is very, very timid. There is a word to showcase the pride of one’s tattoos which is kulmat, meaning to strut around showing off the tattoos. The healing period between each session was called baug or binogok. The first tattoos one received were always on the legs and then worked their way up.

Besides tattoo’s however there was another painful rite of passage and designated to the most bravest and strongest warriors (other than the painstaking rite of facial tattooing). This was scarification, which is known as labong. These were scars given on the arms through the use of burning moxa. In the Bikol Lisboa and the Sanchez de la Rosa Waray dictionary they mention and support this practice as well. In the Lisboa dictionary it was labong, meaning burn marks located on the arm, close to the wrist; MA‑ or MAG‑ to burn the arm in this way (probably as a form of ritual ornamentation. In the Waray dictionary labong is described as, ‘a circle of flammable fibres is placed around the wrist and then burned, forming a mark taken as a sign of bravery’. The same type of burning may be applied to other parts of the body.

So through these sources both tattooing and scarification was practiced.


About The Author

Executive Editor & Founder

Ligaya is the Executive Editor & Writer at Pinoy-Culture.com. She lives in NYC with her two dogs and spends her time reading, writing, collecting and buying books online and in safe haven, Strand Bookstore, watching her guilty tv show pleasure Vikings, and overdosing herself in coffee as a certified caffeine addict. Her book, Diwatahan: A Look Into the Precolonial Beliefs, Practices, Myths, & Folklore of the Philippines, is currently in progress and is scheduled to be published in Summer of 2017.

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2 Responses

  1. Anon

    The post about Filipino slaves is a broken link. I wanted to read it but it’s not there now.

    • Ligaya

      Ah thank you for letting me know. Actually the link is to the Tumblr blog which originally had the pinoy-culture.com domain. I have corrected the link so you can go read what I said on that post. 🙂


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