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The Center for Southeast Asian Studies > Projects > Ub-ufok Ad Fiallig Overview > Teaching Modules > Module 10. Uwak (Crow) at Fianyas (Iguana): Tattoo Tradition and Expression of Beauty

Module 10. Uwak (Crow) at Fianyas (Iguana): Tattoo Tradition and Expression of Beauty

Kakau and Batok Talk: Tattoos from Hawaii and the Philippines

Anthropologist Analyn Salvador-Amores at the conclusion of her fieldwork in the mountains of northern Luzon, Philippines filmed an encounter with the Hawaiian tattoo practitioner Keone Nunes and Butbut tattoo practitioner Whang-ud. The conversations reveal a deep connection with the traditional tattooing practice from Polynesia to the Philippines.


The origin of tattooing among the people of the Cordilleras is celebrated in oral tradition (Salvador-Amores, 61). The Uwak and Fianyas is a narrative retold by Jerzon Ayongchi that traces the roots of this practice among the Ifiallig. It is a tale that explains the hostility between the crow who gave the iguana a beautiful and intricate tattoo while he emerged covered in black soot thanks to the lazy iguana.

Tagalog Version | English Version


  1. What did you think of the story?
  2. Describe the crow. How does the crow and iguan view tattooes?
  3. Describe the iguana. Where you surprised to learn about what he did to the crow? Why do you think he did that?
  4. Why do you think the Ifiallig people use folklore* to explain the origin of tattooing? (Folk·lore – the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through generations)
  5. Do you practice tattooing in your culture? If so, what is its significance? If not, why not?
  6. Watch the video, Kakau and Batok Talk: Conversation with Keone and Whang-Ud. Whang-Ud is the oldest tattoo practitioner in the world at 100 years old in 2018.
  7. What did you think of the video?
  8. What do you think is the purpose of a tattoo?

Culminating Activity

Read the text below and answer the following questions: Why are tattoos important to those who wear them in the Butbut culture? If you were to get a tattoo, how would you design it and explain its significance?

Tattooing Tradition in Whang-ud’s Butbut tribe

Whang-ud is from the Butbut tribe in the Cordilleras. They call a tattoo a whatok. A whatok is a permanent body adornment or tattoo which was once prevalent all over the Philippines (Wilcken, 2011, p. 14). It is commonly referred to as batok in Kalinga (Salvador-Amores, 2013, p. 58). The first Spanish explorers to the Philippines chronicled heavily tattooed people in the Visayas, the central islands of the Philippines, as early as 1521 (Wilcken, 2011, p. 14). However, to the Butbut people, this tradition is much older. They trace its origin to the ullit (legends and stories), amamtun (riddles or proverbs), and from excerpts in ullalim (epic), that are usually sung by a manwhatok during a tattoo session (Salvador-Amores, 2013, p. 57).

Wang-ud’s ullalim tells the story of a tattooed hero named Banna from Lubo. He traversed rivers and mountains as a python to see the beautiful Lagkunawa of Tinglayan. Banna’s most beautiful gift to her was the scales of a python skin magically embedded on her legs (Salvador-Amores, 2013, p. 67). The combination of tattooing and storytelling connects its wearers to their ancestors and deities. Banna may appear as a protective deity in the guise of a snakeskin, which is made potent by incantations.

How is a whatok read? The different motifs are read using meanings that have been passed down through generations. For instance, one type of motif chronicles the achievements of warriors. Salvador-Amores (2013) writes, “Lakay Wanawan, a renowned elder earned the only aiyung, a face mask of an owl, for his bravery and leading his tribe into battle. The tale of him single-handedly taking an enemy’s chief’s head that decided their victory lives on” (p. 161). Intricate markings may adorn other warriors, which may be likened to badges of honor for contemporary soldiers (Salvador-Amores, 2013, p. 161).

Others use whatok for practical reasons, such as recording the year they first voted in an election, inscribing instructions for weaving, or displaying the wealth of their elders (Salvador-Amores, 2013, p. 161; Labrador, 2013, p. 36). It is commonly used to help the wearer remember experiences. Wang-ud’s tattoos always take her back to her past while reminiscing about happy memories. In this sense, a whatok serves as a “cutaneous bodily archive” conveying the wearers’ personal identities and documenting their biography (Salvador-Amores, 2013, p. 203).

However, a whatok is not only understood using common knowledge, but also through the unique stories of its wearer. For example, Wang-ud has secret markings hidden on her arms bestowed on her by former lovers (Salvador-Amores, 2013, p. 191). Her skin is also marked by the names and symbols of other tattoo practitioners to commemorate their meetings. To this day, she continues to transcribe new meanings to traditional motifs unique to her own experiences. The language of the whatok evolves through time because of these improvisations.

Protection of the wearers is of the utmost importance to a manwhatok. A session always begins with the sanctification of the space where the tattooing occurs. An “hour glass” motif that references the shape of the rice mortar provides protection to its wearer from malevolent spirits. In fact, female elders remembered resting their arms in between the rice mortar that is laid on the ground to keep bad spirits from intervening during tattoo sessions (Salvador-Amores, 2013, p. 188).