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Hawaiʻi Filipino tattooists help locals reconnect with their culture

Cassie Ordonio

The sounds of traditional Filipino tapping tools echoed throughout a Kapolei home on a recent Sunday morning.

Courtesy of Vogue

Natalia Roxas is surrounded by her apprentices as they held a woman’s arm while she hammers ink into the skin.

The cultural practitioner has practiced this ancient method for a year. Roxas said she's only one of a dozen Filipinos to perform this work.

The awareness of the art form known as batok has increased after Apo Whang-Od graced the cover of Vogue magazine. The 106-year-old cultural practitioner who uses hand-tapping tools is from the mountain village of Buscalan in the Philippines.

"As a woman, to see a platform celebrating all types of beauty is really amazing," Roxas said. "But importantly, it gives a voice and a visibility to her ethnolinguistic group, which is the Butbut people of Kalinga, that this practice still thrives."

Roxas was also featured in the fashion magazine with Lane Wilcken, a U.S.-based cultural practitioner, who taught her the work.

“Accepting your ancestry”

Roxas has helped many Filipino Americans reconnect with their culture through a batok ceremony. It's a practice where the tattooist marks the skin by hand-tapping the ink using bone, thorn or wood implements.

"For us cultural practitioners who use bone implements, there are only three of us for the whole Philippines and the whole diaspora," she said. "And thus far, I'm the only female."

The ceremony can last several hours. It involves sharing stories, praying, eating and the actual tattooing. Cultural practitioners receive help from stretchers, which are apprentices that help keep a recipient’s body still.

Cassie Ordonio
A batok ceremony requires prayer before the tattooing begins.

Before the ceremony, Roxas asks her clients why they want their ancestral markings, where their families are from, what languages they speak, and if they read Wilcken's book, "Filipino Tattoos."

It varies why people want to receive their markings. Tattoos can symbolize protection, promote fertility, record accomplishments or be a symbolic binding to their ancestors.

Molokaʻi resident Genevieve Correa received her hand markings from Roxas to honor her family lineage.

Correa’s ceremony took nearly eight hours. She displayed a painting of her mother's ancestral home in Pangasinan, a photo of her grandparents and her mother's urn.

"The big intention was signs of protection," Correa said about her hand tattoo.

Correa received her first tattoo from Roxas last year. It was on her back to represent her mother's passing, which made Correa reflect on the complicated relationship she had with her.

Her mother moved to the U.S. from the Philippines with her father, who was in the U.S. Navy. Correa hardly saw her mother, who worked constantly to provide for the family.

Cassie Ordonio
Genevieve Correa brought a painting of her ancestral home, a photo of her grandparents and her mother's urn. Her hand tattoos symbolize her family lineage.

"I feel like in American culture, a lot of times we want that presence of them," Correa said. "For me, I struggled with my relationship with my mom because I knew that she worked a lot. But she was very loving and very caring."

Correa asked Roxas to put some of her mother’s ashes in the ink for her back tattoo. She said it symbolized that her mother will always have her back.

"The DNA I have in me already existed, but to purposely take her DNA or her ashes and say I also choose you as my mother, that's accepting your ancestry, your culture, your values, and the roots of where I came from," she said.

Ancient to modern

Tattooing was nearly extinct in the Philippines and across the Pacific Islands, many of which spent decades under colonial rule. Although the art form has survived, it’s looked down upon in some families.

But tattooing has become more mainstream in recent years. Filipino tattoo artists have adopted those practices into their work, mixed with Polynesian motifs. For example, some artists tattoo traditional Filipino symbols then blend it with the Filipino star and Polynesian patterns.

Cassie Ordonio
Brandon Tenedora uses a modern machine gun to tattoo Filipino designs on his clients.

Brandon Tenedora, the owner of Kapwa Tattoo in Iwilei, said he tries to keep it traditional and will explain the meaning of each symbol to his clients.

“Tattoo artists have the freedom to give the tattoos their own style,” he said. "I try to keep my tattoos still Filipino without changing it too much.”

Tenedora started tattooing nine years ago. Tenedora said he didn’t know about Filipino tattoos until his mentor in Guam introduced him.

“Growing up in the Bay Area, I think it’s more of a trend to get Polynesian tattoos, which I love the look of Polynesian tattoos,” he said. “It’s beautiful, and a lot of it is connected to our Filipino tattoos. It has a lot of the same stories and the same folklore.”

“Later on I learned more about Filipino tattoos,” he continued. “I said, 'Man, I really want to do that because that’s part of me. That’s my culture. I want to learn more about that.'”

Cassie Ordonio
Brandon Tenedora is the owner of Kapwa Tattoo. He has been tattooing for nine years, but he sticks to tattooing Filipino markings.

Like Roxas' process for a ceremony, Tenedora’s tattoo session is dictated by what his clients want their tattoos to represent. Each one is customized to fit their stories, family lineage, and accomplishments.

Tenedora’s most recent client originally wanted his tattoo to connect with his culture. But as Tenedora asked more questions about what else he wanted in his tattoo, he shared that his father passed away a couple months ago.

Tenedora opened his own shop last year, called Kapwa, a Filipino term that means connecting with the community and helping each other.

He said Filipino tattoos are becoming more popular due to social media. But he advised people who want their markings to ask themselves why they want this tattoo.

“Someone gets a tattoo you know they’re part of that region, part of that community,” Tenedora said. “As Filipino tattoos are getting more popular, we shouldn’t lose the importance of giving back to the community or being a part of the community.”

Cassie Ordonio is the culture and arts reporter for Hawaiʻi Public Radio. She previously worked for Honolulu Civil Beat, covering local government, education, homelessness and affordable housing. Contact Cassie at cordonio@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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