Mark of the Ancestors

I first learned about Whang-od Oggay years ago, from an old documentary that introduced her as the last Kalinga tattoo artist. Before then, I never knew that tattooing had a prominent role in various Philippine cultures. At the time, my own parents were against tattoos in general; I assumed that Filipino society generally frowned on them. Now I know why, of course. Christianity and modernization had killed the tattoo cultures of various Philippine tribes. Now, only the Kalinga persist in the modern day with their unbroken tradition.

A short documentary video by Great Big Story on Whang-od Oggay.

This revelation about traditional Philippine tattoos opened me up to the possibility of getting one for myself. Curious, I searched the Internet for options. Eventually, I stumbled upon Mark of the Four Waves, a California-based group that focuses on the continuation of Philippine tattoo cultures. Their extensive questionnaire for requesting a personalized, traditional tattoo design impressed me. At the time, though, I worried about a few things — primarily, traveling to California solely to get a tattoo.

So I put it off. I already had my first tattoo, a cartouche of Anubis’ name in in hieroglyphs. Later, I got two others over the span of three years, both on my right upper arm. I thought to myself, “I’m not ready to get a traditional Philippine tattoo. Only people who have earned their tattoos can get them. I haven’t accomplished anything yet.”

Friends and acquaintances gave me good reasons to pursue a traditional tattoo, but I continued to put it off. I worried about how much it would cost, and how it would look on me. And anyway, I would still have to either A) go to California, or B) pay for the design, then bring it to a non-Filipino tattoo artist nearby. And the latter didn’t appeal to me at all. If I was going to get a traditional tattoo, I would want to get it from an artist who understands the ancestral connection.

The Four Waves close to home

And then I learned about Ayla Roda, a tattoo artist of Mark of the Four Waves who happens to live 10 minutes from me. The first time I contacted her, I asked some questions but ultimately decided not to follow through with a tattoo. I still had concerns about how it would look, especially compared with my biggest tattoo, an art nouveau arm piece. Nevertheless, the desire for my own traditional tattoo persisted.

Then, recently, I watched a video about Mexica tattoo artist Chamuco Cortez, who does similar work but for people with Aztec ancestry. Watching him perform a ritual with his client at the start of a tattooing session sealed my decision. I knew then that I want the connection with my ancestors that a traditional tattoo provides, that I can only receive through a traditional tattoo. And I want to honor them and our culture in a way only I (and other Filipinos) are capable of.

So I contacted Ayla again. By then, a couple of years had passed. She gave me updated information, I filled out the client questionnaire, and paid the deposit to secure an appointment.

That appointment was yesterday.

Getting the tattoo

A photograph of Ayla drawing on my arm with blue Sharpie as we work out the design of my tattoo.

A couple of weeks before my appointment, I sent Ayla a message, asking her about making offerings. She said she always gives offerings before a session, but if I want to join her, I can bring fruit or rice. So I packed a box of fresh strawberries along with a bottle of water and half a sandwich. When I arrived at Ayla’s house, she showed me some designs she’d chosen based on my questionnaire. Then we went outside to her shrine, where we gave the strawberries and a stick of Taiwanese incense. She asked the ancestors to be present, to guide us in the creation of my tattoo, and to celebrate the joyous occasion with us. “After all, receiving a tattoo is a celebration,” she told me.

We sat in her studio and collaborated on the design. The whole time, we talked about the symbols she would draw, the meanings, and my family’s history. told her that we are mostly from the Visayas, though some of my ancestors are Tagalog and others are from as far away as Shanghai. We discussed how one of my great-grandmothers conducted physical and spiritual healing with ginger; that was her specialty, what she was known for. Ayla shared her religious beliefs with me; I reassured her that I understood her feelings. It was so freeing to vocalize things like the ancestors guiding us and bringing us inspiration. We both have trouble sharing such thoughts out loud with others, so being able to acknowledge them openly and without judgment was healing.

Once we finalized the design — and trust me, it took some trial and error — Ayla gave final offerings at her outdoor shrine: shots of elderberry liqueur. She took a sip and gave me one, as well. Typically, you should abstain from alcohol before someone tattoos you since it thins the blood, but I made an exception for the tiny amount she gave me. After all, we were celebrating. And it was part of the ritual.

As I lay down on the table, I warned Ayla that some time had passed since my last tattoo. I had forgotten both the feeling of the tattoo machine’s needles and how my body would respond to it. So I braced myself, and we began.

And now that it’s over? First, I feel immensely proud of myself that I finally followed through with my dream. I’m proud that I trusted the process — asking the ancestors to guide Ayla and me, trusting her knowledge, and trusting her tattooing skill. I am very happy with the design and how it looks on my skin. And most importantly, I’m so happy to be part of the continuum of tattooed Filipinos that stretches back to our pre-colonial times. We nearly lost this aspect of our culture. I shall not be part of its erasure. Instead, with this tattoo, I have chosen to fight back.


These are the symbols as Ayla explained them to me:

A photograph of my finished tattoo, the skin around it still swollen from the ordeal.

The crocodile scales and crocodile teeth are protective. In some images of Visayan tattoos, crocodile patterns embrace the entire body — literally, inked as if the animal itself was wrapped around the person. On my questionnaire, I specifically asked if Ayla could include the crocodile into the design. Not only is it a protective spirit, but it represents the collective body of our ancestors who came before us.

Additionally, the crocodile teeth are shaded with black to represent both mountains (the earth) and the rising and setting sun. While I did not explain this to Ayla at the time, the duality of the rising and setting sun is important to me as a Gothic Heathen. They represent the East and West — important religious concepts within my belief and practice.

Behind the crocodile scales are diamonds representing the physical world in black and the spiritual world behind them. They remind me to live mythically, as this world of ours is not simply the one we experience through our five senses. The spiritual — indeed, the mythic — suffuses it, adding a deeper layer to our everyday lives.

The pair of zigzags represent movement, one of the sky and winds, the other of the sea and waves. The Philippines, being an archipelago, lies at the mercy of these two elements. But the sky and sea are benefactors as well. They brought trade, cultural exchange, and promises of a better life. My family traveled across the wide ocean by way of wings to a new land, the United States. Our history — and, certainly, the history of the Philippine diaspora — reveals itself within these zigzag lines.

Finally, the herbal plants growing at the top of the tattoo represent my great-grandmother. However, I choose to extend their meaning to all the wise women of my family line and all the babaylan who guided our people in the ancient days. As a woman, mentor, leader, and religious person, I find it important to hold them close as role models and personal guides. I hope I can deepen our relationship and learn from them.

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