Hand tapping into history: A sacred Filipino practice with travel roots is alive in Las Vegas

Oct 21, 2021

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Las Vegas is home to casinos, glittering lights and over-the-top attractions.

But just a few miles away from the world-famous strip, a sacred tattooing practice is alive thanks to Filipino cultural practitioner and scholar Lane Wilcken.

Wilcken, a Filipino American, is one of the few cultural practitioners in the world who performs tattooing called “batok” from the Philippines, which dates back thousands of years.

For Wilcken, Philippine tattoos are more than just a work of art. They are sacred and spiritual.

“To really understand tattooing, you have to understand the culture that it comes from, which unfortunately our modern Filipino culture is kind of a fragmented reflection of that,” Wilcken said. “It is not the same as what our ancient ones practiced. And for a lot of Filipinos in the diaspora especially, we have a hard time.”

Batok involves hand tapping tattoos on the receiver’s skin. Unlike modern tattoos in which artists use a machine to inject the skin with ink, batok practitioners use handheld tools to tap ink onto the skin.

Depending on the design size and placement, batok tattoos can take several hours and sessions to complete.

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Batok tattoos are meant to be a way to honor those who have passed on rather than just solely for artistic expression.

Hand tapping tattooing has been around for thousands of years in the Philippines and the greater South Pacific.

“We still have to do a lot of education with potential recipients that come through because we as Filipinos don’t have the cultural context anymore,” Wilcken said. “Most of us, our first experience with tattooing is through a western lens tattoo shop, industry, culture, that kind of thing.”

Wilcken explains the main difference between getting a tattoo from an artist versus a cultural practitioner is who decides on what design and where to place the tattoo.

(Photo courtesy of Natalia Roxas)

A tattoo artist has a lot more leeway and artistic license to do what they’re doing. A particular design is largely determined by the individual receiving the mark. The person determines the placement and determines the meaning.

“It’s very individualistic (modern tattoos),” he said. “Whereas in cultural tattooing, you don’t determine any of that; it’s already been chosen for you by your ancestors from thousands of years ago.”

Related: From the Bay to the Bayou: 10 places that are steeped in Filipino American history

It’s the reason why Wilcken doesn’t just tattoo everyone who travels to see him at his Las Vegas studio.

Those who wish to have a batok tattoo must do their homework on their ancestry and explain their intentions in wanting these sacred markings, says Wilcken.

“We have protocols for people to follow prior to receiving (a batok tattoo). Some of those are practical, some of them are spiritual. They have to know their genealogy at least a few generations back because we don’t want to inadvertently tattoo something that is wrong on that individual,” he said. “People say, ‘well, you know, my family’s from Manila.’ Were they always in Manila? Probably not.”

He usually questions young men much harder, he says, because some come in wanting the batok tattoo for vanity purposes.

“Usually, it’s for the machismo aspect. If they’re coming from that perspective, it’s wrong.”

Wilcken says the majority of those who come to him for batok are Filipino, but non-Filipinos have also received the tattoos based on factors such as that person’s involvement in the community, or having been adopted into a Filipino family or are being in a relationship with someone who is Filipino.

“So if you participate in our community … if you’re a part of our community, even if you don’t have a drop of blood — it’s not necessarily about how much blood you have,” he said. “It’s your involvement.”

Search for deeper meaning

For those seeking to receive batok, it often comes during a pivotal transitional moment.

“The common thread is that people are searching for something. And you know, it’s either they are early in their life, see, like early 20s and they’re in a transitional moment in their life, they may use the tattoo to signify something or as a jump off to something, hopefully greater,” said Kristian Kabuay, an apprentice to Wilcken and also an artist specializing in endangered Philippine writing systems. “But the more common one would be folks in their 30s and 40s that already have the trifecta of food, clothing and shelter. You have your kids, they’re starting to ask questions. Like, ‘what about the Philippines’?’”

It’s that search for something more that adds a deeper meaning to batok tattoos and the pain one endures when getting one.

 

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“It does hurt. But compared to a machine, the machine hurts more. And if you think about it, a machine when it goes on your skin, it’s already penetrated your skin like thousands of times. When you’re getting batok, it’s a tap. The context is you’re lying down on pillows and you have warm hands on you. You’re probably surrounded by loved ones. And so it’s totally different than in the tattoo shop,” Kabuay said.

For Genevieve Jopanda, batok was a way to honor her late father, who was the first in her family to come to the United States from the Philippines. She received two batok tattoos from Wilcken.

She describes the experience as something that commands your full attention — mind, body and spirit.

Her first batok tattoo took about three hours to complete. It preceded a ceremony with prayers and chants and conversation on why it was important to her to get ancestral markings.

“It’s not really out of body (experience) because you’re so present. It’s really hard to explain, but it’s just kind of like you’re controlling your body and how you’re reacting to it,” she said. “So if you are focusing on the pain, then it’s going to be painful.”

Rooted in Travel

One of the beliefs about Philippine cultural tattooing that is found in several ethnic groups across the Philippines is that the tattoos will illuminate after death and that the tattoos were a prerequisite to travel into the afterlife.

“It also allows our ancestors to find us in that other realm and for us to find them, and we recognize each other by our markings so that when we pass into the next life, we don’t pass through and get greeted by strangers but by people we already know,” Wilcken said.

It’s one of the reasons why those wanting to receive batok should not do it for artistic expressions, but rather to honor those no longer here.

(Photo courtesy of Natalia Roxas)

Wilcken views the work he’s doing to keep batok alive as a way to give back to his community and to restore that pride and  sense of cultural self-worth.

“There are not many things that you can do in this life where you can have the same type of experience that ancestors had, to feel the same sensations that your ancestors had hundreds of thousands of years ago. That’s a very visceral experience and powerful,” he said. “That’s what our people really are looking for. They’re looking for that reconnection after 500 years of disconnect … Blood calls who it will, and those are the people that want to come and get the markings done this way.”

Featured photo courtesy of Natalia Roxas.

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