The art of Body art

by Ronnie Hoyle

BODY-ART is as old as the hills in the Visayas – or, at least, as old as recorded history can get in the area, which means back to the 16th Century when the Spanish, and before that, the Chinese, Siamese and Malays, landed on the shores of Bohol and Mactan Islands.

But the body-art of the islands was a lot more primitive then – and painful in its’ application – than it is now. Geometric designs were the rage of the day long before the Spanish came to stay, especially among the ‘elite’ class of natives, and they were applied with a pointed bamboo stick dipped in colour. Can you imagine getting yourself jabbed with a barbeque stick a thousand times to make a one-inch tattoo pattern?

When Ferdinand Magellan ‘discovered’ the 7,107 islands in l521, his impression was that the islanders were ‘heavily painted’ – he did not know what the word tattoo meant because that was created by the Polynesians a century later to mean permanent body painting … although it could have come from the secondary 17th Century Dutch word taptoe (literally ‘close the taps’), which meant the time when the taverns had to shut off the taps of the beer barrels as the signal that the soldiers should go back to barracks. The signal was given to the tavern keepers by the rhythmic beating of the drum, the tattoo. Okay, a different meaning…let’s forget it!

Magellan’s chronicler noted from their first meeting with the natives on April 7th, 1521, that it was normal for the natives of Matan (Mactan) and the island of Zugbu (Cebu) to be tattooed from head to foot, leaving only the feet and the palms of the hands without decoration. Both male and female were adorned if they were part of the chieftain’s family.

At the time, Zugbu itself was a large settlement which consisted of “a league and a half (four to five miles) of bamboo and nipa palm dwellings strung along the sea-shore…with several thousand inhabitants,” according to Spanish chronicles.

Chief Humabon and his wife, Aniway, were found sitting in an open area surrounded by his subjects with a Muslim merchant from Siam (now called Thailand) in attendance.

Antonia de Pigafetta, the chronicler of the voyage, noted that: “He (the chief) was stout, low-sized and tattooed in various designs. He was eating turtle eggs placed in two porcelain dishes (obviously from trade with China or Siam) on another mat and he had in front of him four full jars of palm wine (tuba) covered with aromatic herbs, and a small reed, by means of which he drank, placed in each jar.”

Later on, Pigafetta and Magellan were invited to a party with the chief’s nephew and Pigafetta noted that they were entertained by native musicians and half naked dancing girls – naked, that is, except for their tattoos and loincloths! On another occasion, he noted that the chief was “an old man who was painted (meaning tattooed) and who wore two gold earrings…”

Tattooists today in Cebu and Tagbilaran are a lot more skilled and professional and can offer a thousand-and-one colourful and intricate designs in more safe and hygienic conditions…and with a little less pain, although it is not entirely painless!