The Last Kalinga Tattoo Artist of the Philippines by Lars Krutak

Although decades of missionization, colonial administration, and modernization have gradually led to the abandonment of Kalinga batok (tattoo), enduring fragments of this rich tradition of body art continue to be worn by Kalinga elders: including the last generation of headhunting warriors whose numbers have perhaps dwindled to some thirty men. These World War II veterans who bravely fought Japanese machine gunners with spears, shields, and axes incited great fear in their Nipponese enemies; because once captured their heads would be taken and their bodies left to decompose in the moist air of the mountainous jungle terrain.

One of the last Kalinga warriors (mingor) to wear the traditional tattoos of his ancestors is 88-year-old Lakay Miguel (Lakay means “respected elder”). Miguel earned his marks for inter-village combat before WWII and for the heads he took during the great conflict. Because he killed or wounded more than two enemies he was permitted to receive the bikking tattoos on his chest which are the headhunter’s primary emblem. But Miguel’s bravery on the battlefield was unsurpassed and he was also allowed to receive the tattooed khaman or head-ax on his rib cage, markings on his back, and tattoos on his arms. The human anthropomorph tattooed beneath his khaman symbolizes his Japanese victims and also denote that he is a warrior of the highest rank. He also wears a faded cruciform between his eyes, three marks on his Adam’s apple as a preventive therapy against goiter, and small tally marks behind the ear that represent his number of enemy engagements.

Miguel is a WWII veteran who earned most of his tattoos combating Japanese forces. He is worried that future generations of Kalinga youth will perhaps forget what the tattooing culture of his people represents once he’s gone. “First the missionaries came, then the school teachers and then people in the towns began discriminating against those men and women who wore tattoos. Now we have no more tattooists and our custom of tattooing will disappear when my generation dies.

Miguel confided to me that one of his fondest memories was when he took the mandible of a Japanese enemy and began using it as the handle of his gangsa gong; a traditional custom of the Kalinga people. Today, gangsa gongs with human jawbone handles are considered priceless heirlooms and are only used during very special occasions.

Never looking at a gangsa the same way ever again. Goddamn shit. Igorots don’t play.