Tattoo Research Leads Deeper into Filipino Culture


For Stella Gonzalez Kalinga-style tattoos are clues to pre-colonial heritage

Kalinga Tattoo artist
By Kristin Yorke '20
April 7, 2020

Stella Gonzalez ’22 has always been interested in tattoos. Her father began to pursue the art later in his life, and in a bid to understand the significance of these pieces and dig deeper, the American studies and art history major took a seminar with Professor of Art Véronique Plesch titled the Visual Culture of Tattooing.

It was in this seminar that the idea for Gonzalez’s Charles W. Bassett Prize-winning research began. 

Gonzalez’s research focuses on the visual and aesthetic Kalinga style of tattoos native to the Philippines. These tattoos are created in batok style; batok, in Tagalog, means “to hit, to strike.”

It involves a “single needle taken from the thorn of a citrus plant grown in the Philippines. It is attached to sticks or other things and stuck down, like a stick and poke,” Gonzalez said. The process, she says, is lengthy. “They are usually really big tattoos that take up a large portion of your body, which adds to the longevity of that process.”

Both this Kalinga style and batok method originated in precolonial times, but Gonzalez’s research explores the contemporary resurgence of these tattoos as a way for Filipinos living outside the Philippines to engage and connect with their heritage.

“There is a huge population of the Philippines that has moved to America, and because of that diaspora people have taken on Kalinga tattoos through the batok style to place themselves once again in the Philippine culture and to resolve that conflict they have with their body and spirit: their body being in this new country and their spirit being home in the Philippines.”

This movement, which has spanned the past two decades and continues to flourish, points to how valuable body art is beyond the aesthetic. A tattoo “can express a range of emotions while also being a manner to work through emotions and trauma,” Plesch said. “It can mark important moments in your life, memorialize people (and pets) you’ve lost, come to terms with disease and other traumatic events, reclaim the damaged body, and function as an expression of identity.”

 “Tattoos are both directed at oneself and to the others,” she said. “They are a mode of expression—not just to the outside world but to oneself.”

The sources Gonzalez is consulting for this project are just as compelling. She is looking at histories of the Philippines written by white, imperialist historians to show that “there is a revisionist history going on, and the history Filipinos know today is influenced a lot by white imperialism,” she said.

As oral histories are the most prevalent form of knowledge passed down in Filipino society, foreign historians have the ability to overwrite these spoken histories and create tangible histories that, “tell the tales of Filipinos to themselves.” These tales are even reiterated in children’s books, Gonzalez says, further perpetuating the “suppressed culture” of the Filipino people.

The next step for Gonzalez is a research trip to the Philippines to give more voice to the Filipino community. “As accessible as the Colby library is, a lot of the sources are still written in English and are tertiary or secondary. I haven’t read a single source written in Tagalog, and I think that would be really helpful in contextualizing things. There’s a lot that can’t be directly translated.” Gonzalez is also planning on interviewing contemporary Filipino tattoo artists who use the Kalinga aesthetics so she can further her understanding of the cultural importance of these designs. 

Said Gonzalez, “It’s all about the preservation of culture.”