The Last Generation of Tattooed Women; Indigenous Tribes

Whang Od

The Last Generation of Tattooed Women; Indigenous Tribes

I recently came across a photo of a woman called Whang Od of the Butbut tribe in Kalanga, Philippines. Firstly, I was blown away by how young she looked for 95, but secondly, her beautiful, tattoo covered body.

Whang Od

Whang-Od Oggay

Reading about her, I found out that tattooing in this way is a fading out tradition and that she was the last mambabatok (tattoo artist) of the Butbut tribe. It got me interested to find out more about other dying out tattoo traditions within indigenous tribes around the world. It also reminded me of my great grandmother from Amara in Iraq, who I only met very briefly as a young child, but I remember being really shocked to see her face, particularly her chin, tattooed. Especially how at that small age, you’re indirectly taught that tattoos are only for criminals and gangsters! Ha! I’ve since learnt that women tattooing their face in the Middle East was common practice but has now nearly died out.

I looked into some existing tribes and their tattoos, focusing on the women, looking at the reasons for getting them and what motifs and symbols they used. A lot of detail has been left out. The information and images are not my own and come from many different sources, so I have tried to create a simple overview of the things that interest me and hopefully you too!

Butbut Tribe, Khalinga, Philippines.

The Butbut tribe dwells on the plateaus and mountains along the Chico River at Buscalan, Tinglayan in the southern part of the province of Kalinga. As they were not suppressed by the Spanish conquerors, they have preserved their ethnic culture and animistic religion. From what I have read, it’s a serious trek to get to them! 10 hour bus ride, 3 hour jeepney ride, hours of walking up mountains….something like that.

Kalinga mountains

Kalinga, Philippines

The now 100 year old, Apo Whang Od has been inking the members of her tribe for more than eight decades. She uses a tapping style of tattooing and the ink comes from a mixture of charcoal and water, now known as hand tapped tattooing. It will then be hammered onto the skin through the sharp thorn of a pomelo tree that is attached to a bamboo stick.

Whang Od

Whang-Od tattooing with charcoal and a bamboo stick

Butbut Designs

The designs are often basic geometric shapes that are heavily derived on imaginings of the natural environment of the tribe. This primitive method is not for the faint-hearted. The process is slow and painful.

Butbut tribe woman    Kalinga-tattoo-designs

A woman from the Butbut tribe           Butbut tattoo designs you can choose from

Animism was once a time-honored practice among the Butbuts. Animism is the oldest known type of belief system in the world that even predates paganism. Animism, (from Latin anima, “breath, spirit, life”) perceives all things— plants, rivers, human handiwork, and perhaps even words—as alive. The Butbut tribe believe that spirits live on trees, stones and animals. Magical powers from natural elements were believed to cure, protect, guide or promote fertility. All of these are told in the tattoos on their skins.

The eagle, reserved only for warriors of exceptional bravery for protecting villages and head hunters that killed enemies, was one of the most coveted tattoos in Butbut culture. It is strictly forbidden for anybody other than a member of the Butbut tribe to be tattooed with an eagle, but the headhunters no longer exist and due to modern living, the young people of Whang Od’s village are no longer interested in embracing the tattooing works of their elders.

                                 Kalinga Warrior      Kalinga Warrior

                                              Men from the Butbut tribe (eagle tattoo)

Until a few years ago, Apo Whang Od was the last surviving mambabatok of her Butbut Tribe but with her efforts to continue the centuries-old tradition, she has passed her skills on to her grandniece, Grace Palicas. They even get visits from foreign travellers now, who make the epic journey to their village, in hope that they will have the honour of being tattooed by Whang Od. Many have but apparently sometimes she refuses!  Today, Whang Od has even been featured in various events and television shows featuring her life and her tattoo works.

                      Whang Od snake     Batok whang od

Butbut tribe designs (snake tongue and scales)

(Really want this wrist tattoo! Love it.)

Heres a link to one guy’s story of his journey to Kalinga, to get tattooed by Whang Od if your interested.

Here’s a link to a seriously beautiful short film on Whang Od, also showing the Kalinga village.

The film is by Foster Visuals and Directed by Brent Foster.

There’s a ‘behind the scenes’ film on the same page aswell which is really cool! I want to visit the Kalinga village so bad now.

Iraqi Tribes

I’ve been really interested in the tattoos of Berber women of Algeria lately, which are very similar to tribes in other North African countries such as Morocco, as well as the tattoos of tribes in the Middle East. I wanted to find out more about my great grandmothers tattoos and looked into the tribes of Iraq.

Iraqi woman tattoos    Iraqi woman tattoos   iraq tribe tattoo

Lampblack, the finely powdered soot derived from charcoal, was chosen as tattoo pigment aswell because it was believed to have purificatory power. They would gather the soot from the bottom of a dish held over a lamp, make a paste and used ordinary sewing needles.

Nearly all tattooing among the tribes of Iraq was done by women. Something which I have found to be common among tattoo artists of indigenous tribes. I suppose a bit like make up artists today. It was not a hereditary profession in Iraq, but any woman who had the skill and inclination could become a daggagah (tattooer). It seems as though many tattoos were done by travelling gypsies or bedouins.

Bedouin-woman-tribe-tattoo    Arab-Tribe-Tattoo

Therapeutic and Magical Tattoos.

The therapeutic tattooing could be done for a number of aches and illnesses such as sprains, headaches, eye disease, rheumatism where the tattoo was applied on the temple, forehead or near the eye etc.

[I’ve come across curative tattooing in other tribes but the most fascinating for me are the tattoos of Otzi, the Iceman, whose body was discovered in the Alps in 1991 and has been dated back 5,300 years. He has a series of line tattoos placed all over his body, many clustering around his lower back and joints, and although scientists can’t be sure that this was definitely the reason for them, reading on how many ancient, indigenous tribes do this, I reckon its highly likely. Although I’m sure some may have been to attract a lover too 😉 ]

otzi iceman tattoo

                                                       Otzi, the Icemans line tattoos

Some tattoos among Iraqi women were done with the intention of helping to bring about some desired effect; Some being to induce pregnancy, some were done to guard children, as infant mortality was high, so they would preserve a child’s life by tattooing a dot on their nose; and some were to bring about love and ward off the evil eye.

Arab-Iraq-tribe-tattoo     iraqi tattoos

Iraqi’s womens tattoo markings

Ornamental and Decorative Tattoos.

Tattooing was also done purely to beautify the wearer. Most women were tattooed. Not just the face and hands were decorated, also the whole body. Apparently some men refused to marry a girl who was not tattooed and it seems as though a girl might get her first tattoos around the time of puberty. Its strange to think of it now, because growing up in Kuwait, not that many years later, no one would have had a tattoo, unless secretly done abroad, and it really was something considered as Haram (forbidden by Islamic Law). In the last few years I am starting to see a change now in Kuwait among my own family, where the women have started getting tattoos, (not on their face) making me feel a lot more relaxed about mine when I visit!

                      Arab-woman-tattoo  Arab-hand-tattoo-tribe

 Iraqi Designs

Tattoo designs were geometrical, or sometimes extremely stylized representations of natural objects. Generally they consist of combinations of dots and lines, especially zigzag and cross- hatched lines, circles, crescents, chevrons, triangles, stars, and crosses, and elaborations of these. Women’s eyebrows were frequently tattooed, and most women had tattooing on the face, especially the chin, and dots between the eyes and above the upper lips.

     Yezidi tattoos

                                                                Yezidi Tattoo designs
         Men and women were particularly fond of having a gazelle tattooed on the inner forearm, hand, and for women sometimes in pairs on the breast. Something I personally really like is a ‘comb’ like design which seemed very common, particularly on the wrists, but I couldn’t find the meaning of it. Some think maybe it was a design derived from the figure of an animal, presumably a gazelle, and some think it was in some way related to solar motifs.
                          iraqi woman tattoos       bedouin iraqi woman tattoo
                                                                     Iraqi Shiite women
                                                iraqi man tattoo
                                                                            Iraqi man
 Another design is the cross; with arms of equal length, and frequently a dot in each angle. From ancient times, and in many places, the cross has had a certain magic element attached to it. The design of the dotted cross apparently dates from the middle of the ninth century.

Tattooing in Iraq started to disappear in the 1930s. The mainstreaming of Islamic beliefs made women believe that according to Islam, altering the body is haram.

*It was really hard to find images of tattooed Iraqis. There are so many of the Berbers and lots of tribes from other Middle Eastern countries, who have very similar tattoos. If you want to see more, heres a link to them



The earliest record of Inuit tattoo patterns were found on a mask dating back 3,500 years. For several millennia, Inuit tattooing remained widespread, strong and unchanged. Tattooing was practiced by all Eskimos and was most common among women.

Inuit woman tattoo


Therapeutic and Coming of Age

As with so many other tribes, tattoos served as acupuncture or for pain relief, as well as beautification.  They also recorded the “biographies” of a person, reflecting individual and social experience. Traditionally, Inuit women inked their skin to represent something of significance in their lives, from marriage to children or spiritual beliefs. Another reason was the symbolic purpose of marking the adulthood of Inuit women, who were usually tattooed after their first period.

Traditionally, the tattoos also have a dualistic spirituality. Some believe that a woman who receives a tattoo would have a better afterlife as a result of enduring such horrific pain. In some communities, the tattoos traditionally worked as a purification ritual to please the spirit of the sun during a woman’s period. I have read that a tattoo on a woman’s thighs can represent greeting a newborn into the world. The meanings of the tattoos, along with their designs, shift in respect to each unique community.

Inuit woman tattoo  Inuit tattoo designs

All of the designs signify strength and endurance, highlighting the fact that the process of tattooing was extremely painful. The method of tattooing was to pass a needle under the skin, similar to stitching, and as soon as it is withdrawn its course is followed by a thin piece of pine stick dipped in oil and rubbed in the soot from the bottom of a kettle. Lampblack was considered to be highly effective pigment against evil as shamans used it for drawing magic circles around houses to ward off spirits, so some small similarities again to Iraqi and Butbut tattoo practices.


The forehead was decorated with a letter V in double lines passing down between the eyes almost to the bridge of the nose. Each cheek was adorned with an egg-shaped pattern, also double lines. The most ornamented part was the chin, which had a grid-iron pattern.

Inuit tattoo hand

As with Islam in the Middle East, the sacred practice for Inuits was forbidden by Christian missionaries a century ago. It seems as though these missionaries had a detrimental impact on Inuit communities. They hastened the disappearance of Inuit tattooing because they believed it to be a shamanistic practice that contradicted Catholicism and Protestantism. However, tattoos were an integral part of an Inuit woman’s identity. A sense of identity is a necessary foundation for life that we often take for granted because we might never have had our identity challenged or attacked. From what I have read, “Inuit underwent the most intense and rapid cultural changes of any surviving culture, going from ‘Ice age’ to ‘Space age’ in one generation.”

inuit woman tattoo

Now a movement is happening in indigenous culture from Alaska to Nunavut, Canada, that’s bringing back the practice of traditional tattoos. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril has started a journey to revive the ancient Inuit tradition of face tattooing and produced a film called Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos. I have yet to watch it!

Inuit Tattoo

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril


I suppose like fashion, trends change and tattooing in these tribal ways now seems old fashioned to a younger generation. Now heavily filled in eyebrows and contouring cheeks seems to have taken over with the use of make up! Though more so, the introduction of religion seems to be the main reason for the decline in tribal tattooing.  Through education traditions change, which isn’t a bad thing at all. I can’t really say I agree with tattooing a girl at puberty so that she attracts a husband. Saying that, reading up on these tribes and their tattoos has highlighted the many customs, beliefs and traditions that we are losing and have been lost through colonialism and globalisation. The motifs on all of the tribes show a much deeper, more spiritual connection that people had to the earth, something that is quite often devalued as ‘hippie shit’ nowadays.

Through tattooing, these tribes had their own alternative therapy, whether you think they were effective or not, it links to positive thinking and placebo; Mind over matter. They had a sense of identity and belonging; Belonging to their tribe, their people, a connection to the Earth, its surroundings and their ancestors. It is because of those reasons that I have such an interest in ancient culture and history. Looking back into the symbols and traditions they had, helps me to feel grounded and remember whats important; The earth being the most important and the protection of it.

I was going to look into a couple more tribes but I think thats enough reading and writing for one week! It was supposed to be a lot shorter as it is.

Please share if you know someone that might find this interesting. You can do so with the share buttons to the left and at the bottom of this post 🙂


Here’s some beautiful images of tattooed women from tribes around the world.

puel tribe benin tattoo woman        Ainu tattoo woman japan

Peul Tribe, Benin                        Ainu, Northern Japan

Berber, Morocco     Tattoo woman orissa india

Berber, Morocco                           Orissa, India

Tattoo woman papua new guinea      China burma woman tattoo

Maisin, Papua New Guinea                 China Burma border




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