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Accepting the Pain: The Hand-tapping Tattoo in The Philippines

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The Pintados. Spanish word that was used to call the people in the Philippines by the Spaniards, back in  1521, has a very deep long history. That was the year when the Spanish came first time to Visayan islands. Meeting the native people on the land, and then started to call them as Pintados. Meaning, ‘painted ones.’

Tribal patterns covered their entire bodies beautifully. Each pattern has meaning. Some are symbols of the warriors, the others are symbols of their lives. Not like the Spaniards that time, I wasn’t surprised the Filipinos had a lot of tattoos on their entire skin. This might be because other tribes in Asia and even Polynesia have this kind of traditional art too.

As an Indonesian, after looking some old pictures of their painted skin, the image of people in Borneo with beautiful tattoos popped up on my mind. I checked once again my plane ticket. It said Jakarta-Singapore-Manila. I asked myself to make sure I am ready to visit Manila to get a hand-tapped tattoo.

I flew from Jakarta in the afternoon  right after working. It was Saturday. I knew already that time, my parents and the whole big family members would against my decision, as tattoo here, for some people, is identically to criminals and bad people. But once I made a decision, I would never go back.

In Search of Hand-Tapped Tattoo in Manila

Before flying from my hometown, I have already done a small research about this awesome art. But it wasn’t easy. I had only three days trip in Manila and had to fly again to Cebu City, stayed there five days, and then go back to Jakarta. Back to the real life.

I found Wang Od, the last tattoo artist in Buscalan, Kalinga, on so many travel blog sites. I was thinking to visit her and going up to the village by myself. But the time was too tight. I couldn’t make it to go there in two nights, while I still needed to spend time with my friends in Manila.

Sad, but I better postpone the journey to meet the legend of hand-tapping tattoo in the Philippines. I kept searching and hoping there were some tattoo artists in Manila City who do the hand-tapping. Until I found a very nice, warm, and humble life couple. They’re Jonathan Cena and Jean Sioson. They build their own business, Katribu Tatu, to do the hand-tapping tattoo.

Katribu Tatu, the only practitioner who do the traditional hand-tapped tattoo in Manila, the Philippines.

Katribu Tatu, the only practitioner who do the traditional hand-tapped tattoo in Manila, Philippines.

I chose them because not only they’re the only one practitioners of Kalinga backhand technique in the city, but also they have some great portfolios on their page. I didn’t wait long to contact them. Jonathan answered me right away. We made an appointment. After few weeks working collecting money on my hometown, I finally stepped my feet in Manila for the first time, ready to experience the awesome traditional Filipino tattoo.

Getting My First Tattoo

I was waiting for Jean and Jonathan in front of a small electricity shop, in Pasig. Even if Pasig was similar to my hometown, the city and the crowd was too much for me. The weather was very hot. And due to the bad connection, I sometimes couldn’t contact Jonathan through Facebook.

While watching some tricycles lining up  in front of me, I was very nervous. All the excitement mixed up with the fear and hasitation. It made me thinking my effort and all the time I spent for getting my first tattoo became nothing. Right after that, the couple was approaching me with the warmest smiles I have ever seen.

We got in to their ‘office,’ the Katribu Tatu Studio. I stepped on the stairs followed by their little cute puppy. Jean asked me about my day. Once we were all upstairs, all the bad feelings gone suddenly. We talked about the legend Wang Od and the other tribes in the country. While Jonathan was wrapping a little pillow up with a plastic, he asked me my experience about tattoo.

Jonathan drew and designed my first tattoo.

Jonathan drew and designed my first tattoo.

I said nothing. I really have never got any tattoos before. He sensed my nervous and then tried to calm me down. Jean then put some petroleum jelly and alcohol on my skin, then asked me what kind of tribal did I want. I was very confused. I wanted a simple symbol that had a very deep meaning, and of course reflected myself.

Jean then gave me a book about the Filipino traditional tattoo with a lot of symbols and its meaning. After spending like 30 minutes, I was ready with three symbols. Jonathan drew and designed them to become one genuine symbol for me. Then they started working on my skin.

Accepting the Pain

Jean started to stick the needle into my skin. Not very deep, so I didn’t feel anything. But after few minutes and she started to fill the tribal with the black ink, my face changed. I was trying to hold the breath, against the needle getting inside my skin deeper. It was painful.

She and Jonathan kept talking to me, probably trying to make me relax and not feeling the pain. I was trying to concentrate answering their questions and giving feedback. I tried to not think about the feeling each time the needle hitting my skin. Surprisingly, after several more minutes, I was fine with it. It was still painful, but I could accept it.

It was painful, but not too hurt. Don't worry.

It was painful, but not too hurt. Don’t worry.

I suddenly learned something. Getting a tattoo might be painful for some people, especially for the first time. But you actually need to take it. Accept the pain and all will go well. I remembered, Jean once told me, when she visited Wang Od, she got told to not cry while getting the tattoo.

“Don’t cry! Because life is more painful than getting a tattoo,” said Jean, imitating the Legend. I then realized what Wang Od said was true. Life can be very hard, but you cannot run away avoiding it. Rather than running from the reality, you need to face it, no matter how hard, painful, tearful, and suffering it is. I learned another lesson from my journey in Manila. Breaking the opinion of some people, even the locals, who will never suggest tourists or travelers to come to Manila. That you can still find something valuable for your life there.

Tools They Use

Katribu Tatu tries to do this traditional art as original as they can. Even if the practice is traditional, they use a new sterilized stainless as needle. But Wang Od uses a thorn. “It’s hard to find the thorn here, in the city. So we use this tool instead,” said Jean while showing me the needle.

They use steel instead of thorn.

They use steel instead of thorn.

They work very clean. The ink was sterile and wasn’t mixed with the ink they had used for other costumers. They were really careful while wiping my arm with the petroleum jelly and alcohol.

Things You Need to Consider Before Getting the First Hand-tapped Tattoo
  1. First of all, you need to do some researches. This kind of tattoo has been practiced by other tribes in all over the world. Borneo, the Philippines, Japan, Polynesia, and maybe other countries. Each tribe might has different style of patterns. Make sure you know what you want.
  2. Consider some requirements before and after getting a tattoo. As you want to get the traditional one, you might find some prohibitions for certain tattoo.
  3. It’s painful. But just like Wang Od said, life could be more painful than this.
  4. Make sure you do what your tattoo artist tells you. If you need to put some oil on the skin for a month, just do it. Do not scratch your new tattoo. You don’t want to see the blood and ink getting out, mixed together, do you? And you will get infection if it happens.
  5. Tattoo is not only for trend life style. There’s meaning you need to create or find out behind the symbol drawn on your beautiful skin. To me, my tattoo is a reflection of me, and also a very sacred prayer. But it could be nothing to people, which is okay.
  6. Never regret the tattoo you already have!

Any kind of tattoos are art. Which means, you need to give the appreciation for the artists. Katribu Tatu offers the smallest tattoo for 2000 Php. It wasn’t cheap to me, but I tried my best to collect my money to get the tattoo.

What does My Tattoo Mean?

Well, it might be nothing for other people. But for me, it’s everything. Not because this is my first tattoo, but I spent quite long time to choose the tribal. I chose three patterns from a book about Filipino tattoo titled as Filipino Tattoos Ancient to Modern. You can find it on Ebay or Amazon. 

First pattern is two plants which are the symbols of feminism and abandon. Second is two fruits which means achievements and the last one, water as a sign of traveler. It simply means I am everywhere.



Through this painful (just a little actually) experience, I’ve learned how to handle the problems in life. Visiting the city really worth a try. People might find Manila is a boring metropolitan city. But you might find the beautiful and meaningful things there in the city. This tattoo doesn’t only make me feel stronger but also know myself better. Tattoo to me can be like a prayer. May I become a free person without forgetting how to be wise and responsible. Also a sign that I have made two achievements  in my life. I am so grateful.


Oi Meira

About the Author


  • Berlin says:

    Youre such a brave soul. Brave for having those needles onto your skin. Braver for facing the
    the stereotype of the peeps with tattoo. And bravest for facing your family with that tattoo. I once dreamt of being inked but the coward me opted to just make it a dream and never a reality. Love the design of your tattoo, by the way.

    • Oi Meira says:

      Hi thank you very much. My dad and mom were mad after knowing the tattoo. No matter the reasons I tried to explain, they didn’t really want to listen but it’s okay 🙂 thank you for coming by.

  • Tattoos are really an integral part of Filipino tribal culture. Of course we who grew up near the cities are not aware of it anymore. But I really like the Northern culture up there in the mountains. I’m longing to have my own tattoo from Whang Od!

  • What an incredible experience! I would also like to commend you for tapping into the Philippine’s rich culture and gathering up the courage in you to do this. I am in awe and am now actually interested in trying it out myself. I’ve always wanted to get a tattoo that somehow resembles the warrior in me. I will definitely check them out when I visit the Philippines. Thanks for sharing!

  • Marge says:

    Hello Oi Meira,

    I must say that it is brave of you to get a tattoo and a traditional one at that. I have personally gotten a tattoo by Apo Whang Od and I tell you it’s the most painful tattooing procedure I have ever experienced in my life (I have 5 tattoos, the other 4 were done by modern method). It was also quite an experience to climb a mountain first just to get that tattoo. I’m not sure if you will be coming back to the Philippnes, but when you do I hope you get to meet Apo. That woman is legendary.

    Your tattoo looks beautiful I must say, even more refined that the one made by Apo. Maybe because they used a different needle, Apo, as you know uses thorn.

  • That is such an interesting and unusual story. I know about many such tribes in India which have been applying tattoos on their skin since hundreds of years, much before tattoos became cool. I have always wanted a tattoo on my body too. I am still deciding which one, haha.

  • Ashley Renne says:

    “I am everywhere” – I love it. Very meaningful and relevant to who you are. Good job taking the pain and learning a lesson or two in the process. Jean is right. Life is more painful 🙂

  • Ouch. First of all, I have a tattoo but not done the traditional way. If I think my experience was painful, then it’s nothing compared to yours. I love how you picked up from the learnings of practitioners, that pain from getting a tattoo is nothing compared to life experiences. I guess that is true, but my mind is still stuck on the physical pain. Hahaha, and mine was already more than ten years ago.

    Looking at the tattoo you have, let me say this. IT IS BEAUTIFUL and done in a way that it cannot be any better.

    I sure hope too that you had a good experience while in the Philippines.

    • Oi Meira says:

      Thank you very much. Everything you experience I think should be meaningful. Theres always the good part of every experience. Even the good part of everyone. Thank you for coming by.

  • saurabh says:

    I have been to Manila once. Its an awesome place to visit during winter. By the way the deign of your first tattoo is beautiful and meaningful. I will also try to get tattoo, but I am bit scared about it 🙁

  • Chardy says:

    How brave! I dont think I could ever get a tattoo. Just thinking of how they’re going to put it in me is making me cry. :)))) Love the design, I’m sure it means so much to you, now that it’s a part of your life.

  • Joic says:

    Oh no, it might hurt? definitely something i wouldn’t do heheh

  • Sarah says:

    You go girl! I truly admire individuals who go through this pain and commit to something really permanent – it’s kind of like love and marriage, huh? lol! And you’re really brave for having a hand-tapped tattoo as your first! Whew! I also agree that anyone who’s contemplating on getting a tattoo should really think it over a hundred times! It’s not something you can just get rid of once you’re tired of it 😉

    • Oi Meira says:

      Yep! That’s true. Well there are some ways to get rid of it. First with a laser and it costs you double or even triple. Second, well…. I heard some people here used to iron themselves to get rid of it. But of course your skin will burned out and I think the ink will be still there.

  • sophie says:

    Well Well that’s something I always look forward when I travel to Philippines. I would love to post a photo of mine having 7 tattoos on my body but that’s not possible 🙁 Thanks again I would look forward to the tattoos and the places you have mentioned. Cheers!

  • Marina says:

    I’m spanish and didn’t know we used to call them “los pintados” 🙂 Never mind, the fact is that you are a brave girl!
    I always wanted to get myself a tatoo but never got enough courage! That looks like a really local and truly experience. I lived in Ireland and it meant a lot for me, so I’m thinking about traveling there and getting one right in the village I was living. That would mean a lot for me!

    In any case, that was a nice reading! Congrats!

    • Oi Meira says:

      hi thank you very much. Hmmm I heard the Spanish word from the local. I wonder if their Spanish is different than real Spanish?
      Wow, that will be awesome!!! Go get one 😛

  • Getting a hand tapped tattoo like this has always been a dream of mine.I’m pretty sure when I’m in the Philippines, I’ll be following your example and I’ll get one myself.Really love the symbolism of the tattoo you chose, it’s a very powerful symbol.I’m actually considering buying that book you mentioned about the Filipino traditional tattoos. Great article!It was really inspiring!

    • Oi Meira says:

      Hi thank you very much! Yep, actually that book is very useful for the knowledge and also finding the patterns and the meaning! I wanted to buy the book too. 🙂 Thank you for coming by 🙂

  • Ami says:

    This is the first time that I am reading such a detailed account of a getting a tattoo. I am not so much a tattoo fan…:-) And after reading this, not sure if I ever will be. Glad though that you were brave to get it.

  • resources says:

    It is no wonder that there was an excitement in you in front of such a serious step. However, the tattoo leaves behind only the pleasant memories from this place.

  • Jean says:

    Hi! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone 3gs! Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the great work!

  • Yana says:

    Actually I don’t like having tattoo in my body, maybe because I’m scared to feel the pain haha .. But I like the design and the meaning of your tattoo. Such a great choice.
    Hope you had fun in your trip to Philippines. 😊👍
    I also like your article/s.

  • A ‘stick ‘n’ poke’ tattoo artist translates the hand poked tattoo trend and explains why the back-to-basics tattooing technique isn t generally as painful as getting a machine tattoo.

  • A ‘stick ‘n’ poke’ tattoo artist translates the hand poked tattoo trend and explains why the back-to-basics tattooing technique isn t generally as painful as getting a machine tattoo.

  • I like the design and the meaning of your tattoo. thanks for sharing

  • “Some truly nice and utilitarian info on this web site, as well I believe the style and design has fantastic features.”

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