Sparks Magazine Online
Blood Lines

Blood Lines

How could I refuse my dying father?” asked Lane Wilcken softly.

After Wilcken’s father, Willis Lane Wilcken, was diagnosed with mesothelioma, doctors suggested marking his skin so they could track the radiation that would soon be used to fight the aggressive disease.

Wilcken’s father didn’t want a stranger marking his skin, so Wilcken found a stick, shaped a hole inside and plucked a thorn from his mother’s lemon tree.

While his brother stretched their father’s skin, Wilcken used Indian ink and the Filipino tattoo method of tapping to paint his first tattoo on his dad.

At the time Wilcken had no intention of becoming a tattoo practitioner, and the tattoo he drew was not a traditional one either. But by tattooing his father,  Wilcken carried on a Filipino tradition.

METHOD & HISTORY

As a Nevada-based tattoo practitioner and writer of the book “Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern,” Wilcken has spent 25 years studying this tradition of “batok,” the name of the traditional Filipino tattooing method.

According to Wilcken, the practice is deeply ritualistic.

After a client researches his ancestry, the tattoo practitioner helps him choose a design and placement of the tattoo in accordance with the client’s religious practices.

Then, he follows the detailed, traditional process: There is a food sacrifice where blood is drained to ward off evil spirits and Wilcken speaks ancient prayers. But before the food sacrifice is put away, the client is asked to speak something from his heart, and the food offering is burnt or buried.

The actual design is done by a tapping method, in which a piece of lemon thorns or boar tusks are carved to fit into the end of a stick. A hammer is lightly tapped against the stick to poke into the skin.

Though Filipinos were originally dubbed  “los pintados,” or “the painted people,” by the Spanish. Today, Filipinos are far from painted.

Photo by Rachel He.

Photo by Rachel He.

THE LOST CULTURE

Because of society’s association between crime and tattoos and coupled  with the tendency for Filipinos to migrate to other countries for work and education, the traditional art of Filipino tattooing is endangered, according to Wilcken.

“The tendency of those who migrated away is to assimilate into the predominant culture of wherever they are living,” he said. “So we lose language, and we lose the practices, which usually happens with the first generation.”

According to Wilcken, this lost culture is what drives his passion for spreading cultural awareness through his tattoo work. He contends that the common thread that pulls modern-day Filipino Americans to get traditional tattoos is a search for identity and belonging.

“The tattoo isn’t about you, most of the tattoos are about being part of something bigger than yourself,” Wilcken said.

THE PEOPLE

Felicia Perez, a psychology teacher at Diablo Valley College in California, embarked on a journey into her Filipino roots after her father’s death. She said she always felt that her ancestors wanted her to take on a tattoo, but  an email from Wilcken was the push she needed to finally do it.

For Perez, her tattoos are visual reminders of that connection.

“Tattoos ground me,” Perez said. “When I look in the mirror, I’m like, ‘Yes, this is who I am.’ It’s a reminder I’m from an indigenous culture that has a lot of gifts to give to the world.”

According to Wilcken, by receiving a tattoo, an individual is establishing an open relationship with their ancestors for protection and wisdom. The artist said that this feeling is similar to one of instinctively taking another route home and later finding out the original route was clogged with traffic.

“Those designs represent the ancestor spirit and their communication with the person,” Wilcken said.

Perez also said that her tattoos not only link her to her ancestors, but mark who she is as a person and the obstacles she’s overcome.

“It’s like sharing the same space in time,” Perez said. “Things are changing all the time and reconfiguring itself, but it also still feels anchored in the past.”

For other recipients, the Filipino history of earning tattoos is more important.

Lauren Funiestas, a 32-year-old health coach, waited five years after meeting Wilcken to get a tattoo.

She waited until she finished her graduate studies and started her career so her tattoos could represent something she earned. Funiestas said that her tattoo decision was an act of following her ancestor’s footsteps.

Funiestas, who has 11 tattoos, said that her the traditional ones were less painful but the process was imbued with a lot of emotional meaning.

“There was more care,” Funiestas said. “Lane sat down and talked to me and explained every line, what it meant and why it was there. It meant a lot to me that my ancestors were coming in this tattoo. I felt like I was being honored and not like a cattle coming in a tattoo shop and coming out.”

Photo by Rachel He.

Photo by Rachel He.

PAST & FUTURE

At 21 years old, Jasmine Mendoza, a student at San Francisco State University, received her first Filipino tattoo. The communications studies student understands both the media and the younger generation’s role in making traditional tattooing more known to Filipino Americans.

Filipino Americans should do their research. The biggest challenge is educating Filipino Americans about their own culture, Mendoza said.

“I feel like having this media attention is the first step, but it also stems deeper than that especially for this generation. Especially for us raised in America when we don’t even hear about our history – let alone our history in America. So it’s an education thing,” Mendoza said.

At its core batok focuses on family, a cultural value that remains relevant to this day. Wilcken emphasizes that respecting the ancestors who are alive are equally important as respecting those who have passed.

“It’s the pinnacle of our past culture,” Wilcken said.

Many know Filipinos for their hospitality, basing a strong support system in their family. Traditional tattoos seem to bring those full circle.

The title of “Mababatok,” or tattoo practitioner, is usually given by a village,  but Wilcken has been able find a community where he has made his mark. Now, clients like Lauren Funiestas, Felicia Perez and Jasmine Mendoza refer to him with the same title as those before him: Mababatok. Like the tattoos that were given to Filipinos in centuries past, Lane Wilcken is immortalizing and honoring his ancestors through his work and giving that gift to others.

“The designs themselves are repetitive for a reason,” Wilcken said.  “It shows the continuity of the family line. We are just part of a link in a chain of ancestors and descendants going back through time and forward in time – that we’re part of a whole.”

Featured image by Rachel He.