Socio-cultural link amid Ato Festivals, Bontoc Tattoo

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BONTOC, Mountain Province- This year’s months of May and June 2015 is a period of ato festivities in the capital town of Bontoc as a concluding ceremony of the “Manerwap” which is a Bontoc practice in calling for the rain during the dry season. This ato festival is called Sok-ey – a celebration in the ato that marks the end of the chain of rituals with respect to the practice of Manerwap characterized by the playing of the gongs, dancing and chanting.

It can be recalled that Ato Amkhawa in Foyayeng, Bontoc Mountain Province led the first ato festival this year. Then it was followed by Ato Chukko in Omfeg, Ato Pantalan in Lanao, Ato Nakawang in Samoki while Ato Siphaat in Chakalan is still on-progress.  Such ato festivity is an occasion by which traditional tattoos (Fatek) in the traditional Bontoc society come into play. It then elucidates why Bontok women wear tattoos on their arms.

In the past, only ladies or women with tattooed arms are privileged to dance with the men in the dancing ground whenever the ato conducts a feast. According to Bontoc women with tattoos, the reason why they had it on their arms is that it served as beautiful props to display when they spread their arms like bird’s wings to dance the sagni (women’s native dance) but now tattooed arms being a requisite to dance during ato festivals was detached from the unwritten codes of the ato due to the lost art of tattooing.

At present, only few women in Bontoc wear the traditional arm tattoo specifically termed as “pong-o” which suggests that the practice of traditional tattooing in Bontoc has stopped. The reasons for its cessation was due to the advent of church and educational institutions in Bontoc that relegated the status of tattoo to a symbol of social deviance or stigma of shame and carries a negative connotation such as “an ex-convict”. Hence, it was once a pride for a Bontok woman to have tattoo marks on her arms, but now most tattooed women have to wear long-sleeved blouses to conceal their tattoos especially when they go out from our town, not wanting to be judged wrongly by other people or cultures.

Furthermore, developments in the Cordillera after World War II introduced scientific technology and modernization making possible the social interaction between lowlanders and the people of the Cordillera.

The Bontoc community was no exception to said developmental change that affected the people’s culture and which led to the change and attitude and perception towards tattoo. Our forefathers have resisted cultural change at the onset but gradually, the educated younger generation ceded to the lure of new ideas and western way of life.

This led to the disintegration of the Bontoc traditional society followed by the transformation of the people’s culture. Another reason given during an interview with elders is that young ladies now cannot endure the pain of the traditional tattooing which uses crude tools and materials.

At present, tattooing in Bontoc is now enjoying a renaissance as evidenced by the growing number of young people and professionals getting interested in tattoos and the offering of tattoo services by skilled tattoo artists in this capital town. Nevertheless, reasons of modern tattooing are more personal and varied different from its customary functions as ethnic marker, gender identity, and body adornment or aesthetics. Thus, the essence of traditional tattoos in ato festivals has eventually fades away. By Arnel M. Kisofen

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