The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga

Jake Verzosa


For more than 5,000 years, the practice of tattooing has evolved through social and cultural exchange. Signifying tribal status, religious belief, or family lineage, tattoo traditions gradually expanded to commemorate voyages and wars, denote gangs, proclaim love, and express individuality. While the symbolic act of applying tattoos was seen as deviant behaviour for a time, the impulse to embellish skin is now widely accepted as a serious artistic movement.

The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga, a series of portraits by Manila-based photographer Jake Verzosa, laments and celebrates a dying tradition of tattooing in villages throughout the Cordillera mountains in the northern Philippines. For nearly 1,000 years the Kalinga women have worn these lace-like patterns on their skin as symbols of beauty, wealth, stature, and fortitude. Applied as part of an arduous and painful ritual, the vivid motifs—abstracted forms based on objects such as ferns, rice bundles, and flowing rivers—reflect a modest lifestyle and powerful bond with nature. As perceptions of beauty have changed throughout the Philippines, this traditional form of adornment has been largely abandoned. The last remaining master tattooist, Fang-od Oggay, is now in her late 90s and the most revered of Verzosa’s dignified subjects. Before she passes into the Kalingan world of spirits, an apprentice from her bloodline must acquire ample skill to prolong the sacred art of their ancestors.

Reminiscent of Verzosa’s previous installation of these works in the Philippines, larger-than-life portraits are framed by bamboo—a material customarily used to etch ink into skin—and presented outdoors, bordering the ROM’s historic façade. Activating a multifarious dialogue with the environment, the sculptural images are suggestive of artifacts inside the museum and simultaneously echo billboards on the street. As both documentary record and aesthetic object, they reflect the ancient tradition and present-day global phenomenon of body art.

Presented in partnership with the Royal Ontario Museum, in conjunction with the exhibition Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art. 

Curated by Bonnie Rubenstein