The body art of Bae Norita Gabao

Bobby Lagsa

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Deep in the forest hills of Malasag EcoPark in Barangay Gusa, lives the last Pangutob tattoo artist of the Tigwahonon Manubo tribe of Bukidnon province

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – Deep in the forest hills of Malasag EcoPark in Barangay Gusa, lives the last Pangutob tattoo artist of the Tigwahonon Manubo tribe of Bukidnon province.

Pangutob is the art of traditional tattoo of the Manubo tribe and there is now only one of these artists who is alive and still actively practicing the art of storytelling using the human body as canvas.

Bae Norita Gabao lives with her granddaughter Payang in a small hut on the slopes of this watershed park. Her husband, Datu Nilo, who died in 2013, was a cultural warrior and educator, and worked for the preservation of their culture.

HISTORY. When she was young, Bae Norita's grandmother tattoed the history of their tribes on her torso. Photo by Bobby Lagsa

While Norita was still a young girl, her grandmother, Bae Kulotan, tattooed on her torso the history of their tribes. Across her belly, her tribe’s history is written, along with the seasons, stars and moons and even the road leading to their mountains, like a map.

Norita shared that after she had her firstborn, she stopped and concentrated on learning how to dance and play the kudlong and saluray, both traditional stringed instruments.

As Bae and wife to a Datu, Norital was expected to practice the musical instruments as part of their tradition in giving thanks to the Magbabaya, the creator of Heaven and Earth and in entertaining their visitors.

Guide to the afterlife 

Bae Norita said that not everyone can receive the Pangutob and that it is a holy mark and honor to be tattooed the Manubo way.

Norita shared that in their traditions, the tattoo is also a guide into the passage of the afterlife. 

“The Magbabaya will gladly accept you in the afterlife if you bear the mark of the tribe,” Norita said.

Norita also said that not all parts of the body can be tattooed. For the women, only the belly and the breast can be tattooed and for men, only the forearms and chest can be marked.

Norita shared that tribal women often had their breasts tattooed with Bulan (Moon) covering their entire breast as a sign of fertility.

PATIENCE. Traditional tattoing is sometimes accompanied by corresponding prayers and rituals. It is a craft unlike any other. Photo by Bobby Lagsa

For the Pangutob to be successful, Bae Norita will offer a prayer and a ritual to allow the person to be tattooed. A chicken will be culled and offered to the Magbabaya for a successful procedure.

“Planting season, the stars to guide us, the Kaingin, the rivers, the houses and landmarks are prominent in my works,” Norita said. 

Norita shared that for a time she did trained other members of their community, but she is not sure if they are practicing the Pangutob

“I trained Pologid, Talya, Bae Elsa and three other women in the tribes, but their houses are very far away into the mountains, we barely see each other,” Norita said.

Norita also confides that the six women are older than her and started very late in their interest for the Pangutob.

Norita is only 52-55 years old – she isn’t sure as she was just told that she was born on the Kaingin season. At the time of her birth, her community was so isolated in the mountains, and they could not obtain a birth certificate at the time.

“Luckily for my four children, all of them already had birth certificates after they were born,” Norita said.

Norita said that she will be imparting her skills in the Pangutbob to one of her grandchildren if anyone would be interested.

But as with all other teenagers, her grandchildren are all molded to modern ways and have shed most of the cultural identity of their ancestors. They are the last of the true Manubo living their traditional ways, as things have been for as long as their people can remember. –


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