TO be tattooed in contemporary times is considered taboo because it can mean four things to some: you are either an ex-convict, a drug addict, a gang member or all of the above.

But for our ancestors, it was quite the opposite. It was a badge of karangalan (honor).

To understand this, one must go back to the belief in the "kalooban" of our ancestors. Our "panlabas" consists of our body but our "panloob" had two life forces - the "kaluluwa" (roughly equivalent to the Western "soul") should be good or righteous (mabuti at matuwid na kaluluwa or malinis na kalooban) in order to animate the other life force "ginhawa," which gives us the good life and our sense of well-being. Since in their belief, this "kaluluwa" can leave the body while sleeping or in a trance, its exit points like the holes on our faces or the extremities of our bodies (the fingers of our hands and toes) should be protected by shining items like jade or gold, because the light coming from what we call "anting-anting" drives away the dark forces. Hence, archaeologists found them in many ancestral burial sites - golden bracelets, anklets, earrings, sashes, even burial face masks. Things that our ancestors were wearing when they were depicted in the report of Governor General Gomez Perez Dasmariñas in the 1590s, a manuscript now known as the Boxer Codex.

Yet, our ancestral warriors could not wear too much of that anting-anting in their battles and so I believe their protection evolved into tattoos, especially for the warriors who were known in the Visayas as "bagani." According to the terminology of paranormal expert Jaime Licauco, the tattoos serve as a "spiritual armor." The tattoo designs were filled with references to their beliefs, especially in the Bathala represented by the sun, and by snake spirit Bakunawa or Naga. They maintained one's kabutihang loob and therefore were also expected to have purity and honor (puri at karangalan).

As we know, the "bagani" is also equated with the concept of bayani (roughly a hero). Bagani meant "fearless" and was reconstructed by the linguist Otto Dempwolf from the Tagalog "bayani," the Malay "berani" and the Javanese "wani."

"Wani" is interesting because we also use it for government employees (kawani ng pamahalaan, hence they are bayani). In Java, "wani" meant helping through one's skill in fixing (pagsasaayos) of the whole society or of any task. In Austronesian terms, it also means to help (tulong) and be compassionate (malasakit) without expecting anything in return.

In the Manobo ethnic group, E. Arsenio Manuel described their version of the bagani: "The bahani is the genteel and harsh knight of the village whose job is to right wrongs or perform revenge on account of another party after the performance of a ritual act. He may perform his duties either alone or with select companions under his command and responsibility. He does not serve, however, under any particular official or villager. His services are available to any citizen, lowly, or high, poor or rich, blood kin or not. He cannot refuse to perform his office if approached..."

Hence, the tattoos for a bagani serve as their symbol to maintain their "mabuting kalooban," which fuels their compassion to protect the bayan.

The tattoo is placed on the skin of a bagani in a ritual ceremony, especially after their victories in battle. Hence, a warrior who had many tattoos also meant that he had won in many battles and hence was a skilled warrior.

And because in many ethnic groups in the Philippines, a tattoo is called a "batek" or "fatek," a person with many tattoos because of his skill in warfare was called a "batikan." Until today, we called people who are experts in any skill as batikan.

Thus, to be a bagani, it was not enough to be brave, but one must also have "kabutihang loob" and a drive to excel.

The batikan, which the Spaniards later referred to as pintados, and the symbols and patterns of their tattoos were central to the aesthetics of the Quincentennial Commemoration of the events of 1521, mainly driven by the NQC Secretariat supervisor Ian Christopher Alfonso. In fact, he invited me to deliver the very first Quincentennial Lecture on the topic at the National Historical Commission of the Philippines on Aug. 7, 2019.

It is central because it was the tattooed ancestor who gave food to the undernourished and dying members of the Magellan expedition as a sign of our pakikipagkapwa-tao. It was also our tattooed warriors in Mactan who defied and defeated the Europeans when they started meddling with our social system and way of life.

And so, as we continue to battle Covid-19's various incarnations this Quincentennial Year, we draw strength from our ancestral baganis and their spirit of victory and excellence to guide our modern-day batikan frontliners as they help us cope with the new challenges.