Last living preserver of Indigenous facial tattoos dies

06/18/2022 10:24 PM
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New Taipei city official Lo Mei-ching (left) visits Ipay Wilang in January 2020. Photo courtesy of New Taipei City Indigenous Peoples Department
New Taipei city official Lo Mei-ching (left) visits Ipay Wilang in January 2020. Photo courtesy of New Taipei City Indigenous Peoples Department

Taipei, June 18 (CNA) Ipay Wilang (林智妹), the last living government-designated preserver of traditional Indigenous facial tattoos in Taiwan, passed away at home in Hualien County Saturday, according to a local historian.

Ipay Wilang, a member of the Indigenous Seediq tribe, had returned to Hualien earlier on Saturday from a hospital in New Taipei after her condition became critical, Lo Mei-ching (羅美菁), head of the New Taipei City Indigenous Peoples Department, told CNA.

Although her registered birthday was April 1, 1922, Lo said Ipay Wilang was actually 106 years old, because people during that time often registered a newborn sometime after birth.

Ipay Wilang had been living with her eldest daughter in New Taipei in recent years and was taken to the city's Tucheng Hospital on Friday when she became unwell after catching a cold, according to a Taiwan Indigenous TV news report.

Ipay's death was announced by Kimi Sibal (田貴實), a Hualien-based historian who co-wrote a 2016 book on Taiwan's six remaining Indigenous facial tattoo preservers.

The Hualien County Government first listed the traditional facial tattoo practices of the Atayal, Seediq and Truku tribes as a protected piece of cultural heritage in 2009, and named Ipay Wilang as a preserver of the art form in 2016, according to Lo.

In the three tribes, men can have facial tattoos on their forehead and jaw, and women on their forehead and cheeks when they were deemed capable of establishing a family of their own, according to Kimi Sibal, who has documented the practices for over two decades.

People with facial tattoos are believed to be able to join their ancestors in the afterlife, he added.

However, the practice was banned while Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule between 1895 and 1945, and Ipay Wilang was forced to remove her facial tattoo when she was 15, leaving scars on her face, Kimi Sibal said.

Icyang Parod (夷將‧拔路兒), head of the Council of Indigenous Peoples, told a CNA reporter in Taipei that the passing of Ipay Wilang meant that the public would now only be able to learn about facial tattoo culture from historic records.

He thanked Kimi Sibal, who has been documenting the practices and taken photos of over 300 individuals across Taiwan who have Indigenous facial tattoos, and said his council would introduce Indigenous culture to more members of the public.

Meanwhile, Minister of Culture Lee Yung-te (李永得), whose ministry published the 2016 book co-written by Kimi Sibal, said in a statement that only the tribes of Atayal, Seediq, Truku, and Saisiyat maintained the tradition of facial tattoos, which was a historically important part of Taiwan's cultural heritage.

Lee said his ministry would seek a presidential citation to honor the life of Ipay Wilang.

(By Chang Chi, Sunrise Huang, Wu Hsin-yun, Wang Pao-er and Kay Liu)

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