If there is one person who could best represent the rich culture of Kalinga, a province located in the far north of the Philippines, it is none other than Whang Od, the oldest Filipino tribal tattoo artist. Some even say she put Kalinga on the Philippine map of must-visit places for local and foreigners alike. In fact, many people brave the cold weather and the 10-hour trip to the mountains just to get inked by her.
Whang-od Oggay is known as the last mambabatok (Kalinga tattooist) from the tribe of Butbut in Buscalan, Kalinga. She has been tattooing for the past 80 years — including head hunters of the indigenous tribe, at the beginning of her long career.
These head hunters were the warriors of their tribe, who protect their villages, to the extent of killing their enemies. For them, it is a symbol of bravery and courage. She also inked the skin of women from the tribe, the tattoos are considered as a sign of beauty and elegance.
Whang-od is living proof of the tribe’s batok (hand-tapping) culture. Covering her body are tattoos with different meanings and designs. Each of her arms, she said, took a day to be inked completely. After her body was covered, she related how her father rejoiced and killed a pig to celebrate the feat.
Now, after 80 years of tattooing, Whang-od is inking foreign and Filipino visitors who visit her.
Whang-od’s tribal tattoo ink is made up of charcoal and water. Once mixed, it is tapped into the skin using a thorn from a citrus tree — either from calamansi or pomelo. The thorn is then attached to a 12-inch long bamboo stick and from there, Whang-od will start tapping it deep into your skin. She has sample designs so that you can choose which design you’d like. The locals or your tour guide will then gently relay your request to Whang-od and from there she will start tapping your desired design.
Getting inked by Whang-od takes some courage as the session can be painful, depending on your body’s tolerance. As a sign of courtesy, visitors are also encouraged to bring in some offerings for your host like food, medicine, and matches which are essential for their day to day existence.
Whang-od never married. She lost her significant other during the Japanese occupation and since then, Whang-od has stayed single. Without a child of her own to teach, she is training her grandniece Grace Palicas to continue the tribe’s tattoo tradition. She believes that she can only pass it to her bloodline because if someone outside the tribe were to continue the tradition, the tattoo would be infected.
For her part, Grace is more than willing to continue what the tribe has started. She has even had the opportunity to participate in different tattoo festivals around the country.
Whang-od is now in her mid-90s and from the looks of it, she is not stopping anytime soon. And there seems to be no shortage of people who want to be inked by her and believe in her art.