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The Philippines’ fierce Kalinga tribe has just one remaining ‘mambabatok’, or master tattoo artist: Whang Od, who is nearly 100 years old. A visit to her home in the Cordillera mountains is one of the most sought-after tattoo pilgrimages in the world. Read on for more about Whang Od, the Kalingas, and this fast-disappearing tradition of hand-tapped body art.
Like many of the indigenous tribes of North Luzon, the Kalingas are known for their bravery. Buscalan is one of several communities in the Kalinga province. Here, hand-tap tattoo artist Whang Od (pronounced with an “f”: Fang Od) Oggay has been tattooing herself, her neighbors, and her relatives for decades. More recently, a stream of body-ink enthusiasts from all over the world have traipsed to Whang Od’s hilltop hut.
The process of getting a hand-tapped Kalinga tattoo involves very simple tools: the thorn of a pomelo tree; soot from Whang Od’s kitchen fire, mixed with water; and two bamboo instruments – one for fitting the thorn, another for tapping the ink into the skin. The design is laid out using strips of grass dipped in the ink, and the tapping begins.
Whang Od received her first tattoos from her father, who then went on to teach her the art craft. Her first attempts were on her own legs and on her female friends. During the Second World War, the Kalinga tribe was besieged both by Japanese solders and Filipino forces. Whang Od lost the love of her life at the age of 25, and devoted herself entirely to tattooing as a means of income.
The elderly women in Buscalan still proudly wear the designs that Whang Od tapped onto their skin in her younger days. Kalinga parents pay for their daughters’ tattoos, as a sign of the family’s wealth, and to enhance the girls’ beauty. Kalinga men can only be inked with specific emblems as a symbol of bravery in defending the village in tribal wars. Headhunting as a means of settling scores is a prominent feature in Kalinga heritage. Only men who have killed or shown outstanding valor can receive tattoos.
Stairs, like those that criss-cross the Northern Luzon rice terraces, are a common motif, as are ears of rice. Centipedes and pythons – two powerful animal spirit guides in the Kalinga belief – are commonly chosen for men. The hand-tap process is slow, painful, and often accompanied by infection. The recipient must show bravery during this important rite, or is thought to suffer serious spiritual consequences.
These days, Whang Od no longer works in the rice fields. She still rises early and sees to her pigs and chickens, before beginning her first tattoo at 7am. She’s taught her craft to her grandniece Grace, who assists her in completing big designs. The hope is that Grace, together with a younger generation of Kalinga women, will keep this ancient Filipino tradition of body art alive.