The Legendary Whang Od

Just like the foot binding in China and the neck rings in Thailand...

…there is a tradition in the province of Kalinga tribe of the Philippines that women undertake in pursuit of beauty. The tradition is called “batok” or the art of tattooing tribal designs using thorn and bamboo stick. The female citizens bear the marks for beauty, which they are allowed to get when they come of age. The men, on the other hand, have to prove themselves worthy of the mark, hence, the majority of men who have these tattoos are warriors. This alone makes batok an experience like no other.

It is also a tradition that is slowly dying following the passing of the original mambabatoks. There is, however, one of them who is still alive and despite her old age, shows no sign of retiring from doing this art, the legendary mambabatok of Kalinga, Apo Whang-Od.

She has been tattooing headhunters and women of the indigenous people of Butbut in Buscalan Kalinga for more than 80 years. She now applies the traditional art form to tourists visiting Buscalan.

She never married and has no children. She has been doing the batok, the traditional hand-tapped tattooing, to headhunters who earned the tattoos by protecting villages or killing enemies. Aside from them, she applies tattoos to women of the Butbut people in Buscalan Kalinga.

Her tattoo ink is composed of the mixture of charcoal from her and water that will be tapped into the skin through a thorn end of a calamansi or pomelo tree. She was tattooed when she was a teenager. Each of her arms took one day to be finished and her family paid bundles of rice for it. When her tattoo was completed her father killed a pig to celebrate. This ancient technique of batok that dates back a thousand years before her time is relatively painful compared to other conventional techniques. She uses designs found in nature and basic geometric shapes.

In 2015, Whang-od was nominated as one of the National Living Treasures (Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan), who are of equal rank to National Artists. According to tradition, her tattooing skills can only be inherited through lineage. Whang-od believes that if someone outside the bloodline starts tattooing, the tattoo will get infected. Despite that, she currently trains Grace Palicas, her grandniece and Ilyang Wigan, another bloodline successor, to continue her tattooing work. Aside from being a tattoo artist, she is a respected village elder. At over 100 years old, Whang Od is an unrivaled living legend..


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