My husband and I wake up at six in the morning, still a little groggy from last night’s wedding eve party. We are up in the small village of Buscalan in the Cordillera mountains.
Weddings here are celebrated for two consecutive days and last night, it seemed that the whole village joined the revelry at the village ‘plaza’ which was, as luck would have it, only two steps away from Whang Od’s house. Hubby and I were so exhausted from the day’s 16-hour journey. But much as we wanted to sleep, Psy’s Gangnam Style blaring from the sound system every 30 minutes had us tossing and turning up until the wee hours of the morning.
Despite our lack of sleep, we force ourselves to get up. It is going to be a long and painful day and we want to make sure we are Whang Od’s first skins of the day. As we make our way downstairs, we see the petite 93-year-old mambabatok (tattoo artist) already up and about, feeding her chickens while drinking her morning brew.
In her very limited Tagalog, she asks us if we were able to sleep at all. We assure her that we’re okay and that she need not worry about us.
After coffee, Whang Od tells us to go with her to the upper side of the village. It’s much quieter there and the seeming isolation is perfect for our tattooing session.
Choosing the Design
As Whang Od prepares her tools, Hubby and I go over our design one last time. Before coming here, we talked about having a symbol to mark our 9th wedding anniversary. We also wanted something traditional in honor of Whang Od. Problem was, we had no idea how to go about looking for a traditional Kalinga design. Most of what we’ve seen were animal motifs, particularly centipedes and snakes. Both are beautiful but do not speak of us as a couple. Fortunately, we found a book lying around Whang Od’s house yesterday. “Filipino Tattoos Ancient to Modern” the title said. It was written by Lane Wilcken, a Filipino-American author and tattoo artist. It turns out that Whang Od and Kalinga tattooing have figured prominently in Lane’s book. As we turned the pages, we saw exactly what we were looking for.
The Kinilat or lightning is one of the traditional batek (tatoo) motifs in Kalinga.
“…men and women are two parts of one person. The two lines in the kinilat tattoo represent this union…The plain zigzag line represents water flowing along a riverbank and is the male aspect. The other line, with the three extensions on each of the outside corners, is the bank of the river and the female aspect.”
Hubby shows the book to Whang Od and points at the illustration. She smiles and nods her approval. Hubby had previously requested that both Whang Od and her niece, Grace, give him his batek so that he can have one unified piece that would represent both the old and the new generation of Kalinga tattoo artists.
Whang Od has taught Grace the art of tattooing a few years ago but is unsure of whether Grace will continue the tradition. Grace is now in college, studying to become a teacher. From our encounters with her, we felt Grace’s heart is not really into tattooing. At least not yet. I hope she proves us wrong.
UPDATE: The hubby just chatted with Grace and found out that Grace is still pretty much into tattooing. This is the best news we’ve heard in a long time! I’m glad she has proven us wrong. We hope that she continues this beautiful tradition and that in time, others will follow in her footsteps.
Getting inked, finally.
The process of traditional tattooing is quite simple. First, Whang Od gathers soot from her cooking pans and mixes it with water to create the pasty ink.
She then gets a blade of grass, dips it in the ink and uses it to create the pattern on the skin.
Once the pattern is laid out, hand-tapping begins.
Once the pattern is laid out, hand-tapping begins.For needle, Whang Od uses a pomelo thorn that she attaches to the end of a piece of bamboo. She smears the thorn with ink, then, using another piece of wood, taps it repeatedly into the skin until the skin absorbs the ink.
Whang Od taps over the pattern two or three times to make sure the ink is absorbed completely. So basically, you get wounded two or three times on the same area until she is satisfied with the result and decides to move on. And because the thorn is not as smooth as a needle, the process becomes extra painful when the skin gets snagged on the thorn. Ouch!
And because the thorn is not as smooth as a needle, the process becomes extra painful when the skin gets snagged on the thorn.
Whang Od and Grace take turns working on Hubby’s batek.
Before long, Hubby’s arm begins to swell. I can also see that he’s in extreme pain. In the olden days, tattooing sessions can last up to several months, depending on the size of the batek. The tattooed area can also stay swollen for several weeks.
In the olden days, tattooing sessions can last up to several months, depending on the size of the batek. The tattooed area can also stay swollen for several weeks.
Finally, after three and a half hours of tortuous tapping, Whang Od is satisfied with my husband’s batek.
Then it’s my turn.
The thing about traditional tattooing is that nothing will (ever) prepare you for the pain. With machine-operated tattooing, the light buzz coming from the equipment is almost like a subtle signal for you to brace yourself. With traditional tattoo, silence is literally the calm before the storm. You will never be prepared for the assault on your skin, nor the pain that follows.
It’s very tempting to block out the pain. But in essence, getting a batek is a spiritual experience. Thus, you have to savor the moment, no matter how painful or uncomfortable it is. In ancient times, tattooing used to be a sacred rite and tattoos were given only to the bravest men of the tribe. Women also received their tattoos as a rite of passage. My kinilat, as small as it is, is no less important, nor painful! At some point during the session, I start questioning my sanity. Why am I doing this again?
Hubby will run a very high fever tonight. I know it in my bones. I can see that his body is already trying to reject the ink embedded in his skin. He disagrees, of course, but his swollen batek betrays him.
As for me, I am a little guilty that my batek is way smaller than his. Still, I feel a sense of accomplishment. We have been marked by Whang Od, the last tattoo artist of Kalinga, a fitting way to celebrate nine happy years together.
From afar I can see the mist creeping over the mountaintops. Rain is coming. But the villagers seem oblivious. There’s still that wedding celebration to think about. Already, the sound system is blaring music again. Thankfully, it’s not Gang Nam Style. At least not yet. Rain or shine, the Botbot Tribe will celebrate again tonight. And having been marked by Whang Od, we were invited to be part of the tribe, if only for one night.
Previously: Buscalan: A Warm Welcome
More Readings: Kalinga Tattoo Gone Wrong