In the last five years or so, the last living Kalinga tattoo artist of her generation, Apo Whang Od, has received so much attention both in the Philippines and the rest of the world.
Her village is now a seeming pilgrimage site with tourists scaling its mountainous terrain in the hopes of receiving her three dots–the only tattoo she can give these days because of her health and failing eyesight.
Indeed, Whang Od has become a rockstar of sorts, the poster girl of a thousand-year-old art form that was almost on the brink of extinction. But visit Buscalan and you’ll realize that Whang Od is only one of the many who represent a bygone era.
A handful of tattooed men and women of Whang Od’s generation still live in Buscalan.
The men were warriors whose bravery was rewarded with the bikking, the traditional chest tattoo reserved only for the most valiant. To this day, tales of their headhunting exploits particularly during World War II are still talked about with a mix of awe and pride.
The women, however, earned their body art as a rite of passage. Most of them, like Whang Od, received their tattoos during puberty.
“Most of the women wear full sleeves, their arms wrapped in the traditional batek that took several days to complete.
Most of the women wear full sleeves, their arms wrapped in the traditional batek that took several days to complete.
One can only imagine the pain these women—young girls then—had to endure. It is said that they even had to work the rice fields immediately after each session.
Women of Support
Today, the tattoed women are never far from Whang Od’s side. They help her with the cooking and other household chores while she continues her important work of preserving their tribe’s tradition.
There’s no denying how instrumental Whang Od was to the revival of her dying art. But credit should also go to her sister Gannao and the community of tattoed women around her.
The night before I received my tattoo from Apo Whang Od, I attempted to offer her a drink.
We were staying in her home in Buscalan. It rained that afternoon and by dusk, the temperature dropped so low that it became the perfect excuse to open the bottle of wine my husband had carried in his backpack all the way from Manila.
We were seated in front of the fire that Gannao made. The other tattoed women had joined us. I poured myself a drink and passed the bottle to Whang Od. She refused the offer, saying it was bad luck to consume alcohol before tattooing people the next day. So the bottle was passed on to the other women who gladly helped themselves.
For the rest of the night, we stared at the fire and listened to the crackling of the burning wood. I eavesdropped on the women as they chatted, savoring words I did not understand. The flames illuminated their smiling faces. In the dark, their tattooed skin glistened, making them look like young girls once again.
Read more about Whang Od here: