The Redeemers of Traditional Hand-Tapped Tattoo in the Philippines
The complex dynamics of modern society has made our indigenous people to inevitably open their villages to outsiders to create a new stream of livelihood in tourism. Such is the case of Buscalan in Kalinga, Philippines where “tattoo tourism” is gaining momentary traction among enthusiasts, young scholars and curious travelers.
Enduring a 16-hour trip is nothing to persevering tourists who wish to meet Whang-od, the master of Kalinga traditional tattoo. She is the oldest and only living authentic mambabatok (tattooist), at least in this category of traditional art and honorary title. She is the reason for coming and nothing else.
Now at 95, everyone fears that this tradition will finally meet its sad end in her hands. The disappearance of true tribal warriors who are bestowed with indelible marks of bravery, the new generation’s changing concepts of beauty and the complex acculturation into mainstream lowland communities have turned the art of batek into a looming cultural crisis.
The various documentaries on Whang-od’s story have ignited the interests of many skin art aficionados to be inked by the living legend. The sudden influx of tourists over the last few years has created a whole new tourism ecosystem within the Kalinga-Mountain Province route. This also brought traditional tattoo into a different dimension of appreciation. While most believe that batek will die with Whang-od, she has actually shared this technique to some deserving artists whom she believes will carry on the tradition when time and fate calls her eventual surrender.
Meet the disciples of batek as they stand in the line to continue this time-honored tradition and become masters themselves in the world where they perform this trancic ritual.
Eighteen year-old Grace is the granddaughter of Apo Whang-od’s sister. She is a true-blooded Kalinga and rightfully within the bloodline of the Butbut mambabatok. Decorated on her living skin are the marks of her rites of passage and elements representing guidance and protection. She did her first tattoo at the age of 10 and currently stands as the master’s apprentice.
Grace certainly feels the pressure of becoming the next mambabatok. It is in the Kalinga tradition that the last keeper must only bequeath the skill and title to the rightful kin with the guidance of the living community elders and even of their deceased ancestors. This is Grace’s fate.
But will a pretty teenager who has tried to live in the city choose to settle back for good in the mountains? Will she not be lured by the glitz of mainstream tattoo industry where she starred in various national tattoo expositions? If she falls in love with an outsider, will she abandon Buscalan? Today, Grace is drawing a faint stencil of her eroding traditions and the bigger truth that lies below their mountains.
Life partners Jonathan Cena and Jean Sioson make up what is known in Manila as Katribu Tatu. They are the only practitioners of Kalinga backhand tap technique in the big city. Katribu Tatu has earned for its name numerous participations and awards in national tattoo competitions.
Since pomelo thorns and soot from burned pinewood are not ready available materials in Manila, they have adopted the contemporary needles and ink but using the same hand tapping method. Using these modern tools make finer details on any design achievable. It also gives a more polished finish.
Tantan, as his contemporaries know him originally hails from Davao. He started with machine-made tattoos in Boracay and later on moved to Pasig where Jean is from. While Katribu Tatu does machine inking, their clientele for hand-tapped tattoos are also growing. They are also serious music artists adopting indigenous instruments into contemporary world music genre.
Getting My First Tattoo
I grew up in a family where having a tattoo is equated to exposing a deviant personality. But this stereotype concept is slowly changing as we all evolve in greater cultural understandings. Now at 38 and a diabetic, I still pursued my dream of getting inked.
Apo Whang-od and Grace took turns in marking me the word MALAYA or free in ancient Filipino script called Baybayin. Up in Buscalan, I also met Clemens Fleig of Tinten Specht, a visiting German tattoo artist who also shared a small space on my back using the traditional Thai Sakyant or bamboo-piercing method. Weeks later, Katribu Tatu started my 2-month project to complete a big and solid hand-tapped tattoo on my back.
Many were displeased of me having a tattoo and everytime I am asked Why, I keep them silent with a reply, “This is my body and I was born with it like a blank canvass. These are not merely drawings on my skin but memories of my experiences in this lifetime. And these are not meant for you to appreciate, I do not need that. It is a personal choice and it is my story.”
This is a continuing project to meet contemporary artists doing the hand-tapped or hand-poked tattooing methods. This story will be updated as soon as I find them.
Special mention to Agit Sustento, a young gem in the traditional hand-poke tattoo who was sadly lost to typhoon Yolanda.
Meet Apo Whang-od here.
How to Get to Buscalan? Find your way here.
Who are the Butbut Tribe? Learn about them here.