Whang-od | Ode of Thorns and Ink
Just like the rest of the children of the Butbut tribe in Kalinga, she played on the rice paddies and picked flowers on the meadows. Growing up as mountain lass, she planted and pounded rice, helped graze the cattle and feed the swine. She too, fell in love and got wounded by it.
Meet Apo Whang-od
Apo Whang-od belongs to a family of mambabatok, the tribe’s esteemed tattoo artists who were offered rice and water buffalos for indelible marks of bravery, beauty or fertility. She received her first tattoo at the age of 15 from Whag-ay, a famous mambabatok from another Kalinga village known as Ngibat. But it was Apo Whang-od’s father who taught her the art and skill of batek at 18. Today, Apo Whang-od is 95 years old and holds the highest recognition of being the only surviving master of traditional Kalinga batek.
Into the Batek Trance
Kalinga tattoo uses the backhand tap method in breaking the skin. A large citrus thorn called siit is attached to a piece of bamboo and tapped into the skin by a stick. The thorn runs through the stenciled design from a thin blade of dried grass. It bleeds the skin until the ink from the soot of burned pinewood gets into its desired lucidity.
Just like any other tattoos, the process is bloody and stingingly painful. But it is the rhythm of the tapping sticks that induces natural anesthesia as Apo Whang-od brings you into the trance of the Kalinga tattoo.
Protection, Fertility and Love
Apo Whang-od’s body is a full canvass of her tribe’s story. But on her right wrist is a special space reserved for the man she loved and lost to an accident when she was only 25. She never looked for someone else since. Her arms, back and chest exhibit beautiful and complex folkloric decorations of her rite of passage, protection, guidance and other magical elements.
Beauty, Humor and Temper
She stands in a slender frame but her toned body speaks otherwise of her age. Even with the inevitable wrinkles, the contours of her face show a pretty highlander lady. Whang-od loves to chitchat and her toothless chuckles are contagious. But whenever she is not in the mood, she really gets grumpy and even calls off any scheduled tattoo.
Defiance and Fame
The Kalingas are known to be the only group of people in the Cordilleras who never surrendered to colonization. But as the leaves withered in time, some of its tattoo traditions dissipated into the realities of modernity. In the past, tattoos were earned as a coat of arms and decorative lures reserved for the members of the Botbot tribe. Today, Apo Whang-od defied the tradition by tattooing even non-Kalinga visitors using their indigenous designs except for the bikking, which is only marked on tribal warriors.
Apo Whang-od and the elders of Buscalan have opened their elusive village to persevering visitors. Their once contempt for strangers has turned into an incomparable hospitality. With careful unwrapping of guarded and time-honored tradition, the fierce image of the Kalingas has slowly changed through the art form that has been kept away from the world for centuries.
No one knew about Buscalan and Whang-od not until in the last decade when Lars Krutak, Discovery Channel’s The Tattoo Hunter exposed her in a documentary. Everyone followed his long trail to Buscalan to meet the woman behind a tradition that is feared to end in her hands. Whang-od is a celebrity, not only in the world of indigenous tattoo but also in the entire Philippine cultural realm.
More than the blood that dripped on my back, my heart bled when Whang-od said, “I received you like the rest of the tourists because I am poor and tattooing is my only livelihood. I am guilty to my ancestors but in this day I cannot exchange food and medicine with my services as a tattoo artist. The hell you lowlanders care about how good I am in my craft.” It was the most painful moment that all I could do was to grasp her hand and never said a word.
It is a race against time and opportunity. This is the reason why people seek her out. She is 95 and no one knows her fate. Everyone rushes to Buscalan to meet a living legend, to get inked and be part of history. Some just goes to get her photographs and watch her work.
Accepting the blurry fate of its tradition, Apo Whang-od is training her sister’s granddaughter Grace to be her successor. Today, Apo Whang-od remains to be the last mambabatok as Grace’s future in continuing the tradition is yet undetermined. Many have come to document her works but only a few were shared with the techniques. In the Philippines, Jonathan Cena and life partner Jean of Katribu Tatu are the only ones in the mainstream tattoo industry doing the hand-tap method in Manila.
Recognition Nowhere in Sight
Both local and foreign media companies have released many documentaries about Apo Whang-od over the past 10 years. Social and cultural anthropologists study her works closely and these are the only valid links everyone could get in the outside world. But it is the social media that really catapulted her to instant fame. Despite all of these, a fitting national recognition is not yet conferred, as more studies are needed to validate how her works have panned and how it will be sustained.
I left Buscalan fulfilled and inked by the master. Whoever goes back to earth first between us, I know we are both part of each other’s history. I kissed her hand as I bade her goodbye. Apo Whang-od poked my belly and said, “Pono-ponor (fat guy), bring me a soft bread when you come back!”