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Why Whang-od for National Artist a Misguided Campaign

Screengrab from Loughrenz Aidwourd

Screengrab from Loughrenz Aidwourd

As Twitter explodes in hashtag wars between #Aldub and #PastillasGirl, another clamor is circulating on Facebook to make Apo Whang-od a national artist. This time, it’s not about who makes the giddiest entertainment but about someone pushed to be recognized in the Order of National Artists.

Like wildfire, the online movement started by Edward Laurence Opena is now one of the hottest items on Philippine cyberspace. It even landed a spot on Rappler with a title “Viral: Declare Known Igorot Tattooer a National Artist”. This also spiked the eyebrows of many readers by calling her Igorot, that when taken in some social context is a cultural slur.

Apo Whang-od for National Artist is a misguided campaign for rank & title.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

Netizens are pushing for the wrong category of award for Apo Whang-od Oggay, the 97-year old traditional tattoo artist from Kalinga. A more fitting recognition is Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan or the National Living Treasures. It is equal in rank with the National Artist under the Honors Code of the Philippines.

To recognize the supreme traditional artists in the Philippines, the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA) was institutionalized through Republic Act 7355 in April 1992. It is governed by the National Commission for Culture & the Arts, the chief policy-making body of arts & culture in the country.


Apo Whang-od, believed to be the last keeper of traditional Kalinga tattoo called “batek/batok” rightfully belongs to this category. Her artworks, using distinctive medium & original technique are representations of a cultural treasure that is uniquely Kalinga.

Through her time-honored folk art, she has tapped into their skins & in the consciousness of many Filipinos their indigenous identity. Most importantly, she is a figure that leads her community into an aspirational direction.

Know more about Apo Whang-od here.


Where is This All Coming From?

Even before the online movement “Whang-od for National Artist” first hit Facebook, there was already a call for a documentary photo shoot. This was to gather the people who have received a tattoo from her.

What poked the interest of the netizens is her story. She, being an indigenous artist from a least known community engaged in a unique tattoo art. Interestingly, she’s close to 100 years old & feared that the tradition will die in her hands.

Unlike common stories of poverty & corruption that make rounds on the internet, this is a novelty cause. It is the first time that an indigenous artist is pushed for a national recognition of this magnitude.

How to Get to Buscalan? Read here.


Why is it a Misguided Campaign?

This tells us one thing—most of us only know about the National Artist award. To the uninitiated, there is only one national recognition for artists of this kind. This also teaches us that something needs to be done to create awareness of the other Honors Code of the Philippines.

In subsequent stories from Rappler, it was corrected that GAMABA is a more appropriate award. It also earned the support of Sen. Miriam Santiago by filing Senate Resolution 1602, including Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa, a traditional dance advocate.

Photo credits:

Photo credits:

What Makes a National Artist?

The heaviest weights in becoming a national artist are (1) artists who have pioneered in a mode of creative expression, thus earning distinction & making an impact on succeeding generations of artists; and (2) artists who have created significant & substantial body of work and/or consistently displayed excellence in the practice of their art form thus enriching artistic expression or style. (Source:

Apo Whang-od is neither a pioneer of batek/batok nor her works have created broadscale impact on Philippine art to promote a sense of national cultural identity.


What Makes Apo Whang-od a National Living Treasure?

According to the guidelines of the NCCA, a nominee must qualify on the following criteria:

He/she is an inhabitant of an indigenous/traditional cultural community anywhere in the Philippines that has preserved indigenous customs, beliefs, rituals and traditions and/or has syncretized whatever external elements that have influenced it.

Whang-od is a true-blooded Kalinga from Buscalan in the Municipality of Tinglayan. Due to their seclusion, many of its customs have been kept to this day. This includes the art of “batek/batok”.

Meet the Butbut Kalinga here.

He/she must have engaged in a folk art tradition that has been in existence and documented for at least fifty (50) years.

Batek/batok is an age-old Kalinga tradition. According to researches & the stories of the people in her community, tattooing has been a practice since the time of their ancestors.

Since they were once elusive to lowlanders, there are not too many researches that would define more about this traditional art. But there are still living proofs of the existence of this skin art as shown in the bodies of its elders & the oral traditions of its people.

He/she must have consistently performed or produced over a significant period, works of superior and distinctive quality.

She is on warriors’ chests, mothers’ arms or boys’ backs. But no one really knows how many skins she had already inked. These are marks of bravery, beauty, fertility & protection that express their unique cultural identity.

The imageries are representations of their natural surrounding, their deep animistic beliefs & its supernatural powers. Their tattoos are characterized by embossed solid black outlines resulting from deep direct piercing on the skin.

He/she must possess a mastery of tools and materials needed by the art, and must have an established reputation in the art as master and maker of works of extraordinary technical quality.

It is a complex style of backhand tap to control the force & movement of the piercing. It uses pomelo thorn needle & the soot from a burned pinewood as ink. Unlike other cultural styles like hand-poking & scarring, this technique is unique to the Kalingas.

Apo Whang-od is the only living Kalinga traditional tattoo master bestowed with the honorable tribal title “mambabatok”.

He/she must have passed on and/or will pass on to other members of the community their skills in the folk art for which the community is traditionally known.

Apo Whang-od is training her great grand daughters, Grace Palicas & Ilyang Wigan. They are the hopeful bloodline successors but the lures of the big city life are also challenging their will to continue the tradition.

Read about Grace Palicas here.

What’s in it for Apo Whang-od?

If she is honored, Apo will receive a specially designed gold medallion, a grant of P100,000 & a monthly stipend of P10,000 for life. It may also be increased as the circumstances warrant & a cumulative P750,000 medical & hospitalization benefits annually similar to the awardees of the National Artists. Funeral & tribute fit for a national treasure will also be administered. (Source:


How Netizens React & How it Reflects Our Understanding of Things

The way it went viral speaks of our “sympathetic” nature. Even those who have very little understanding of this movement jumped into the bandwagon just for the sake of reposting. Does this cyberculture demonstrates how our cultural interactions are changing? Does it express that what we do virtually isn’t what we sincerely feel in the real offline world?

Whatever it is, social media created a huge impact in creating the fire. Digital force as we call it.


Apo Whang-od was the first artist who made an indelible mark on my skin. I am proud to be inked by the master. I am humbled that even if I am not Kalinga, she received me in her community. She embodies the Kalingas’ web of cultural mystique that we as lowlanders are beginning to appreciate.

We want to be active, we want to be counted. Let us help our cultural experts to make this happen. Apo Whang-od for Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan!


Check out this video of the NCCA on GAMABA

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