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Kalinga Tattoo | Death by Mass Tourism

Kalinga tattoo was once feared to die in the hands of Apo Whang-od, its last grandmaster, who at 100 still inks with folk precision.

kalinga tattoo

Tossed by social media, her unprecedented fame created a newfound appreciation of a unique traditional art. It midwifed cultural tourism in Kalinga & bred pilgrims seeking for bold art & a different kind of adventure.

Fueled by curiosity & the uncertainty of seeing her alive, everyone rushed to her secluded mountaintop village that was once for centuries guarded by its tribal warriors.

kalinga tattoo

Yes, it poked a new sense of national cultural consciousness. It may even be saving an artform from oblivion. It created jobs & brought Kalinga into the travel warriors’ maps.

But all these do not come without a price. Buscalan is slowly crumbling into death & so are its culture, nature & probably even Whang-od.

Is mass tourism killing the art of Kalinga tattoo?

kalinga tattoo

Don’t feel cheated if you’re not anymore getting a genuine experience when you go up to Buscalan today because we had it all coming. In such a short time, we have turned this place from being tranquil & pretty into Disney-like madness.

I say “we” because I am part of those who commoditized its cultural mystique. I have written so much about her—her people, place, skin art & even lovelife.

Three years ago, life there was very simple. Only a few owned electonics. Entertainment was all about listening to the radio or chitchat around over a cup of coffee.

At night, everyone would gather around a bonfire, as shots of gin pass around to the faint strums of the guitar or the tongali noseflute.

kalinga tattoo

There were plenty of wide spaces where children played. Tourists were only a handful & we stayed quite longer.

Striking conversations with Apo Whang-od & with other elders were just casual experiences. There were no queues in getting their precious Kalinga tattoo.

All of its authentic simplicity, warmth & joy were what I loved most about Buscalan.

The changes that put its fate into doom

kalinga tattoo

Changes are inevitable. But the transformations that I have seen have gone quickly beyond imagination. And most of it is not developmental but regressive.

Today, all of its trails are guarded & no one could go up without paying P1,000 per day at the very least.

Hiring local guides is good because it helps some people in the community earn a living. But to pay P1,000 per day especially if you’re traveling alone or you just intend to stay inside the village is exorbitant.

Some people have become quite aggressive & opportunistic too. Boys solicit cigarettes & beer. Children ask for money if you can’t give them candies. Some have even become disrespectful by calling you nasty names.

kalinga tattoo

Heaps of trash is everywhere & its repulsive stench is undeniable. The truth is, there’s not even a toilet in every home & they just dump it on the bushes. Jealousy over who’s to guide who & who’s to accommodate who also hover around.

On weekends & long holidays, many people ant around the tiny village making it chaotic & noisy. Breathing spaces are gone too as more homes have been built to accommodate the tourists. Many old people turned into indifference & just hide away from everyone.

Some tribesmen have been tattooed on by outsider artists using machine & designs that are not even Kalinga. For an indigenous community whose character is defined by its skin canvasses, isn’t it a desecration of identity?

Most notably, Apo shows signs of exhaustion. She is grumpy & calls off sessions more often. She constantly complains of headache & backpain.

Why are these changes happening rapidly?

kalinga tattoo

Irresponsible tourism is the culprit in accelerating the destruction of Buscalan. The massive commodification of traditional Kalinga tattoo altered the indigenous culture of the Butbut.

Foremost, this is driven by overcapacity & made even tighter by bandwagon jumpers who outnumber the real aficionados of tattoo & indigenous culture.

And the more tourists there are, the more garbage is left in the mountain. They just slingshot it on the gorges around & don’t even bother to bring it down.

Buscalan used to practice natural composting. But today, the volume of trash is too much to handle for a small community with very little resources & knowledge in modern-day waste disposal.

Then there are the tourists who gives up very little of our city-dwelling practices. Instead of us immersing in mountain living, the Kalingas are the ones adjusting to our whims.

Organic food has been replaced with instant noodles & canned goods. Pop music has muted the sounds of the tongali & gangsa. Western medicine is favored over traditional healing.

We have brought so much of our city lifestyles that unconsciously are changing the indigenous people’s once simple ways of living.

The volatile demand is way too heavy for Buscalan to serve its tourists. They don’t have easy means to scale up its infrastructure. Most importantly they have a fragile culture that is challenged by mass tourism.

Who are to take action?

kalinga tattoo

More than anyone else, it should be the Butbut community who must guard its treasures. As it is today, they are blinded by the streaks of cash that flows in the village.

I remember back in 2013, I had a chat with Apo Whang-od’s relative who happened to be a community official. He was very concerned about opening their village to outsiders for fears of compromising their homeland & culture.

Sadly, all his apprehensions are happening now—fast, stinky & painful.

Its local tourism authorities must develop sustainable plans to keep their cultural heritage. Collecting hefty fees alone is not regulating anything to safeguard its beautiful rarities.

This village is destroyed & the local authorities that should help them in addressing the issues of environmental desecration are nowhere in sight.

Most importantly, tourists must do its share. Let us behave in accordance to the tenets of responsible tourism. If we cannot commit to do this then let us not even try to go there.

I have witnessed some real concerned people doing laudable acts of saving their folk identity. I hope many would do the same because the least we don’t want to happen is for Buscalan to close its trails once more to us like they did in its ancient past.

kalinga tattoo

We are racing against time to meet the legend. We even clamored for national recognition of her ethnic skin art. But are we really salvaging their uniqueness?

Honestly, I am even beginning to question myself, “do I truly deserve to receive the Kalinga tattoo or is it just all about aesthetics & that I am in a false belief that I am helping save a dying art?”


Do you have any bad experience in Buscalan? Share it with us on the comment box below.


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    Comments ( 3 )

  • Very good point. I wondered about the same issues. We spent 4 days in Buscalan last spring and really enjoyed it, I do wear my tattoo proudly and it feels special, given its origin. Tourism destroys cultural identity in general, I have no doubt about that. It transforms people into arena performers in many instances and I see no positives in that change but unfortunate cultural demise. Now, what can we do about it? I’m not sure, I’m a tourist myself. As I try to be respectful and low key, I know I bring change and contribute to the cultural destruction in some way. Globalism is unavoidable.
    Well written piece!

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