If there could be one person who could be the best represent the rich culture of Kalinga, a province located in the far north of the Philippines, it is none other than Apo Whang Od, the oldest Filipino tribal artist. She is one of the Kalinga’s pride who put Kalinga on the Philippine map. As a matter of fact, many people brave the cold weather, 12-hour landtrip by bus from Manila to Bontoc, 2- hour landtrip by jeepney from Bontoc to Kalinga, trekking in the high mountains just to be inked by her and to explore the beauty of Kalinga.
As a teenager of the modern era, tattoo has been one of the hype of some adult to express art, memory and message. In my case, I never did appreciate tattoo until I personally meet Apo Whang Od. Before meeting her, I’ve done my research who she is. Whang Od Oggay is known as the last mambabatok (Kalinga tattoist) from the tribe of Butbut in Buscalan, Kalinga. She has been tattooing for the past 80 years including head hunters of the indigenous tribe at the beginning of her long career.
Those head hunters were the warriors of their tribe who were willing to protect their villagers. For them, tattoo is a symbol of bravery and courage. She also inked the women of the tribe since its a sign of beauty and elegance. Apo Whang Od is a living proof of the tribes “batok” (hand trapping) culture.
I once had the chance to personally meet her in one of my travels. And it was indeed a priceless experience. Preparing and conditioning myself for the long travel was not easy since Buscalan is really far from my hometown. My journey starts when I first took a plane going to Manila to meet my company there. After the busy Airport land transactions, we then proceed to take a bus and jeepney going to Barangay Buscalan. The trek there can be considered as an initiation already. The uphill and downhill climb to the small village of butbut, Kalinga tribe take an average of 1-1.5 hour/s depending on one’s pace. It took us exactly 1 hour with 3 very brief stops to rest and to catch our breaths.
When we are almost into our destinations, I can see from above the mountains , the rich rice fields and farms of Kalinga. I also witnessed some locals on their daily activities. It was a rewarding experience to witness and experience their local culture tradition. The smiles and welcoming hospitality I got from the children and locals were so heart warming. I didn’t mind giving back my smile to them.After the short encounter with the locals, we then proceed to the registration area. We were asked to pay for the environmental fee of 75 pesos per head, the date and time of arrival and the number of people to have a tattoo in our group written on a piece of paper. We aren’t the first people to arrived there and there were already foreigners waiting to be tattooed traditionally. We waited patiently there to be accomodated and when the name of my friend was called, he then decided to select one of Apo Whang Od designs in the village. Apo Whang Od first picked a sharp thorn from a lemon tree and placed it carefully with another stick. When she felt that they were both ready, she then started to gently tap expertly the thorn. I had seen how the thorn was punctured in the skin forcing the charcoal five times in five seconds. The musical noise of the little bamboo hammer drifted across the village. I had seen my friend feel a little pained with the prick. Tiny droplets of blood decorated his arm as slowly but surely, the design came to life in his flesh. Apo Whang Od only gave him the three dots as her tattoo signature since she needed to visit someone. That’s why her great grand daughter were the one who tattooed my friend. My friend tattoo is a compass which means “a safe travel and a right direction in life”.
Getting inked by Whang Od or by the “mambabatok” in Buscalan indeed takes courage as the session can be painful, depending on our body/pain tolerance. As a sign of courtesy, visitors are also encouraged to bring in some offerings like food, medicine and matches which are essential for their day to day existence. After my short visit there, I’ve realized the value and art of tattoos for others as well as the legal art of Apo Whang Od. And Im actually planning to go back there to have my first tattoo and to explore the beauty of Kalinga for the second time around.