100-year-old Apo Whang Od is most likely the oldest tattoo artist in the world. A living legend in the Philippines, she has mastered the indigenous inking art of the batok and is a fascinating testament to the culture of the butbut people in Northern Luzon. I have wanted to visit her for a long time, and so I did.
I have always been very fascinated by the traditional art form of tattoos and its cultural and aesthetical significance to native tribes. It was one of my most spiritual encounters when I got inked in Polynesia while visiting @vicuna on his temporary island. My fascination and admiration continues to grow and I constantly want to know more about the mystical world of skin paintings.
One day I had seen a little film about a majestic lady in the Philippines, who still masters the traditional art of the batok, indigenous tattoo patterns, hand-tapped under the skin. Her name is Apo Whang Od. She is the last mambabatok, the title given to traditional Kalinga tattooists a thousand years. Apo is a Tagalog term for ''master'' and she is also referred to as Whang-Od Oggay.
When I was visiting the north of Northern Luzon this spring I had it on my list, way up high, to see her. I talked with tourist guides, that I befriended, in my mountain-hostel in Banaue. They called up people involved with Whang Od's village and checked, if she is healthy and ready to welcome visitors, and she was. It was settled to meet someone on the road to take me there. It’s obligatory, that a guide takes you the last few hundred meters to the village and takes care of you there. It’s a way to control, who is coming and also helps to keep the local folks in the economic chain.
Apo Whang Od lives in Buscalan, a remote village of the butbut people way up in the north of the Kalinga Mountains. It is a rough four-hour car ride from Banaue or 15 hours from Manila, going over hills and valleys to reach Whang Od's home. So it’s favorable to have a group paying for the gas and rental of car and driver. I was lucky to meet Colin and Scarlet, two great Canadians, who joined me for the exploration. But there are risks involved, like if Apo falls sick, or the car breaks down or the streets are washed away by heavy rain –you agree to a deal, that might be shortcoming.
I never really intended to get a tattoo from her, I just wanted to dive into the culture of her village and the way she does things. But I also heard in Banaue, that some have been lucky enough to receive her signature. Three tattooed dots, that indicate, you belong to a tribe of people, who met with Whang Od-Oggay. So I was contemplating about getting some body part of mine signed by her.
Just before we reached the village a cool old guy with a goatee drove towards us on the back of a motorcycle. He stopped us, chatted with our driver and jumped into the car. It was Rudi, the younger brother of Apo Whang Od. And this rustic 68 years old became our guide, which I liked a lot because he was quite the model.
Eventually we got out of our car and climbed steep stairways towards Buscalan for 20 minutes. After that, we stopped at a little hut, which was a sort of a tourist office. You pay a little tax to pass by, sign your name into a magical big book and express your desire. When I said, I want to explore the village culture and take photos of Apo Whang Od, they didn’t really understand. ''So you go in, take a photo of her and then you are off on the road again?'' they said. But I replied ''No, I want to spend some hours really exploring your village.'' I think, eventually everybody came around to like the idea because I really was curious about all their lives, not only Apo Whang Od.
After that, we walked straight to business. Apo Whang Od was squatting on the edge of the village close to the cliff going down the valley. She was wearing a warm corduroy jacket and polka dotted pants, busy inking a Westerner, who was also squatting on a little seat. Her face seemed familiar right away and she was all zen and doing her thing. The area was in a roofed alley, protected from sun and rain. And alongside it was a little waiting area with benches. The improvised tattoo studio looked legit and I was really excited to be there among all of them. In the waiting area were a few Westerners and local folks.
Whang-Od Oggay started at the age of fifteen to tattoo the warriors of her village. You earned your right for a tattoo once you killed an enemy. The fighting has long since ceased. Now, she is the cultural ambassador for a dying art form. Rudi told me, that she works from around eight in the morning until noon and manages roughly eight tattoos a day. It is smartest to arrive the night before you want to get your tattoo in the next morning.
The first one I saw she was inking was a brave Canadian. He had his left shoulder hammered for the past week and it looked painful and beautiful at the same time. His lower arm was totally swollen, don’t kid yourself, this is terror to your body. But he was very smart because you have to manage her not the other way around. Especially for larger pieces, she needs more time and patience, after all, she is a century old. If not, her lines are not precise.
The Kalinga tattoo art of the batok is a very archaic procedure. The utensils are two little bamboo sticks of the same size. One of them has a wooden calamansi or pomelo thorn on its very top. The ink is made from charcoal and water.
Rudi took me to one little kitchen hut to show me the process. They were basically scratching charcoal from the shell of a burned boiling pot and then mixing it with ordinary water – that’s it.
Apo Whang Od then takes thin lines of bamboo skin, dips it into the ink and pre-draws her motif onto the skin. After that, she dips the thorn into the ink and uses the other bamboo stick to hammer the former under the skin. She repeats this process until she is happy with the result. The prices for her time differ, from 100 Pesos (two Euros) for her signature up to a few thousand Pesos. But it is all quite cheap, especially considering the unique experience.
Only the women of one family inherit the art of tattooing in the Kalinga region. She thinks if the batok is done from someone outside the bloodline the tattoo will get infected. I think with the international exposure Whang Od Oggay is receiving, plus the money she is earning, the respect for her grew immensely among the men in the area. Rudi said, that there is little other income for the village and I am very curious, how the money is spread and spent. Apo Whang Od definitely is the most important figure in her village.
I asked Rudi to take me around the village and it was pretty fun. The traditional houses are built on stilts and are compact and cozy. Pigs and chicken run around in between the houses. Old and new materials are mixed in the architecture. Nowadays it becomes popular to use a robust corrugated iron roof instead of natural material because they are light and durable.
There is a little house for people staying over and I really liked the basketball field next to the rice terraces. The rice harvest is for the personal use of the villagers. Other than that, it is quite an archaic structure. There's carpenters, farmers, shop owners and ... tattoo artists.
Whang Od-Oggay was never married and has no kids, but her family is big. She turned hundred in February 2017 and is now training her grandniece Grace Palicas, Rudi's granddaughter, to step into her big shoes. And while I was in Buscalan she was in charge of half the tattoos. I was glad to be able to shoot the family portrait.
I read that in the Kalinga area it is favorable to bring presents if you are visiting. I brought a few packs of German gummi bears and because of the high age of Whang Od, you don’t need teeth to suckle on them. And finally, just before noon, it was my time to meet her and give over the presents I have brought with me. Of course, Apo Whang Od noticed me before, because of my strange cameras and the shots I had taken. I explained through Rudi, that I appreciate her art and that I was happy to spend time in her village.
Then I decided that I really did want her signature on my left lower arm and she gently painted three dots below my elbow. She then dipped the thorn into the ink-bowl and hammered it with force under my skin. It is a different kind of pain, compared to a machine and it hurts like a bitch! It was before lunch, so she was eager to get something to eat. It was a wonderful experience. Within minutes I was initiated into a thousand-year-old tradition.
And before she wandered off to her meal I asked her for some portraits. I knew, that I had to be quick, so I looked for a bright spot close by. But then I realized, that my film in the LC-A 120 wasn’t properly loaded. So I placed her in the shadow and asked for her patience. I wandered off in a nearby kitchen behind a curtain, so focused on film and camera that I didn’t realize I wasn’t alone. After ten seconds a dish fell down with a big bang and a rooster, who had rested in the shade flew hastily away from the counter. No time to be wasted, after five or six attempts I got the film right.
Anyway, it worked and I could finish my portraits, as fast as I always do. And it was a wrap. I was full of adrenaline. Not only from the tattoo session, the anxiety of the hazardous portrait-session, but also from the overall captivation of the little adventure. Apo Whang Od sometimes falls sick, but I think making tattoos gives her purpose in life. I hope she will manage her strength well and continue to make beautiful hand-tapped tattoos. The art of the batok is believed to be a thousand years old, she is part of that history for eighty-five years and for many years to come as the last mambabatok.