The village of Buscalan is home to Whang Od Oggay, a centenarian tattoo artist (mambabatok) and last of the traditional Kalinga tattooists, as well as a major cause for tourism in the area. First brought to international attention in 2009 after anthropologist Lars Krutek’s 2007 journey to Buscalan was aired on Discovery Channel’s Tattoo Hunter, Whang Od’s popularity has grown rapidly over the last decade, thanks to news coverage, blog posts, and countless travel vlogs.
Whang Od recalls the days when Kalinga tattoo culture revolved around two things: enhancing the beauty of its women and showcasing the proud and dark personal histories of its male warriors. To understand the amazing cultural and historical significance surrounding Whang Od’s experiences, and her journey into the contemporary, it’s important to take a step back and consider the unique history of the region within the context of centuries of warfare and attempted occupation.
The Kalinga: Fearsome warriors and fading traditions
The Philippines is an archipelago with well over 7,000 islands. The history of its human occupation can be traced back roughly 700,000 years, to pre-human times, when our hominid predecessors had already begun traveling the world far beyond our ancestral cradle in Africa. Little is known about the early history of the Philippines, except for evidence and potential evidence of trade involving gold and other riches dating as far back as 900 B.C., with trading partners including India, China, Arabia, Japan, and surrounding neighbors in Southeast Asia.
Europe’s involvement in Filipino history began in 1521, when Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed on the shores of an island in Eastern Samar. After being led to meet Rajah Humabon, the king of what would later become modern-day Cebu. Humabon himself was explicitly tattooed, and early contact with Filipinos led the Spanish to initially name the locals of the Visayas, where they arrived, as the Pintados, or ‘painted ones’. Shortly after establishing a reportedly amiable relationship with the Rajah, Magellan found himself opposed by a nearby Datu, or chieftain, who disobeyed his order to pledge fealty to the foreign crown of Spain.
After a failed attempt at diplomacy, Magellan engaged the Datu, named Lapu-Lapu, and died on the shores of the island of Mactan, while the surviving Spanish were driven out of the Philippines after Humabon allegedly betrayed them and poisoned their remaining leadership. The event led to repeated attempts over the next four decades to expand Spanish control over the region, eventually leading to the colonialization of the Philippines under Spanish rule, which would last over three centuries. After Spanish rule, the Philippines were subjugated once more under the Americans, who later helped them fend off an invasion by the Japanese during the Second World War.
Yet throughout those centuries, several regions in the Philippines provided the Spanish and other would-be colonists with significant and lasting resistance, especially far in the North, among the mountainous regions of the Cordilleras, and in the South, among the Moro people of Mindanao. The Cordillera region included the ethnolinguistic cultures of the Kalinga, the Bontoc, the Ibaloi, the Kankanaey, the Apayao, and the Ifugao. While much of the Philippines to this day feels the effects of Spanish rule on its culture, cuisine, and language, over 120 different languages and dialects persist in the archipelago, with 12 languages accounting for roughly 90 percent of the population, and cultures like the Kalinga have preserved different aspects of their culture such as their dances, songs, languages, and tattoos.
But Kalinga tattoos are more than just a mark of beauty, or a tradition for one’s coming of age. Among the Kalinga, who have their name due to a reputation for headhunting, a man’s tattoos are a badge of honor marking his skill and accomplishment in combat. The more heads a man collects while protecting the land of his kin, the more elaborate the tattoos become. These tattoos marked the Kalinga as both fearsome and reputable, and many knew well to stay away from them.
Among their tattoos, the Kalinga share many other traditions, including the use of their enemies’ jaw bones as handles for traditional gongs. Vengeance was a way of life, with disputes often being settled through mortal combat. While women received tattoos as a rite of passage and a mark of beauty, men engaged in blood feuds. Though these have waned over the years, they haven’t disappeared. Firearms replace swords, and God has replaced the spirits of the dead for some, yet the practice has survived into relative modernity – when Lars Krutek first met tattooist Whang Od in 2007, he was present and filming while she tattooed a local warrior for the vengeful killing of three men during a land dispute.
With the fading of blood feuds and the influence of modernization on the indigenous people of the region, the practice of tattooing warriors for their kills has all but disappeared. Yet Whang Od keeps the tradition of Kalinga art alive, albeit in a more modern fashion.
Who is Whang Od?
Born sometime early in the 20th century, Whang Od is a world-renowned Kalinga tattoo artist of the Butbut people, living in Buscalan, a small and isolated village in the Cordillera mountains. Known as Apo (elder) Whang Od, she is the last practicing traditional mambabatok among the Kalinga people, and she learned the craft from at least four male predecessors, who started teaching her at the age of 15. She had an innate talent for the art and carried on tattooing warriors and women for decades to come.
The traditional mambabatok art can only be passed on through blood. So says Whang Od, who states that it would otherwise be rendered impure. She has two apprentices, both of them close relatives, although she has no children of her own. While Lars Krutek had to be closely scrutinized and vetted by her when he first arrived to document the lives of the Kalinga and receive a sacred tattoo, countless tourists have since come and gone, and Buscalan has turned into a relatively popular tourist destination ever since.
In recognition for a lifetime of dedication to the Kalinga art of tattooing, Whang Od was awarded by the Dangal ng Haraya award by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, one of its highest honors. She is alive and quite well for a woman her age, living in Buscalan, and occasionally traveling the country to visit others or receive honors. While she has been seen tattooing visitors as recently as mid-2019, her vision seems to be fading, and she has stated that she will retire once she cannot see clearly enough to tattoo. Her grandniece Grace Palicas, who has been learning from her for well over a decade, often takes on requests to tattoo traditional Kalinga symbols onto visitors, though Whang Od still bestows those who visit with her three-dot signature.
Whang Od’s tattoos are made with simple tools: a small wooden mallet, and bamboo stick, adorned with a freshly picked and chosen citrus thorn (from a pomelo or calamansi plant). The ink is prepared with water and soot, scrapped from the bottom of cooking pots. Soot is chosen because it is finer than charcoal, and she further crushes the soot until it has a powdery consistency. After mixing the ink, she continuously dips the thorn into a small basin of ink while making her tattoos. Because it’s a stick-and-poke technique, a simple design can take quite some time, and be quite painful. After the process is complete, Whang Od rubs the wound in coconut oil.
Most of the designs she gives visitors are based on a handful of traditional motifs, including a fern, the centipede, daybreak, and an eagle, as well as various geometric shapes. The mark of a warrior, no longer tattooed by her, is a stretch of several long lines across the chest and shoulders, with further details and intricacies the more prestigious a warrior became. Many of the last men who bore (and continue to bear) these designs were warriors who fought under U.S. command in guerilla battles against the Japanese.
CRITICAL: Nearly 10 years have passed since Buscalan has first become a tourist destination, after a long history of countless generations surviving off the incredibly fertile mountain land, which produces a plentiful annual rice harvest, and other vegetables. With Whang Od’s popularity and the near-daily influx of foreign visitors, many in the village have turned to homesteading and souvenirs as a way to make a living. Some resent this shift. If you do visit Buscalan, understand that Whang Od is a senior with the right refuse service to any and all visitors, and that you are not to litter. Among other issues, such as noise, the greatest being reported by locals is the blatant and disrespectful act of littering within the village. Pick up after yourself, minimize your waste, and show your utmost respect, regardless of whether you’re a visiting local or a traveling foreigner.
There are several different tour guides and travel agencies offering a trip to Buscalan, often from the nearby Bontoc. Bontoc is easily reached through Manila or Sagada, although the final leg of the journey to Buscalan is a short hike. It’s an isolated village, with no road or infrastructure linking directly to it.
Tattooing in ancient and contemporary Filipino lives
The practice of tattooing was well-documented and widespread according to surviving European accounts of early contact with the natives of the Visayas. Tattoos were more elaborate the higher one’s status was in society, with nobles often featuring the most extensive and complex works of art. Similarly, the Kalinga were not the only tribe to tattoo themselves, as it was a practice among the Bontok and Ifugao as well.
However, among many cultures in the Philippines, the art of the tattoo has largely fallen into obscurity or has been aggressively persecuted during the centuries of Spanish control, wherein the Philippines was almost wholly converted to Catholicism.
The Moro of Mindanao did not historically have tattoos, mostly because of the centuries-old tradition of Islam in the region. They have fought for autonomy for roughly four centuries, and recent diplomatic attempts to define an autonomous region via democratic vote have failed, due to their status as minorities in many regions of Mindanao after centuries of settlement by other ethnicities and cultures. The region is mired with ongoing tensions, although more recent conflicts have ended.
Today, roughly 80 percent of the population is Catholic, with an additional chunk belonging to various denominations of Christianity. The conversion to Christianity was, among other reasons, one of the reasons why Visayan tattoo art faded. However, there have been several calls for the commemoration and reignition of Filipino tattoo art, especially among the descendants of the Filipino diaspora, and different cultural festivals still celebrate the art.
The art of tattooing is also alive and well in the contemporary Philippines, as in other parts of the world, no doubt in part due to growing interest in tattoos driven by global media and the Internet. There are no laws banning tattoos or tattoo artists, and relatively little discrimination compared to some other nations in Asia. Nevertheless, tattoos are still associated with criminality by some people.
Fascinated? Here is more:
A Recognition for Kalinga Master Tattooist Whang Od
Indelible moments with Whang-od, a living legend
Whang-Od, Batok and the Buscalan Experience
Anger over a 100-year-old tribal artist at a tattoo show
APO WHANG-OD, THE 101-YEAR OLD TATTOO WOMAN OF THE PHILIPPINES
Mambabatok: Tattoo tradition in the Philippines