Apo Whang-Od Turns 100: Immortalizing the Kalinga Tattoo Art

Featured photo by Sherwin Ballesteros

Years passing by have pushed history and rapid change around us to come forth, yet the talent and passion of our country’s eldest tattoo artist (and possibly the last of her kind) remains etched in ink.

Apo Whang-Od celebrated her 100th birthday last February 17. Whang-Od (or Fang-Od) is recognized all over the world for tattooing batek (the term for the traditional Kalinga tattoo art) for more than 80 years, saying she began to fully embrace the art form when she was around 9 or 12. She hails from the small village of Buscalan, Tinglayan in the province of Kalinga, in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR).

She and the rest of the village is visited by hundreds of tourists, local or foreign. On weekdays, there are around 40-60, and roughly 200 are in line to see her on weekends. Before getting to Buscalan, one has to go through at least an hour of treading rough terrain and walking narrow, swirling roads alongside deep ravines.

The manner of making batek remains unfazed over the years that flew by. It involves repeatedly poking of bamboo at a wooden stick with the thorn from a pomelo tree attached and inked with soot, wounding the skin to create a tattoo. It is greatly more painful than modern tattoo methods, and some have even fainted during the process. After all, batek is a symbol of bravery for men (only after they were able to decapitate an enemy) and beauty for women (at their coming of age). Whang-Od’s family paid bundles of rice to get her tattoos done. It took an entire day to finish hers.

Photo from Jorge Fernandez/Alamy

Apo Whang-Od has lived a colorful century of a lifetime. In her younger days, she lost her boyfriend during the Japanese occupation. Since then, she never married nor had any children. An empty space on her right wrist, said the locals, is reserved from tattoos for her beloved.

To this day, she remains strong and well, both physically and mentally. Although she suffered pneumonia around February, she is reported to be in good health again and back to tattooing. During her free times, she feeds her hogs, pounds rice, or rests in solitude away from the tourists.

Whang-Od is said to be the last mambabatek, and she cannot simply teach anybody else, for they believe the tattoo will be infected if somebody from outside the bloodline did it. Although she passed on her art to successors like her grand niece, Grace Palicas and another relative, Ilyang Wigan, their mothers want them to marry lowlanders.

People have pushed to nominate her as National Artist, but she is instead awarded the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan, or National Living Treasure, which is also equivalent in rank to a National Artist. She was also one of the featured artists in the exhibit of Musée du Quai Branly in Paris named “Tattoo: Ritual, identity, obsession, art” at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Canada in April last year.

Every line of ink drawn on skin by the hands of Apo Whang-Od is art, a bona fide relic of a part of our culture, and so is she herself. Her beauty is one that is amaranthine and truly Filipino.

Photo from GMA News Online


Thanks for reading! What do you think? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. 🙂

P.S. If you’re interested, watch the video below for a little more info on Apo Whang-Od.


One thought on “Apo Whang-Od Turns 100: Immortalizing the Kalinga Tattoo Art

  1. References:

    Ballesteros, S. (n.d.) Whang-Od [Online image]. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/u/TvyamNb-BivtNwcoxtkc5xGBuGkIMh_nj4UJHQKuoXI30PLxOs2ifJOOUQkb1STAhYldeIxPmIhvSw/

    Dabu, B. R. (2016, April 5). Legendary ‘mambabatok’ Apo Whang-Od featured in Canada art exhibit. GMA News Online. Retrieved from http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/561546/lifestyle/artandculture/legendary-mambabatok-apo-whang-od-featured-in-canada-art-exhibit

    GMA News Online. (2015, October 13). [Online image]. Retrieved from http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/540490/newstv/brigada/ang-pinakamatandang-mambabatok-na-si-apo-whang-od-ating-kilalanin-sa-brigada

    GMA Public Affairs. (2017, February 21). Front Row: Ang pamana ni Apo Whang-Od sa mga susunod na henerasyon [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5T62wS9J5o

    GMA Public Affairs. (2017, February 21). Front Row: Apo Whang-od, ang huling mambabatok ng Kalinga [Video file]. Retrieved from  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwmzpHc8TQc

    Jorge Fernandez/Alamy. (2016, January 18). [Online image]. BBC. Retrieved from http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/wwfeatures/wm/live/624_351/images/live/p0/3b/qx/p03bqxms.jpg

    Marcus V. (2017, Febuary 21). Look: Apo Whang-od healthy again, celebrates 100th birthday with Aiza Seguerra and Liza Diño. Kicker Daily News. Retrieved from http://kickerdaily.com/posts/2017/02/look-apo-whang-od-healthy-again-celebrates-100th-birthday-with-aiza-seguerra-and-liza-dino/

    Orante, B. (2015, September 30). VIRAL: Declare known Igorot tattooer a National Artist. Rappler. Retrieved from http://www.rappler.com/move-ph/107501-online-campaign-igorot-kalinga-tattooer-whang-od-national-artist

    Pinili, P. (2015, October 13). Indelible moments with Whang-od, a living legend. Rappler. Retrieved from http://www.rappler.com/life-and-style/arts-and-culture/109139-whang-od-indigenous-tattoo-artist-memories

    Planas, J. [Looking for Stories] (2016, January 28). Whang-Od: The Kalinga Tattoo maker [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57ozdNDqDKM

    The Boring Liar (2014). What They Don’t Tell You About Getting a Tattoo from Apo Whang Od [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://theboringliar.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/what-they-dont-tell-you-about-getting-a-tattoo-from-mambabatok-apo-whang-od/

    Valencia, A. (2017, February 13). Apo Whang-Od, maayos na ang kalusugan. ABS-CBN News. Retrieved from http://news.abs-cbn.com/life/02/13/17/apo-whang-od-maayos-na-ang-kalusugan

    Whang-od. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 19, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whang-od


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