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