Apo Whang-Od is already in her mid-90s, but her craft in tattooing is still as impressive as ever. Her whole body is covered with tribal patterns. These patterns were etched on her skin a long time ago, but its tint and design are still dominant and clear.
She is considered as the last mambabatok (traditional Kalinga tattooist) from the Butbut Kalinga people and the oldest tattoo artist in the Philippines. Her tattoo ink is composed of the mixture of charcoal and water that will be tapped into the skin through a thorn end of a calamansi or pomelo tree. This ancient technique called batok that dates back a thousand years before her time is relatively painful compared to other conventional techniques.
The deeply wrinkled, beautiful elder looked up from her playful demo on my skin, and smiled as if to say, “You want one?” I nervously giggled and moved my arm away. Little did I know that three years later, Whang-Od would be nominated for the Philippines National Living Treasures Award, prompting a shift in the ancient art’s future.
Seventeen hours north of Manila, the Kalinga region is so fiercely independent that throughout 400 years of the Philippines’ foreign occupation – by Spain, Britain, the US and Japan – it successfully fought off any outside rule by headhunting. We visited three years ago because a friend introduced us to Remy Erminger, a Kalinga native who invited my husband and I on a trek to her village of Buscalan, a tribal community tucked in the lush Cordillera rice terraces.