Whang-Od is the oldest tattoo artist in Philippines and the last living mambabatok, which is a traditional Kalinga tattooist. She lives in the small town of Buscalan, in the mountains of Kalinga, creating tattoos since she was just 15.
Whang-Od, also known as Maria Oggay, became known to the whole world when Lars Krutak, the American anthropologist, visited Kalinga in 2007. He documented her work in the series Tattoo Hunter that were featured on Discovery Channel. That was the beginning of a big wave of tourists that will come to Kalinga in the next few years only to meet this legend and get tattooed by her.
It is not easy to reach Buscalan and the trip itself is an adventure. However, many tourists from all over the world are ready to embark on this trip. After a 8-10 hours bus ride from Manila to Bontoc, all you have to do then is take a jeep or a car to Tinglayan and from there to hike up to Buscalan.
As soon as you arrive, it’s best to register at the tattoo shop, to get a chance to be tattooed by Ms. Whang-Od. On most days, she finishes quite early and stops doing any work after lunch, so people who have arrived that day, get the chance to spend the night in town, so that they can keep their place in line the next morning.
The Kalinga Tattoos
In Kalinga tradition, the warriors had to earn their right to be tattooed. Each design carried a very important symbol, representing their rank or an act of bravery. Even now, there are some specific tattoos that Ms. Whang-Od refuses to tattoo on tourists, because they belong only to the Kalinga culture. The tattoo is done with the help of a pomelo thorn that is attached to a bamboo stick and then hammered into your skin. In a coconut shell, charcoal and water are mixed and used as ink.
Whang-Od started tattooing at 15, taught by her father who was a master in that area. In the Kalinga tradition, only men with tattooing ancestry were allowed to learn this special art. However, Whang-Od had a special talent and her father saw her potential so she became an exception.
Years later, when Ms Whang-Od decided to pass on her legacy, she chose as apprentices only women, breaking again the tradition. Since she doesn’t have children of her own, she took under her wing her two grand nieces: Grace and Elyang.
Women were also tattooed back then for aesthetic reasons, while the men headhunters were earning their tattoos when they were protecting their villages by killing the enemies. One of the most fascinating things was that Whang-Od would also chant while doing the tattoos, so the whole event was like a ritual or small ceremony.
Nowadays, Whang-Od will mostly do only her signature tattoo. She used to have more signatures, but since 2017 she uses three dots that represent herself and her two apprentices: Grace and Elyang.
Joyful, colorful and a well respected elder in the village, Ms. Whang-Od is an icon and she attracted thousands and thousands of travelers all over the world. Many of them are fascinated by her simple way of living and her magnetic personality. She is humorous and positive, yet she can be moody and she will not hesitate to do what she pleases. She is not there to entertain her guests, but to allow them to enter an ancient culture and offer them a part of it.