Whang-Od: a master of traditional Filipino tattoo art

Some people are just magic and intense: Whang-Od is one of them. She is a legendary Filipina tattoo artist considered to be the last mambabatok (traditional Kalinga tattooist) from the Butbut people in Buscalan Kalinga, and the oldest tattoo artist in the Philippines. She was born 17 February 1917.

She was tattooed when she was a teenager: each of her arms took one day to be finished and her family paid bundles of rice for it. She lost her boyfriend during the Japanese occupation at the age of 25: she never married and has no children.

She has been tattooing indigenous people of Butbut for more than 80 years. Whang-od now applies the batok (the traditional hand-tapped tattooing) to tourists visiting Buscalan.

Whang-Od via bbc.co.uk pic by Jorge Fernandez Alamy
Whang-Od via bbc.co.uk pic by Jorge Fernandez Alamy

She uses ink composed of a mixture of charcoal and water that will be tapped into the skin through a thorn end of a calamansi orpomelo tree. The ancient technique of batok dates back a thousand years and it is relatively painful compared to other conventional modern techniques.

She uses designs found in nature and basic geometric shapes.

Whang-Od via imkimsantiago.com
Whang-Od via imkimsantiago.com

According to tradition, her tattooing skills can only be inherited through lineage. Whang-od believes that if someone outside the bloodline starts tattooing, the tattoo will get infected. Due to modern living, the young people of her village are no longer interested in embracing the tattooing work of their elders. Despite that, she trains Grace Palicas, her grandniece, and Ilyang Wigan, another bloodline successor, to continue her tattooing work.

Aside from being a tattoo artist, Whang-od is a respected village elder. She turned 100 in February 2017.