In the north Philippines, there is an ethnic group known as the Kalinga. Tattoos are important in their culture, because they signify honorable qualities and social status. A century ago, tattoos for women were decorational, while tattoos for men were earned for acts of bravery, such as headhunting. Headhunters engaged in hand-to-hand combat and typically used spears or axes to kill their enemies; they were known for severing the heads of their enemies. These warriors received tattoos for their courage and success, and special “trophy” tattoos were given to headhunters who had killed more than ten people. In general, the Kalinga people consider tattooed men and women to be desirable.
After turning 101 last month (February 2018), Whang-od Oggay is the last remaining traditional Kalinga mambabatok, or tattoo artist. She learned the art from her father, because it is required that the tradition of tattooing is passed down from a family member. Consequently, she has been tattooing people for the majority of her life. Each day Whang-od, who is heavily tattooed herself, mixes a fresh bowl of ink and taps tattoos into the chests, backs, and arms of people who come to her for a special piece of artwork. Apparently she is so quick at her craft that she can finish 14 tattoos before lunchtime. This quickness is necessary now that she is highly sought after by tattoo tourists. People from all over the world come to get a tattoo from Whang-od, knowing that she is a centenarian and the last of the Kalinga artists. Recently, the demand for her tattoos has skyrocketed.
The traditional Kalinga method of tattooing is surprisingly simple and fairly painful. Known as batok, this tattoo method requires very few supplies. The ink is composed of soot and water, and it is tapped into the skin with a tool, which can be a thorn, needle, or piece of needle-like glass. The tapping typically results in extreme welting, writhing subjects, and oftentimes people who eventually ask for her to stop. It is far more painful than the tattoo machine that most of the world is familiar with. There are also some health concerns that come with using this method, but it has been used for centuries, and generally doesn’t result in problems. Aside from abstract designs that feature lines, dots and patterns, the centipede is one of the most common tattoos that Whang-od gives to people. It is supposed to represent protection and spiritual guidance.
The spiritual aspect of the tattoo practice is very important in the Kalinga culture. During an interview about tattooing a man named Fanah, Whang-od said, “Before I drew first blood, I repeated a chant so that no spiritual harm would come to Fanah. I also observed a taboo last evening and did not drink any alcohol. If I did, the tattoos I am creating today may become infected and Fanah could even die. And if you or I or Fanah sneezed before the tattooing began, this would be a very bad omen and I would have to stop. It is believed that a lurking spirit makes someone sneeze because it is jealous or has deemed it wise to postpone the tattooing for a future time.”
As incredible as she is, Whang-od has not received much of the recognition a person like her deserves. As an aging Kalinga tattoo artist, perhaps the last still alive, she is largely unknown to the rest of the world. It wasn’t until an anthropologist included her in a 2009 documentary for the Discovery channel that she became better known. Now at the age of 101 and almost a decade later, the Senate of the Philippines unanimously passed a resolution in Februrary to support and nominate Whang-od for the National Living Treasures Award. Hopefully her country and the world will remember Whang-od and her story.