Indelible moments with Whang-od, a living legend

Potpot Pinili
Indelible moments with Whang-od, a living legend
'It took me a while to establish my comfortable presence to Apo Whang-od. Looking back to the time when I first met her, I have to admit that I was starstruck,' writes traveler Potpot Pinili

She’s a star but remains unassuming. She easily bursts into toothless chuckles but her mood swings are wicked. She is quite elusive. This is Apo Whang-od, the woman behind the indigenous tattoo art, that many fear will end in her hands. 

I have visited Buscalan 4 times in a little over two years. It is the homeland of the Butbut Kalinga where Apo Whang-od or Fang-od is a respected village elder. The most recent was in May when I ushered Will Hatton of the Broke Backpacker. (READ: British backpacker’s PH adventure: Tattooed by Whang Od, the living legend

It is not an easy journey traversing mountains and passing the rice terraces. But I keep coming back because of their immense cultural experience. Each time I walk on the trails that are shielded by tribal customs, their stories unfold like a caboodle of treasures. 

Many of those who have met Apo Whang-od would be of the same mind that it’s not easy to engage her in a conversation. When she’s not tattooing, you’d find her feeding her hogs, pounding rice or being quietly alone away from the eyes of the tourists. 

One characteristic that seems to be common among some of the older people in the village is how they are more reserved around strangers. This is not only caused by language barrier but also their elusiveness to lowlanders. History portrays them as fierce hunters who lived in seclusion in the far hinterlands of Cordillera. 

It took me a while to establish my comfortable presence to Apo Whang-od. Looking back to the time when I first met her, I kissed her hand like my own grandmother. I have to admit that I was starstruck. I didn’t pull out my camera and hurry into any photo-op. Instead, I sat with her and offered to share my bread. 

Soon, more people came to sit with us. Surprisingly, it led to a simple dinner of sautéed sardines and adobong miskitu (stew of tiny rice paddy fish). She was there all through the night as I shamelessly tried their traditional nose flute called tongali.

Most people stay in Buscalan for only 2 days. They hurry to leave as soon as they get their tattoos done. But some linger to immerse with the locals and to explore its terraced landscape.

I have listened to their folktales, learned a few of their dances and played with the kids, mud wrestling. I have witnessed a few who fainted while being inked. But I have seen more tattoo pilgrims who are proud to be indelibly marked by the master.

What I treasure most about tirelessly visiting Buscalan are the stories of Apo Whang-od. She may be all over – on people’s bodies, on magazines, and on the Internet but there are more left barely untold.

Whang-od’s body is a full canvas of her story. Her arms, back, legs and chest exhibit beautiful and complex folkloric decorations of her rite of passage, beauty and protection. 

Now close to 100, she has still remained single. While many couples immortalize their love for each other with tattoos, how will Apo Whang-od, the Philippines’ most adored living traditional tattoo artist, tell her own?

According to the stories of the locals, that distinct empty space on her right wrist is reserved for the man she loved. Sadly, she lost him to war and never married since. I asked her about this love story. She just replied with a cackle. 

Apo Whang-od has a beautiful sense of humor. When I returned to the village with Will Hatton, she jokingly hit my butt with a stick! She also likes poking my big belly and calling me “pono-ponor” (fat boy). Once, we gave her an umbrella and a sarong as a present. To our surprise she put it all on and started dancing.

But she has a bad temper, too. She doesn’t like being hurried, always followed and dragged to take photos. She seriously hates noise when working. In her grumpier times, she calls off a tattoo session. 

Batek is a time-honored tradition among the Kalingas. It was earned as a coat of arms, as a magical shield or as decorative lures reserved for the Butbut. But the disappearance of true hand-combat warriors, the changing concepts of beauty and the influx of modern living pushed the art form into a cultural crisis. 

Grace Palicas and Ilyang Wigan are both bloodline successors who are training under the master’s watch. But for these young ladies who have been to the city and whose mothers want them to marry lowlanders, continuing the tradition remains part of a future that is right now still blurry. 

She’s neither a prophet nor a faith healer but she’s the last mambabatok perhaps most people in my generation will ever witness. She may be drawing a faint stencil of the future of batek but she has vividly inked on the skins and consciousness of many people a lasting legacy.  

The online movement sparked by netizens pushing her to become a National Artist is admirable. But Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan or National Living Treasure, made for folk artists engaged in traditional art forms is a better fit for her. It is equal in rank and honors with the National Artist. 

On Apo Whang-od’s skin lays her stories told in myriad images. On my skin displays the memoirs of a fading tradition. She brought me under the spell of batek and into a new cultural realm.

Whoever goes back to earth first between us, I know we are both part of each other’s story. –

Potpot has lived his life in polished suitcases and tattered backpacks. After having been caught in a corporate blaze, he is now transitioning back into his flip-flop and beaded ankle bracelet journeys. He loves cultural festivals, indigenous art and quiet chats over coffee. Potpot writes on Travel Trilogy and sometimes on in-flight magazines. Follow his adventures on Facebook and Instagram

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