Philippine arts

Who is Whang-Od, legendary tattoo artist?

Amanda T. Lago

WHANG-OD. The Kalinga tattoo artists keeps their tribe's Batok tradition alive.

Rappler file photo

The last living mambabatok is thrust into the spotlight once again, after digital learning platform Nas Academy is criticized for featuring her in an online tattooing course

Called a living legend, a national treasure, and even once “the badass grandmother we always wanted,” Kalinga tattoo artist Whang-Od is a celebrity in her own right.

Her bright eyes, weathered face and fully-tattooed arms have appeared in countless photos and documentaries, inspiring a new generation to take even a passing interest in an ancient Kalinga tradition.

In 2009, anthropologist Lars Krutak featured Whang-Od in a documentary that aired on the Discovery Channel, and since then, the artist and her tribe have seen people from all over the world making the difficult trek to their town Buscalan, Kalinga to see Whang-Od and bring home a piece of her tradition on their skin.

Much has already been written and said about Whang-Od. But her story is once again thrust into the spotlight, after digital learning platform Nas Academy peddled a P750 tattooing course supposedly taught by Whang-Od – something the artist’s grandniece and protégé Grace Palicas said she did not consent to.

The Nas Academy responded by posting a video of Whang-Od placing her thumbprint on what appears to be a contract signifying her consent. 

But the issue has now sparked a conversation on exploitation and cultural preservation – and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples has already stepped in to investigate the matter.

As the conversation is muddied with many different voices, Whang-Od remains at the center of the issue. Here are a few things you should know about her:

Tattoo beginnings

Whang-Od started tattooing as a 15-year-old girl, learning the craft from her father. 

Her tools of choice include a stick with a calamansi thorn stuck on the end as the needle, soot mixed with water and mashed with a sweet potato for ink, a blade of grass to draw the pattern onto the skin, and another stick to tap the needle.

One can imagine that the process is far more painful than modern tattooing – and Whang-Od is said to drive the thorn down even harder when the person getting tattooed shows pain. She is also said to choose the design for the person, reserving certain patterns only for warriors and members of her tribe.

She once said in a Matador Network documentary that she will only stop tattooing when her eyes can no longer see the stick.

Her own ink

Whang-Od is also heavily tattooed herself, most of them given to her by her father.

Her first tattoo was a ladder and python pattern, which she said in a documentary by Joan Planas was purely ornamental. 

“Parents tattooed their daughters because it made them prettier,” she said.

Protégés

Mambabatoks do more than just tattoo – they also lead chants, tell fortunes, and perform rituals. 

Lars described a tattoo ritual in 2009, where Whang-Od was marking the skin of a modern-day Kalinga warrior. Before tattooing the man, Whang-Od uttered a chant for spiritual protection and watched for bad omens. At the time, she said it was a ritual, and a religious experience. 

While she has trained other tattoo artists in hand-tapped tattooing, Whang-Od herself told BBC in 2015 that her skills as a mambabatok can only be passed on to blood relatives.

Because she doesn’t have children, she chose her two nieces, Grace Palicas and Elyang Wigan, to be her protégés. Grace started learning when she was 10, and Elyang when she was 16.

It was Grace who called out the Nas Academy, insisting in a Facebook post that her grandaunt did not understand the translators, and that their culture and traditions must be protected.

The three dots that are said to be her “signature” supposedly represent her, Grace, and Elyang.

Impact on Buscalan

The cost of getting tattooed by Whang-Od varies. Some have said they paid her in cigarettes and chocolate. Others said that she insisted on tattooing for free. Others said it cost them varying amounts of money.

Whatever the price, Whang-Od’s skill – and her mystique – has helped stir Buscalan’s economy. As tourists flock to the remote village, locals offered their services as tour guides, opened their houses up as homestays, and started eateries.

Buscalan local Isabel Paclay recalled in an ABS-CBN interview how once upon a time, people in their town couldn’t even afford slippers or clothes, but now many of them are able to go to school.

Whang-Od is also known to personally give what she has to her neighbors, sharing with them gifts she receives from patrons, and helping out when someone is sick or has died. 

Manila visit

Whang-Od visited Manila for the first time in 2017, when the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions (CITEM) brought her over for the MANILA FAME trade show.

While in Manila, Whang-Od got to meet her celebrity idol, Ang Probinsyano actor Coco Martin. Grace said she was excited to be in the capital.

The visit, however, would quickly turn controversial. Organizers of her Manila visit were accused of exploiting Whang-Od, opening up her tattoo services to up to 300 people who attended the trade show. 

In an echo of recent events, Whang-Od’s consent to the event was questioned, though it was later revealed that she and her niece had signed a contract, which stipulated that all proceeds from the tattooing event and sale of products would be received by Whang-Od in full.

After her Manila visit, many questioned the commodification of indigenous cultures, though some believe that Whang-Od made the choice to share her traditions to others.

Recognition

Since Whang-Od shot to fame, people have been campaigning to have her officially recognized with various awards.

Among them was late senator Miram Defensor Santiago, who called for her to be given the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA) or National Living Treasures Award

In 2018, the Senate adopted a resolution to nominate Whang-Od for the award, which will give her a grant of P100,000 and P10,000 per month for life – on top of plaques and a medal.

In the same year, she was given the Dangal ng Haraya Award for Intangible Cultural Heritage by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).  The award recognizes living Filipino artists and cultural workers who have made significant contributions to Philippine culture and arts. – Rappler.com

Amanda T. Lago

After avoiding long-term jobs in favor of travelling the world, Amanda finally learned to commit when she joined Rappler in July 2017. As a lifestyle and entertainment reporter, she writes about music, culture, and the occasional showbiz drama. She also hosts Rappler Live Jam, where she sometimes tries her best not to fan-girl on camera.