Gameplan: The mark of a mambabatok

Nikki Pua
Gameplan: The mark of a mambabatok
For the squeamish elders of the lowlands, tattoos are a form of rebellion. But in Kalinga, tattoos are a symbol of great beauty and bravery

MANILA, Philippines – Tattoos are usually regarded as a form of self-expression, but for the tattooed elders of Kalinga, it conveyed beauty and conformity to one’s culture.

Whang-Od Oggay (pronounced as Fand-Od by locals), 97 years old, is the one of the last traditional tattoo artists in Kalinga. The tattoo artists are also called mambabatok, from the word batok which means “to hit”. The tattoos are inked into the skin by applying rhythmic pressure using a stick with a thorn. The ink is a mixture of water and soot.

“When people talk of Whang-Od, they say that you might want to get a tattoo now while she’s still alive. I would say that you still have a lot of time because she’s looking really strong,” said Gameplan host Ton Vergel de Dios. 

Aside from Whang-Od, Ton also met other tattooed women in the village. One of them is Chummanyag, who already lost count of how old she was. “Kapag may sayawan, makikita ang magagandang tattoo,” she said when asked about why she loved her tattoos.

Tattoos symbolize beauty in their culture. The more you have, the more beautiful you are. It is also the only possession they believe they can bring to the afterlife. “When she dies, all of her clothes aren’t gonna be buried with her. But her tattoos stay with her forever and hopefully to the afterlife,” Ton learned.

“I believe that one day I’m going to come back and get a tattoo. Hopefully when I come back here another time, I’ll have a tattoo right down my leg,” he said. –

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