Whang-od at Manila FAME: Marginal notes on a damaged culture
A friend jokingly shared his dismay over seeing Whang-od Oggay at the Manila FAME, cordoned off and tattooing.
He tells me that it's just like the 1904 Philippine Exposition at St. Louis during the World’s Fair, only this time for millennials, and that there is a long line of people waiting to get their tattoos done. The old woman is likely just here drawing crowds, being on display with her companions doing most of the work.
I was thrilled to see that she finally met Coco Martin. I thought it was also nice that she was invited to come over – but I didn't realize she would be put to work. What a shame, DTI-CITEM. At the very least, she gets to charge the amount she wants for the effort she puts in.
Commodification of culture
I'm no longer surprised by how we commodify culture or use our indigenous peoples as our edge in business, proving that we are capable of "innovation." No use debating it either because at the end of the day – and this has been going on for years anyway – people will still "market" Whang-od as the last remaining mambabatok and feed off that imagined reality.
She will forever be 90 to 100 years old no matter the passing of time and our ability to confirm her age. People will still line-up whether here or in Buscalan for a tattoo they will likely bargain for and dictate the design of their tattoo. People will still ask that they be tattooed with alibata characters even if the writing was not universally used across our islands and is likely confounding for the Butbuts of Kalinga. (READ: VIRAL: Declare known Igorot tattooer a National Artist)
The Kalinga province will still use the excitement of her fame to draw its visitors. The state will want to own her, to capitalize on cultural capital that we will all be forced to agree on monetizing in the name of nationalism, even if the Kalingas and the rest of the Igorots have been independent forever. (READ: Indelible moments with Whang-od, a living legend)
I used to hold a fervent dismay against the 1987 Atlantic article by James Fallows called, "A Damaged Culture".
Keeping the hope
These days, I read his words with the same numbness I had when I got my first tattoo from Whang-od. She hits once, you bleed, and then she continues until the adrenaline anesthesizes you. Of course, she is creating something beautiful against the canvas of your skin to conform with the curves of your body. Meanwhile, this heartbreaking numbness is more akin to the idiomatic horse having been beaten to the death.
Ours is a damaged culture, one that rots from the core, a house seemingly propped up but made brittle and devoured by termites. I used to think that the damaged years were behind us – that somehow, having been born in 1988, I might have come at a more opportune moment. Only now is it occurring to me that the extent of the damage is great and it's likely that the destruction is still ongoing.
The sooner I accept, the less heartbroken I am.
But because I believe in us, I will grieve a bit. We are chipping away at our soul as a nation. Soon we will lose it, if we haven't already. I console myself only by thinking of the far-flung areas in these isles where many would never go, where I often feel rooted and at ease, but also surprised by our cosmopolitan nature.
I see these places, meet our people, and feel a genuine sense of freedom and independence. If not for our free peoples in the margins, I would have given up entirely. – Rappler.com
Nash Tysmans is a Filipino writer, teacher, and community worker.