103-Year-Old Filipina Tattoo Artist is the Last One of Traditional Kalinga Style

    Whang-Od Oggay, who is popularly known as Apo Whang-Od, is the oldest tattoo artist in the Philippines at 103 years old and is the last mambabatok – or traditional Kalinga tattooist – in the country.

    Whang-Od, who lives in the village of Buscalan in Kalinga province, started tattooing headhunters with the help of her father at the age of 15, according to My Modern Met.


    According to Great Big Story, Whang-Od uses a traditional process where she taps pomelo tree thorns dipped in charcoal water with a coffee tree hammer into the skin and leaves a permanent ink mark.

    Her tattoos come with variations in designs, such as normal lines, animals and her world-famous three dot signature. Some of them even have meanings like strength and fertility, Bored Panda reported.

    Traditionally, the tattoos were only given to men after making kills. Women also receive tattoos as a way to enhance their natural beauty and to attract any potential partners, ABS-CBN reported. Tribes members view their tattoos as signs of prestige, honor, beauty and fortitude.

    With the more modern age, Whang-Od opened her doors to outsiders who want to experience the traditional form of tattooing. People from around the world travel more than 15 hours from the Philippines’ capital of Manila up north to Buscalan to get tattooed by the legendary artist.


    Keeping the tattoo tradition in Buscalan is not as easy as passing the tools to the next generation. In their culture, the art of mambabatok must be passed down to their relatives to prevent contamination or infection of the tattoos.

    Even though Whang-Od has no sons or daughters, she trained her grandnieces, Grace Palicas and Ilyang Wigan, to be the next tattoo masters.

    “[My friends who gave tattoos] have all passed away. I’m the only one left alive that’s still giving tattoos,” Whang-Od said. “But I’m not afraid that the tradition will end because [I’m training] the next tattoos masters.”


    In 2018, Whang-Od received the Dangal ng Haraya Award for Intangible Cultural Heritage where she was recognized, “as a living vessel of a traditional practice, [who] deserves honor and acknowledgment for her contributions, particularly by bringing to greater attention the indigenous practice of tattooing and Filipino culture in general,” Inquirer reported.

    The award “is given to living Filipino artists, cultural workers and historians; artistic or cultural groups, historical societies, institutions, foundations and councils, to recognize their outstanding achievements in relevant fields that have made an impact and significant contribution to Philippine culture and arts,” said the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).


    That same year, Philippine senators made a resolution to nominate Whang-Od for the National Living Treasure Award, “the highest honor given by the state to traditional folk artists,” Rappler reported.

    Feature Image Screenshot via Great Big Story

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