At about a hundred years old, as many claim her to be, Maria Oggay is diminutive and looks frail, but when she is moved or persuaded to tattoo, her arms had a power, vigorous and never tentative, both gentle and forceful. Age is her only enemy now.
The old woman, popularly known as Whang Od, has been drawing visitors and admirers to the once obscure town of Tinglayan, in the mountainous heart of Luzon Island, the Philippines, and is being revered more and more as her traditional practice of tattooing gains wider acceptance, fascination and appreciation. She wields the most rudimentary of tools, as the tattooists before had practiced for hundreds of years, but really her tools and sources of power are her hands and arms, her mind that holds the valuable store of designs of her people, and her spirit that persevere and preserve, that persevere to preserve and preserve so to persevere.
Recently, the manwhatok, Butbut Kalinga for “tattooist,” was honored with the Dangal ng Haraya award, the highest recognition of the national government agency for arts and culture, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), for intangible cultural heritage, particularly for upholding and promoting the traditional tattooing practice of the Kalinga people of the Cordillera mountains of northern Luzon.
The awarding ceremony was led by NCCA chairman and National Artist for literature Virgilio S. Almario at the Kalinga Capitol Gymnasium in Tabuk, the capital of the province of Kalinga, on June 25, 2018. The event was graced by Senator JV Ejercito, and Kalinga officials including governor Jocel Baac, vice governor James Edduba and Tinglayan mayor Sacrament Gumilab.
The award citation says that the master tattooist from the village of Buscalan in Tinglayan, is recognized for her valuable contributions “for the promulgation and preservation of Butbut Kalinga traditional tattoo known as fatok or whatok, and engendering greater attention and awareness to Philippine traditional arts and practices and intangible cultural heritage in general.”
Her dedication to her craft led to the intensifying of “pride not only in the local community but in the nation as well, and fostering greater recognition and reverence for indigenous knowledge and practices, and for Filipino culture in general, by forging new ways in the appreciation and understanding of traditional tattoos.”
Almario stated that Apo Whang-Od “has been a bearer of her people’s indigenous and rich heritage for more than eighty years now….Starting very young in her life, Apo Whang-Od has stood witness to the changing landscape of Kalinga, both in actual topography, as influences are flowing in from the cities, as well as in terms of newer cultural practices. Yet, despite all of these changes brought by the times, she remained and still remains resilient, strong and dedicated to preserving what has been taught to her by her elders. We are here…to honor and give recognition to what Apo Whang-Od represents—first and foremost to her community, as a vessel of age-old wisdom and artistic creation; and to the country and the world, as a bearer of Filipino indigenous identities, worldviews and expressions.”
The award citation further explains that “as a living vessel of a traditional practice, Whang-Od is highly regarded in her community as well as by many Filipinos and the international community as a master manwhatok or tattooist, one of the very few, if not the only, remaining in the practice of this traditional art. She is recognized internationally for her tattoos, as both Filipinos and foreigners visit her, fascinated by the ancient practice. With hospitality connected to her family history, she is always amiable and gracious, welcoming and accommodating villagers and visitors alike. People of Buscalan regard Whang-Od with respect and pride.”
For many of Whang Od fans and supporters, the award served as culmination of efforts to have her recognized or awarded nationally. Over the years, she has made many fans, taken by her charming and amiable personality, as well as by the image of a gentle, grandmotherly figure who could do something cool and “hard-core” like tattooing, which many consider “astig.” These factors are heightened by the romanticism on an ancient and dying practice, all combining to contribute to Whang Od’s mystique.
The Kalinga Tattoo
Several ethnic groups in the Cordilleras have their own tattoo practices, including the Kalinga.
According to Naty Sugguiyao, former provincial officer of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples in province of Kalinga, the fatok, whatok, or batok “marked a man’s ability as warrior with tattoos to indicate the rank and power the men hold in their community.”
“In Kalinga, tattoos were earned only after a man had proven his courage in battle against warring tribes,” Sugguiyao, who herself sports tattoos on her arms, further said. “Scholars who have studied the tradition interpreted the practice to show that men were given tattoos because of brave acts during tribal wars while the women were given tattoos to decorate their bodies.”
For men, the tattoo must be earned like a badge of honor. In olden times, the tattoo marked someone who had killed enemies or had settled scores in a feud, thus a symbol that both recognized valor and inspired fear. Tattoo is inextricably linked to a dark feature of Kalinga culture and reputation of headhunting. Arms were usually tattooed on, but only the mingol or warrior could be tattooed on the chest and shoulders.
For the women, the tattoo enhanced their beauty and also showed the family’s wealth. The parents were able to pay for their daughters’ tattoos.
The traditional tattooist keeps an array of designs, from simple to elaborate ones, which are based on gender and accomplishment. The tattoo is embedded in the Kalinga way of life as a rite of passage, as an affirmation by the community, and as a native concept of beauty and aesthetics. The Kalinga believe in the permanence of tattoos, which one carries even in the afterlife.
Usually a paranos, a thanksgiving ritual, is conducted when a Kalinga would be tattooed. But this can be dispensed of for the non-Kalinga. The process uses charcoal or soot as ink and citrus (usually kalamansi or pomelo) thorn as needle. To become a tattooist, one strictly observes taboos attached to it and know the Kalinga way of life.
Whang Od of Kalinga’s Butbut
Whang Od, who belong to the Kalinga subgroup Butbut, received her own tattoo in her early teens. Around that time, she also began practicing tattooing.
Arvin Manuel R. Villalon, professor of Psychology at the University of the Philippines in Baguio City, interviewed the tattooist for the NCCA, and noted that she chants her experiences in ullalim, the Kalinga ballad. Whang Od was also regarded as an outstanding chanter and dancer when she was younger.
“Whang Od was tattooed by an old man named Wagay from Ngibat, a nearby village,” Villalon related. “She estimates that she was around fifteen when she was first tattooed. He father encouraged her to have her tattooed, and she agreed to this because a woman who has a tattoo is more beautiful to the eyes of men and therefore a prized catch for marriage…It took a day to tattoo her right arm, and after three days her left arm was tattooed. The designs on her arms were chosen by Wagay but there are some tattoos on her arm, which were tattooed by an artist from Lubo when she was twenty. It was common during the time to exchange tattoos with other artists from other villages. (This means that she started tattooing at around seventeen). She recalls that there were four artists, all male. She was the only female tattoo artist.”
The traditional manwhatok is usually male, and Whang Od is one of the very few women who practice the craft. Early in her tattooing practice, she was considered the best in her village, and eventually her reputation reached other villages as well. When tattooing, she uses the traditional process as much as possible.
To prepare the whiyyu or ink, she scrapes the soot from the bottoms of pots, the soot she finds finer than crushed charcoal. She mixed the soot with water, pounding the mixture with a sweet potato tuber to be finer. She uses a rice stalk as stencil to mark the skin with the design, and with the gisi, pomelo thorn attached to a bamboo stick, dipped in the soot, pierces the skin repeatedly and quickly in a tapping manner. She rubs coconut oil on the tattooed area upon finishing.
The design of the tattoo is agreed upon by the tattooist and the person being tattooed. But the tattooist can choose a design based on her/his “feel” of the person. “The community believes that Whang Od can read a person’s personality, and one will have to trust on what she will give you,” Villalon related.
Whang Od’s tattoos are based on traditional designs such as tinatapwat (python), kinullipaw (snakeskin), sasa-aw (day and night), willig (mountain), kinamat (tapis), gayaman (centipede) and jar. One can see these on her arms.
Whang Od is distinguished to be not only one of very few remaining manwhatoks of Kalinga. She “is known for her skill and aesthetics, with a keen knowledge on which tattoos produce beautiful renditions. Her tattoos include traditional designs and patterns…. She would also innovate, creating her own designs, mostly inspired by nature and her surroundings,” the Dangal ng Haraya citation reveals.
In recent years, she rose to fame when the international media and organizations began featuring her.
“We in NCIP say that we brought her out to the world, and the world came to her, and in turn she brought Kalinga to the world,” related Sugguiyao. “Her photos were featured in Canada, Paris and Germany, and I was told even buses in LA have her photos.”
“Discovery Channel came in 2007, made a documentary, and this brought more media attention to the body art called batok,” she said.
The show, Tattoo Hunters, hosted by Lars Krutak, is said to her debut in international media, which were followed by other shows from different countries and then by local television stations.
Soon, local and foreign tourists flocked to Buscalan to get tattooed, and the streams of visitors continue until today.
“Before Whang Od, [they] only knew Kalinga as [a land of] head-hunters,” said Gumilab. “Very few people knew about Tinglayan except in the narcotic world. We knew Tinglayan because of its marijuana plantations. But Whang Od is the one who put Tinglayan in the map of the world. And [now] everybody knows that there is such an artist from Tinglayan. Indeed, Apo Whang Od is really an international sensation. She’s like a Hollywood artist. To the people of Tinglayan, Whang Od is really an original artist. Apo Whang Od is the one who helped bring the tourism industry in the municipality of Tinglayan. She is also the one who provided livelihood to the people of Tinglayan and of Buscalan…[They are now] serving as tourist guides. People have livelihoods such as [operating] home-stay [facilities], and the business enterprises have grown…Last year, [for] the Cordillera Region, Kalinga is number two in tourist arrivals…She’s really an epitome of an empowered woman.”
Sugguiyao said that Buscalan would receive as many as fifty tourists a day during peak season. The village have also dramatically changed from a remote and quiet community in the mountains to a bustling tourist pit stop.
As Whang Od’s popularity grew, calls for her to be awarded began circulating, especially in social media, by people who are mostly tourists and observers, who are likely non-expert in traditional culture, much less about Kalinga traditional tattoo practices. Several had suggested awarding her the Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan or National Living Treasures award, the highest national recognition for indigenous and traditional artists, artisans and craftsmen, and some erroneously pushed for the National Artist award, exposing a large dearth in the understanding of culture in general, and affirming a thinking about the bestowal of these awards based more on novelty and nostalgia than anything else. Soon, politicians also joined in on the calls.
Whang Od has been considered for the Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan but the award emphasizes that cultural contexts of traditional practices remain mostly intact. As it is practiced today, the context of the Kalinga tattoo has changed or vanished, especially with the incursion of tourism. Instead, Whang Od was considered for the Dangal ng Haraya award.
The Dangal ng Haraya is given to living Filipino artists, cultural workers, artistic or cultural groups, historical societies, institutions, foundations and councils, for their outstanding achievements in relevant fields that have made an impact and significant contribution to Philippine culture and arts. For individuals, it is usually for a lifetime of achievements.
Through Dangal ng Haraya and its other institutional awards, NCCA seeks to uphold excellence in all artistic and cultural endeavors, encourage initiative and participation among groups and individuals, and recognize exemplary cultural programs that can serve as valuable examples to others.
Whang-Od joins a stellar roster of awardees including anthropologist E. Arsenio Manuel (for cultural research); anthropologist Dr. Jesus Peralta (for cultural management); writer Efren R. Abueg (for artistic achievement in literature); Zenaida A. Amador (for development of professional theater); Pura Santillan-Castrence (for promotion of Philippine culture); senator Edgardo Angara (for patronage of arts and culture); architect Augusto Villalon (for cultural conservation); and anthropologist F. Landa Jocano (for cultural and historical research).
Whang Od, who is passionate about preserving the tradition and insisting on rendering tattoos the traditional way, recognizes and appreciates the award for its ability to bolter efforts on promotion, appreciation and preservation of culture, particularly traditional Kalinga culture. Most likely, her best reward is seeing her craft being continued. Unmarried and without child, Whang Od passes the skill and knowledge to her nieces, Ilyang and Grace Palicas. While changes are inevitable in a culture, she displays an understanding on how to embrace and manage it on her own terms, welcoming the world, keeping the sacred and sharing the beautiful.