The Philippines - The Painted Ones
ASIAN Geographic|AG 04/2021 - 149
The Philippines has always been a kaleidoscope of awe-inspiring colours and cultures, but when the origins of the country’s artistic inclinations are traced back to its roots, the saliency of its lengthy history of the venerated art of tribal tattoos cannot be underestimated.
Yong Xin Ni Elyssa

Whang-od Oggay, also known as Maria Oggay, is a Filipina tattoo artist from Buscalan, Tinglayan, Kalinga

DID YOU KNOW?

Apo Whang-od Oggay (Maria Oggay), born February 17th, 1917, is the only remaining mambabatok, or Kalinga tattoo artist.

The 1,000-year-old art of traditional tattoo lies in the hands of 104-year-old Whang-od Oggay, the last remaining mambabatok from the Kalinga tribe in the Philippines.

Whang-od entered the trade at 15, when her father discovered her talent and potential. Traditionally, only males were allowed to learn the art but her father made an exception. Since then, Whang-od has only taken in female apprentices to continue her legacy.

The sheer number of foreign and local tourists that have been, and still are, willing to make the arduous journey into the depths of Tinglayan, southern Kalinga for the remote village of Buscalan just for a chance to be personally tattooed by the famous mambabatok, Whang-Od Oggay, is a testament to the deep appreciation the world has for the ancient art of the Philippines’ traditional tattoos, known as batok.

Mambabatok is the title given to traditional tattooists of the Kalinga people and as the oldest of them, Marie Oggay, better known as Apo WhangOd, is the undisputed icon of the Philippines and its batok. At 104 years old, she has earned her place as the oldest tattoo artist in the Philippines and remains active to this day.

Whang-Od hails from the Butbut people of the Kalinga ethnic group and trudged down a path less taken when she took up the highly revered art form of batok at the age of 15. The role of the mambabatok was traditionally held by those with special lineage as amongst the Kalinga people, the techniques of the batok can only be passed down through blood relatives. Specifically, the role is reserved for the Kalinga men.

However, in her adolescence, she showed an almost prodigious knack for the craft and was taken as an apprentice by her father, a master tattooist in his own right. From there, she flourished as she developed her talent.

In her years as an apprentice, Whang-Od was taught the traditional hand-tapping technique that she uses today, as well as the customary batok designs of the Kalinga people. Tattoos are first outlined with a dried rice stalk bent into a triangle. The rice stalk, or uyot, is then dipped into ink and used to trace patterns into the skin before the mambabatok applies the tattoo. The uyot also serves to measure the scale of the tattoos, ensuring they are symmetrical. Thereafter, the mambabatok uses a bamboo stick with the thorn of a calamansi tree attached and gently hammers pigment from wet charcoal into common motifs like snakes, centipedes, eagles and frogs. Beyond designs that depict the local fauna, Kalinga tattoos are characterised by their elaborate symmetrical designs, which include geometric patterns and friezes.

These designs are rightfully appreciated for their aesthetic beauty and thousands flock to WhangOd’s village for a chance to take home an everlasting souvenir – though of the thousands, few are able to fully comprehend the value of these motifs. They hold a well of historical and cultural significance for the proud people of Kalinga and their existence is an attestation of the sheer might of the warrior tribes of the Cordillera.

DID YOU KNOW?

Using a thorn from a calamansi tree attached to a stick and soot mixed with water to form the ink, the Kalinga mambabatok traditionally applied tattoos to the Butbut warriors after they killed an enemy of the tribe, elevating their social status. For Kalinga women, these hand-tapped tattoos are statements of beauty.

As with many traditional art forms, there is little interest among the younger generation to follow in Whang-Od’s footsteps. However, the centenarian’s grandniece, Grace Palicas, and another bloodline successor, Ilyang Wigan, have taken up the challenge, and have accompanied Whang-Od to various tattoo events and festivals in recent years. It is a race against time to see if these young apprentices are able to gain enough knowledge and experience to be considered the next mambabatok

Tools of the traditional Filipino tattoo trade Image: Wikipedia

HISTORY OF BATOK

Spanish depiction of the tattoos of the Visayan Pintados (“the painted ones”) of the Philippines in the Boxer Codex (c.1590), one of the earliest depictions of native Austronesian tattoos by European explorers Image: Wikipedia

Situated on the island of Luzon, the Cordillera Region is home to numerous fierce indigenous warrior tribes, including the Kalinga. The region is rich with gold, silver, and copper deposits and for centuries its natives monopolised the mining of these precious metals. Unfortunately, their monopoly would soon be challenged by the Spanish invaders. Five years after emerging triumphant in their conquest for Manila, the Spaniards moved their sights to the Cordillera and its fabled gold mines.

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