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A Tattoo-maker Worthy Of National Pride & International Renown: Apo Whang-Od
Choose Philippines | Jun 14, 2016
For the Butbut Kalinga people, to have a tattoo is to be beautiful. Whether you were born male or female, to have a tattoo on your body was to showcase something desirable about you: whether it was your feminine beauty or your courage on the battlefield. This special body language was used for over a thousand years in the lives of the people of the mountains to communicate with each other over the generations, and to showcase the tribe’s collective history, concretized in the bodies of its tribesmen and women.
This technique of tattooing using charcoal and water as the ink, applied by tapping it onto the skin using thorns was called batok and Apo Whang-od (spelled Fang-Od in her home) is considered by many as the last mambabatok, or practitioner of this ancient art. Of course, the technique may be described by others as unsafe and unsanitary, and is definitely much more painful compared to contemporary means, but for the Kalinga, it has and always will be part of their lives, and is intertwined very closely in their culture and aesthetic.
In spite of her talent, tradition dictates that Whang-od can only pass down her tattooing skills to an heir within their family, and because she had lost her partner in World War 2 fighting the Japanese, she had never remarried nor had children of her own. However, there is hope in Grace and Ilyang, two of her younger relatives that have showed much interest in inheriting her art.
Apo Whang-od, because of her talent, should truly be more famous, especially in her hometown. However, as trends change and traditions melt away, being replaced by modernity, entire histories are slowly being forgotten. It seems as if an entire generation of young people have forgotten the cultural significance tattoos have not only for Kalinga but for the identity of the Filipino. However, social media is on her side: after exploding on everyone’s news feeds in late 2014, many have lobbied and urged lawmakers to make Apo Whang-od one of the National Artists of the Philippines, specifically one of the Philippines’ National Living Treasures.
Today, she is known as the country’s oldest tattoo artist, as well as the last mambabatok, but hopefully, not for long.
The video below, though dated, offers us a glimpse into the life of a true legend, worthy of national and international praise and renown.
When asked, Apo Whang-od had this to say about life: “To me, life means [to] keep on living.” And that is precisely what she keeps doing every single day.
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