The rhythmic sound of two sticks tapping was sort of meditative and relieving as each tap means the citrus thorn at the end of one stick has pierced through a shallow layer of my skin and left a permanent ink mark underneath. The pain from this batok (tattooing)? It was noticeable at first, like a multitude stingy ant bite but bearable, but I have always regarded myself having high tolerance for pain so it wasn’t as painful as I expected it to be. But I’d rather Whang-Od (Fang-OD), the 93-year old famed mambabatok (tattoo artist) of Buscalan Kalinga, not stopping any sooner with her tapping as it seems to bring a numbing sensation than pausing then starting over again. In between I tried to ask some questions while she works on my skin like canvass and our guide Francis was kind enough to translate.
I was supposed to get a tattoo just in front of her house but another hut was being constructed nearby. Construction noise was too distracting for her so we moved up to where we were staying, at her niece’s house. Never mind the roaming native pigs, dogs or neighbors passing by, the toned down sound of construction was much better. Then again I learned that Fang-Od also owns that house being constructed. Business must be a lot better for her these days.
The process of her traditional tattoo has much been written in many blogs already so I’ll go by it briefly. As needle, Fang-Od uses thorns from a citrus plant (like calamansi or lime), attached it to the end of a stick. Another stick is used for tapping. The ink she uses came from soot burned from a special pine wood. As we started, I sat on this very low stool, she drew the pattern on my shoulder using strands from a leaf dabbed in ink. Once she’s satisfied with the pattern, she started tapping away.
Cultural Philippine Tattoos
Fang-Od is one of the main reason people visit Kalinga these days. It’s either to take photos of her and her peers with their tribal Kalinga tattoos or have themselves inked by this living legend of an artist who is keeping their batok art alive. Sadly, the tradition of having tattoos no longer appeal to the new generation due to modernization. “Before, families would trade a huge pig or two just to have their daughters tattooed” said Fang Od in her native language. She recalls that it takes her about two days to finish a full upper body tattoo on a woman, one side a day. During those times, tattoos were not just for personal expression but conformity to culture. For men and women it has a deeper meaning than aesthetics. To quote Lane Wilcken (author of “Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern”):
“In the past, both men and women were tattooed. Women received their tattoos at puberty because of their innate power and connection to the ancestors through life-bearing. Men in contrast had to earn their tattoos. Men have to prove their power and connection to the ancestors, usually proven through bravery and heroism in warfare”
Fang-Od herself had her tattoo when she was 14 years old from another renowned mambabatok from the village of Ngibat, named Pang-ad. She got fascinated with the art itself and started tattooing when she was 18 years old. She had a natural talent for details and hands with surgical-like precision for the art. We even met a woman who is now in her 60s who proudly showed us her sleeves tattoos done by Fang-od when she was 12. The tattoo details where still crisp on her skin even at her age.
Has she denied people of her tattoos? Yes, she replied fondly and even with an amusing laugh. She recounts some foreigner from Europe who got really pale after a few initial taps. She knew this foreigner couldn’t handle it so she stopped even if this foreigner begged her. There were instances though that she would continue like the case of another foreigner having a tattoo on her leg but fainted mid-way from pain but they continued after she regained consciousness. Fang-Od said she will look at the person first and see if he or she can handle the process. She can even noticed the quality of the skin, how the blood holds on the skin during the tattooing process.
The Last Mambabatok?
I think a lot of people were in panic and wanted to have a remembrance from Fang-Od who is currently (as of this writing) at the age of 93. People feared she may pass away soon, but after seeing her carry that little sack of beans, moving nimbly as if she was younger than her age, still having a sharp memory and keen eyesight, I’m sure she’ll have more years ahead of her. But people are still worried since Fang-Od never had a child. Francis told us she had many suitors during her younger years but never married even having relations with some of them.
Kalinga Batok Art may still have a chance to continue on. The interest in batok may have skipped a generation in her family but the apo (grand-daughter to her sister), Grace Palicas, is showing promise and interest to continue this traditional batok art. This reluctant 17-year old AB English Student in Tabuk has occasionally been doing the traditional tattoo when time allows her. She has even seen exposure on the recent Dudutan Festivals in Manila. She is still exploring the art and has learned a few tips from Fang-Od herself. Who knows what path she would undertake but it gives us hope that Kalinga batok Art wouldn’t vanish as easily.
An hour and a half after, Fang-Od was done with my tattoo. I chose a python which symbolizes strength to the Kalinga tribe, a friend of the warriors like the centipede symbol which brings protection. One of the few many patterns and symbols they have (another topic altogether) . This is my first ever tattoo and I was happy with the outcome. No I didn’t get this tattoo just to look tough but I somehow wanted to experience even a part of this culture first hand. I considered this experience as a birthday gift to myself as well. To feel the honor of having a renowned artist like Fang-Od to use my skin as a canvas to one of her works. I remember asking her what was her favorite designs. “This is one of my favorite!” she said. I’m not sure if she’s joking but I am sure she puts her heart in every tattoo she makes. No wonder villagers in Kalinga regard her highly.
Many thanks to my friend Oggie Ramos of lagalog.com for some of my photos here.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.