Have you ever been to the Philippines? This country is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, with its amazing biodiversity, incredible beaches, ancient heritage towns and monuments, and fascinating islands, rainforests, and mountains.
However, if you really want to feel the Filipino spirit, you should try something different- like am ancient, traditional Kalinga tattoo!
A 103-year-old woman called Whang Od Oggay, (who also goes by Whang-od or Maria Oggay), is the oldest traditional tattoo artist using an ancient technique, or mambabatok, there.
She lives in the Kalinga province in the mountainous northern area of the Philippines, and is a true legend, as thousands of locals and foreigners come to get a tattoo done by her.
This practice has been ongoing for over a thousand years, and Whang-Od Oggay has been doing them for over 80, after starting a tattoo apprenticeship as a teenager.
In the mornings, at dawn, she wakes to make the mixture of ink from pine soot and water and prepare for the tourists interested in getting a tattoo.
Additionally, reaching her is far from easy. Tourists have to make a 15-hour drive north of Manila to the mountain village of Buscalan, which is only accessible by hiking from the nearest dirt road through a forest and rice terraces.
Visitors are encouraged to bring offerings for her as a sign of courtesy, that can involve food, medicine, and matches, which are still vital for the locals there.
Whang Od is the last of her kind to preserve this ancient tattoo tradition
Whang Od’s hand-poke technique involves a thorn from calamansi or a pomelo tree, a foot-long bamboo stick, coal, and water. She uses the thorn and the bamboo to push the ink deep into the skin, so the tattoos are permanent.
These tattoos range from simple lines, ornaments, snakeskin-like patterns, numbers, and ladders, to tribal prints, centipedes, and animals. All designs are symbolic and carry important meanings, like fertility of strength.
Back in history, only indigenous Butbut warriors who had killed someone in a battle could get a Kalinga tattoo.
She’s been working this for over 80 years
Whang-Od is covered in tattoos all over her body, and the ones on her arms take a full day to complete. Her dad was so happy that he killed a pig to celebrate when she was inked from head to toe!
Yet, what makes this tradition hard to keep is the fact that it can only be passed down to blood relatives.
At age 15, she started tattooing other people, under the guidance of her father. This was a break in the practice as men were the only ones allowed to learn how to tattoo before.
As Whang Od has no children of her own, she’s showed the skills to her grandnieces. She never got married, after losing her significant other during the Japanese occupation.
“[My friends who gave tattoos] have all passed away. I’m the only one left alive that’s still giving tattoos. But I’m not afraid that the tradition will end because [I’m training] the next tattoo masters.”
A woman called Rajayana Librojo Fajatin got a tattoo from Whang Od and explained she “had a 4-day trip going from Baguio to Sagada to Buscalan, where the village of Whang Od is”.
She got a serpent eagle on her shoulder, as she needed “spiritual guidance at the time.”
“For me, Whang Od is the most beautiful woman I’ve seen. The tattooing was not as painful as it was illustrated and lasted for less than an hour. I had it done on my right shoulder. Going down the mountains after getting a tattoo was quite exhausting, but the villagers, even the old women, can do it fastly and smoothly. Overall, a fun and humbling experience!”
These are people’s reactions to the legendary woman: