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Whang-od Loves Coco Martin

Can we still earn our tattoos? A trip to Buscalan offers a closer look at traditional tattoo culture and the legendary Kalinga mambabatok Whang-od.

Story by
Photography by
Fruhlein Econar
Story by
Nina Unlay
Read Time
Location Tag
Kalinga

“After Ang Probinsyano,” Is the answer to the question of when we might finally meet her.

After a whole day of traveling, we were itching to meet The Last Mambabatok and discover for ourselves what she is like, but a long day of tattoo-work merited some teleserye time.

It has become customary for tourists to bring something to contribute when making the long way up to Buscalan. We brought fresh milk and medicines, as some of our contacts had suggested (“She loves fresh milk! Favorite niya!”).

We find Whang-od sitting on a bench outside her house, chewing on Toblerone and spitting out the bits of nougat, dentures in hand. She could have been anyone’s grandmother, if she didn’t just then stand up to shoo away the neighbor’s pigs.

Somehow, in the thrill of chasing down this story, I had forgotten that Whang-od didn’t speak a wink of English or Tagalog; we are under the mercy of our tour guide, who doubles as our translator. We exchange pleasantries, then ask him to tell Whang-od that we had brought her the milk and medicines, as well as an old issue of GRID. She was on the cover.

That issue was printed back mid-2015, and it had sparked a viral, online debate. The point of contention was first the spelling of Whang-od’s name, which we had then printed as “Fang-od.” (The pronunciation of her name begins neither with “fah” or “wuh,” but that’s as close as we can come with our alphabet. The signs in front of her house have changed spellings over the years, but now a tarpaulin banner hangs that reads “Whang-od,” so I have opted to retain this spelling.)

Some were angered by the photo, in which Whang-od isn’t entirely dressed in Kalinga’s ethnic attire. Accusations flew saying that we dressed her without due research—or worse, that the photo was badly manipulated—never mind that Whang-od chose her own wardrobe for the shoot, and has been photographed many times in those same clothes.

In the wake of that conflict, many bits of trivia and information (not to mention an abundance of opinions) had surfaced, and saw people wanting to know Whang-od. And many of us believe, rather passionately, that we do.

But on this day, Whang-od is wearing a plain white t-shirt with the face of Ang Probinsyano’s Coco Martin. She smiles as she takes the magazine, less enthusiastic about the fresh milk which, according to our tour guide, has since given her the poops.

Whang-Od has become a living symbol of Kalinga culture, widely recognized for a revival of traditional hand-tapped tattoo culture in contemporary society.

We have a proper conversation, or attempt to; our tour guide answers what he can, and translates what he can’t. The secondhand interviewing takes a little getting used to. There is a tendency to talk over her because of the language barrier, which doesn’t make for a good feeling. Someone asks Whang-od which of all the celebrities that had come by she liked best. “She likes them all,” our tour guide replies, launching into a story about the time Rhian Ramos visited.

But we want more from Whang-od. “Coco Martin?” Fruhlein, our photographer, asks, pointing at her shirt. “Coco Martin!” she replies, smiling, more a participant in the conversation than she had been thus far. “Tell her we’ll say she wants to meet him in the magazine,” I said. She laughs and nods enthusiastically. I want to ask Whang-od more, but we have three more nights to go. Plenty of time, I think.

As it turns out, we don’t, and the story that I wanted to write never materialized. Instead, the only thing I can tell you about Whang-od, confirmed by Whang-od, is that she loves Coco Martin.


For the minority unfamiliar with the cultural phenomenon that is Whang-od, Google can provide a wealth of information, and maybe even entertain with some memes. She has become a living symbol of Kalinga culture, widely recognized for a revival of traditional hand-tapped tattoo culture in contemporary society. She began her apprenticeship at the age of 13, mastered the practice at 25, and now sits around a century old—the last of a headhunting generation for which tattoos were earned or awarded. Tattoos for them reflected life and identity.

Still living in Buscalan, one of six villages belonging to the indigenous people known as Butbut, Whang-od has been hailed as an iconic reminder of a Philippines formerly known as The Island of the Painted Ones, a history deeply rooted in ink.

In 2015, a resolution argued for Whang-od to be nominated as a National Living Treasure. It never came to fruition, but it is more often her appearance in a show on the Discovery Channel, Tattoo Hunter, which premiered in March 2009, that is credited for her burst in popularity.

But it feels careless to pinpoint this moment as the cornerstone of her rise to fame. Even prior to her appearance on the Discovery Channel, visitors were a fair occurrence in the village, albeit mainly academics looking to immerse themselves in Butbut culture. A tattoo was sometimes earned along the way, but that were rarely the purpose of being there. Rumor has it that the patron of the tattoo in Tattoo Hunter had to be paid for the trouble, and nearly didn’t finish on account of the excruciating pain. Which, they say, Whang-od found amusing.

To some, the tattoo validates the trip—as though, in the traditional fashion, it had been hard-earned.

Today, there is no shortage of people from all over the world willing to go through the labors of a trip to Kalinga just to get a tattoo. The village has had to employ a number system in order to accommodate their daily influx of tourists. On my last visit, the queue was in the twenties. And not just twenty tourists—twenty groups of tourists.

It should go without saying that not all of them get to see Whang-od, much less get a tattoo. Earlier in the year, a tourist named Miming Leung Yin-Baker was lambasted on social media for posting a distasteful photo of her in Kalinga, all smiles, as a sickly Whang-od appeared pained behind her. The photo’s caption reported that she wasn’t tattooed, refusing to get one unless it was done by “the OG.”

This kind of thinking isn’t uncommon. A tattoo from Whang-od is often associated with “bragging rights,” an “authenticity” that thousands of people in the world have had the pleasure of paying for. To some, the tattoo validates the trip—as though, in the traditional fashion, it had been hard-earned.

It was a tattoo that pushed me to pursue a story about Whang-od. More specifically, it was a tattoo that did not come from her.

It was early in the year, during my first trip to Buscalan. Whang-od was busy, and her grandniece Grace was in the city. But there were six other mambabatok at work. I was led to sit on a short plastic stool in a house still under construction. On a chair next to me were the tools: a small bowl of charcoal, a jar of coconut oil, and some wooden sticks.

The title “The Last Mambabatok” is rarely followed with “...of her generation.”

Her name was Deborah; I remember her by the heart tattooed on her hand. A notebook with doodles was her catalog. I told her I was attracted to the centipede and the sunflower and asked which one might be better for me.

Her underwhelming reply was along the lines of, well, which one do you want?

There was a line, so I chose quickly.

She dipped a calamansi thorn in ink and quietly got to work. I woke up the next day, centipede on my arm as it would be for conceivably forever, uncertain of what I could tell anyone if they asked, “What does it mean?” The inevitable— and sometimes infuriating—question for anyone with a tattoo.

But nearly everyone who sees it recognizes the style, asking, “Whang-od?”

The three-dotted signature has become an independent design, though its original purpose was to live next to tattoos done by other mambabatok as a sign of verification.

It is an uncomfortable feeling. It would be easier, at this point, to say yes than to explain; a consequence of the fact that the title “The Last Mambabatok” is rarely followed with “…of her generation.” Sometimes, while I’m casually browsing through the internet, seeing the hordes who believe they know Whang-od, I wonder what it means to have this tattoo—a tattoo I did not stay more than five hours for, that I bought for twice the amount she charges, that I did not wait patiently to get from “the OG.” That I did not earn.

And so Fruhlein and I dove into this story entirely prepared to be tattooed at the end, believing that with the tattoo would come a kind of enlightenment.

“Maybe I’ll just get her signature,” Fruhlein says. It is going to be her first tattoo.

There is no shortage of people from all over the world willing to go through the labors of a trip to Kalinga just to get a tattoo.

Whang-od’s signature is three dots, similar to an ellipsis. It represents her and her two apprentices. There are many other tattoo practitioners like Deborah in Buscalan (18 at my last count), even some in neighboring villages, but Whang-od has chosen only two to personally mentor: her grandniece Grace Palicas, and Grace’s cousin, Elyang Wigan. Together, they hold their tattoo sessions in a shared hut, attached to a blue-green house, with their photos and names framed on the walls.

The dots are not as aesthetically intimidating as the other designs. “Like a baby tattoo,” Fruhlein comments. More and more people have started to treat it as an independent design, although its original purpose was to live next to tattoos done by the other mambabatok as a sign of verification, like the definitive signature on a Picasso. It signifies “made in Kalinga.”

We wait in that hut on the first of a five-day trip, just to observe. Whang-od is walking around, tidying up in random places. She finally settles under a staircase to place her signature on the next client. A small crowd is watching, smartphones at the ready.

As we watch Whang-od’s heavy hand, the idea of getting a tattoo from her becomes more and more unpleasant. The taps are strong, deep, rhythmic, and painful.

After it is done, the freshly-tattooed client leans in for a hug and a photo. Another piece of evidence that the tattoo is indeed made in Kalinga.

Inside the hut, Grace is methodologically tracing a design on skin. She does not look satisfied. She takes a piece of wet tissue and starts over. In the time that it takes her to get the trace back on, Whang-od has finished another signature.

There’s a phrase in Buscalan vernacular, “emben a whatok”, born from the revival of tattoo culture—it means “invented tattoos,” and it falls under a new breed designed “for decoration.”

On our bus ride over, we met a vlogger—GoPro and selfie stick in hand at all times—who came with the intention of getting his first tattoo. “My next tattoo will be by Grace, but this… this is for bragging rights,” he says, showing us the one done by Whang-od, which was still bleeding and had started to turn purple under the ink. He looks at his bruise with admiration.

Was it wrong that right then and there a tattoo from Grace appealed to me for the lack of pain? Or was the pain that came with Whang-od’s heavy hand a part of the authenticity, characteristic of being “the OG”? Did the experience of batok have to be akin to the old adages of “no pain, no gain”?

Jean and Jonathan of Katribu in their tattoo parlor, surrounded by pieces from their travels around the Philippines.

The excruciating pain has left its imprint on traditions—the Butbut used to sing worship songs during public tattoo sessions to alleviate the pain. Some headhunters even declined the tattoos in fear that they may not be able to endure the entire process.

But today, the pain can be quelled. According to Jean Sioson and Jonathan Cena of Katribu Tatu, the hand-tapping technique can even be less painful than machines. Katribu Tatu is a contemporary tattoo parlor in Metro Manila that specializes in batok. They have modernized a few aspects, including their equipment; a metal needle in place of plant thorns, and artificial ink in place of charcoal.

It was in 2012 that they made their first trip to Buscalan, tools in tow, wondering if Whang-od would give them her blessing. Up until then, Jean had been perfecting her technique on her own skin, using water in place of ink, trying to learn how deep the needles needed to pierce in order to mark but not bruise.

As we watch Whang-od’s heavy hand, the idea of getting a tattoo from her becomes more and more unpleasant.

“Natakot ako,” Jean says. “Masakit kaya! Paano kung hindi ko kaya?” She recalls crying, running to Jonathan, worried that she might inadvertently offend if she refused.

Katribu’s clients are often those unable to make the trip to Kalinga, a testament to Whang-od’s sphere of influence. Once, a soon-to-be policeman came asking for a large design—ten hours worth of work—to protect him from danger, adamant about having it by the start of his first job. There have also been Filipinos living abroad, looking to be closer to their heritage.

As if on cue, in the middle of our interview: a loud series of knocks and a new client. He is a tall, 19-year-old Filipino-American, visiting the country for the second time and shopping for his second tattoo. He consults with Katribu; sharing information about himself and asking Jonathan to show it in symbols. He is a chef, and he wants a traditional motif to represent his passion for food.

When I ask why he wants a hand-tapped tattoo, he replies: “It’s part of our culture, you know?” To which, I feel the same twinge of aversion I do when the blogger refers to his tattoo as a bragging right.

Jean traces the design for size.
Jonathan utilizes a metal needle in place of the traditional plant thorn.


It has been a long time since we started borrowing from Kalinga culture—and as the distance between us and the last of the generation of headhunters grows, it becomes even more essential to look at what we have borrowed and remember not to claim it as ours.

There is a word in the vernacular of Buscalan for “authentic,” kadtok, which they reserve for the tattoos of elders. But they have another phrase, emben a whatok, born from the revival of tattoo culture—it means “invented tattoos,” and it falls under a new breed designed “for decoration” (ar-arte).

Even among the Butbut, tattoos have changed—they have become an erratic occurrence. Some of the elders, like Whang-od, are inked all the way up their arms and to their backs. Others leave their skin bare, symptomatic of a time when tattoo culture was frowned upon and impeded their access to education. But the rest are finding their footing in a modern space where tattoos have new life and more than one meaning; the rules have changed.

Grace Palicas has been called The Next Legendary Mambabatok
A mambabatok replenishes her stock of needles by picking thorns from a lemon tree.

Now the Butbut choose their ink. There are teenagers with doodles in traditional charcoal, like Deborah, and adults who prefer machines, straying away from the thorns. One of them carries a large snake tattoo on his forearm, patterned after a traditional Hispanic sign; he says it reminds him of his own culture.

Grace herself carries a tattoo done by machine, from years ago when she was still carving her place in the new world of mambabatok. In some documentaries, she is seen sporting a shirt with Katribu’s name on it. Back in the city, Jean proudly wears three tattoos from Kalinga: from Grace, Whang-od, and Elyang. She says her arms belong to them, waiting for the day they are as full as the elders’.

The rest are finding their footing in a modern space where tattoos have new life and more than one meaning; the rules have changed.

In the course of my research, I encountered a short documentary entitled Spirit of Asia: Discover the Legend of the Kalinga Tribal Tattoos. In one scene, a tour guide jokingly explains the x-shaped tattoo, saying, “Kapag maraming ‘x’, maraming ex-boyfriend.” He laughs. The English-speaking narrator somberly translates: “For every x, it is one ex-girlfriend or boyfriend. If you have fifteen x’s, you had fifteen boyfriends. Sometimes the name of the ex-boyfriend can be found here, in letters. Then once you get married, it is the name of the husband. Maybe it is found here in your heart.”

The camera pans to Whang-od, who is also laughing.

The only documentation of x-tattoos are of those on the face, used to protect the Butbut from malevolent spirits. In Buscalan, our tour guide says it might mean the number of people killed. He isn’t sure anymore. “Si Whang-od lang talaga ang may alam. Tanungin mo siya.”

But I didn’t get to ask. In the middle of the night, I wake up covered in welts. There’s a single piece of anti-allergy medication in my bag, but no means to call for help. The only cellphone with reception is an old Samsung that hangs from a clothesline to access even a few bars of signal. The entire village sleeps, even the pigs. Fruhlein and I manage to turn a boiling kettle into a makeshift nebulizer, and for the first time, it truly feels like Kalinga is very, very far away.

I make the cheerless decision to leave the next afternoon, and we spend the morning at the blue-green house. Grace is working in the hut, with her quiet, calculated taps.

Whang-od is working as well. Her new patron is a professional fighter and this is his second tattoo, a prize from whom he refers to as “The Master.” A friend is taking a video as blood drips freely from the point where she pierces him with the thorn. His friend gives him the thumbs up.

The line wavers and Whang-od is finally available, but my skin is in no shape to be messed with. She doesn’t tattoo either of us that day, and it’s okay. Fruhlein decides to forego the signature, and gets her first tattoo from Grace, after a night of getting to know her.

I still don’t know what the x-tattoos stand for, but I have since learned that the centipede is a spiritual symbol of protection, only offered to men as their first line of defense in battle. If we were walking the rules of traditional culture, my tattoo wouldn’t even have been permitted—every tattoo artist I have asked to help me correct the crooked lines has refused as a sign of respect, and not a single local from Buscalan has batted an eye. So the crooked centipede stays.

--

Originally published in GRID Volume 03.


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