At 97-years-old, Apo Whang-Od (pronounced Fang-Od) is the oldest Kalinga mambabatok (traditional tattoo artist) in the Philippines—but is she the last? The tradition honored by Butbut Kalinga people states mambabatok's can only pass their tattooing trade down to a family heir, which poses somewhat of a problem to Whang-Od—she never had children. Her husband died in World War II and she never remarried. But her nieces, Grace and Ilyang, have shown interest in taking over once she passes, so Whang-Od has started to teach them her ways.
The legendary tattoo method used in Kalinga culture, known as batok, requires very little. The ink is made of soot and water and it is applied by tapping the ink into the skin using thorns or needle-like glass. The rhythmic application is of course more painful than the machine method we are familiar with. The most common tattoo is of centipedes, representing protection and spiritual guidance. There are also health concerns surrounding batok, but it has been used for generations without problem. Not to mention Whang-Od is heavily tattooed and she's approaching 100. That's another thing. You'd think an elderly traditional Filipino tattoo artist, perhaps the last standing, would receive more recognition. Unfortunately that is not the case.
While many from around the world travel to get tattooed by Whang-Od, she is still not officially recognized as a world renowned artist. Facebook user and Philippines native Loughrenz Aidwourd has been campaigning to get the mambabatok named the National Artist of the Philippines since September 2015. This is the highest national recognition given to Filipinos who have made significant contributions to the development of Philippine arts. It shouldn't take much convincing to prove Whang-Od is an ideal candidate. Aidwourd is also campaigning to get the tattooer included in the National Living Treasures of the Philippines. Though his posts have reached thousands he has had little luck, which is shocking because tattoos are cherished among Filipinos and throughout the Kalinga culture.
The ButBut Kalinga tribe considers tattooed men and women as desirable people. Inked individuals used their tattoos to communicate with one another for generations. Tattoos represented who they were, where they came from and what they stood for—marking their tribe's history with ink. But now history is slowly being forgotten and Whang-Od's time is limited. Until her nieces fully commit to carrying on the batok tradition, Whang-Od is the sole person responsible for keeping the method alive. We hope to see the legendary tattooer receive proper credit for her work and commitment to the art as soon as possible.