Whang Od is a Filipina tattoo artist who is believed to be 102 years old and has been tattooing since she was 15. She is the last and oldest mambabatok, which means a traditional tattoo artist from Kalinga. Whang Od is part of the Butbut people in Buscalan, who belong to the Kalinga ethnic group. She originally started tattooing headhunters and Butbut warriors who protected the villages and killed enemies but stopped this is 1972 when the government discouraged it. Today, she tattoos mainly tourists as she has become widely known through travelers posting about her on social media.
Choosing a design
Whang Od tattoos using thorns, charcoal, soot and a bamboo hammer, which is a traditional method. Whang Od’s village has a board of designs that tourists can choose from or she can choose the design and placement for you. All are designed by her and have a meaning behind them. Most tattoos will be priced up afterwards, usually costing between 400 and 1000 pesos, which is approximately $10-20, and many people will offer Whang Od some gifts too, such as food and clothing. Her signature design is three dots, which represents herself and her two bloodline successors that she has trained, her grandnieces Grace Palicas and Ilyang Wigan.
It’s believed that Whang Od trained her grandnieces, along with some other bloodline members of the village, after falling ill in February 2017 to keep the thousand year old tradition alive. Their culture believes that teaching anyone outside of the bloodline would cause the tattoos to become infected.
Whang Od used to chant and do fortune telling when tattooing, which is part of the mambabatok tradition. She doesn’t chant when tattooing tourists as they’re meant for the beautification of Kalinga women and the celebration of Kalinga men’s victory. Today, the village has at least ten people trained and offering these traditional tattoos to tourists, but Whang Od is still in the highest demand.
Tourism in Buscalan
What started as a few tourists discovering Whang Od and getting a truly unique and special tattoo has led to hundreds of tourists flooding the village every day. This is largely down to blog postings on traveler websites, news stories and television appearances. Whang Od is believed to tattoo 20-30 tourists a day, along with other villagers offering traditional tattoos. She’s described as strong, friendly and nothing like most other people who have hit 100 years old.
It’s important that tourists remember that they’re visiting a remote, small village that wasn’t built for so many visitors. Litter is a big problem caused by tourists, so they’re urged to take any trash away from the area with them to help the village to sustain itself.
Getting to Buscalan
Buscalan is Whang Od’s village, which is a bit of a trek to get to. First, you need to travel to Bontoc, which is fairly easy to get to via an overnight bus from Manila. Next is getting on the daily jeepney, a Filipino minibus, from Dereyk’s Restaurant, where it leaves between 1pm and 2pm, taking passengers to the turning point near Buscalan. Once you’re off the jeepney you need to start hiking. It’s likely some locals will meet you and guide you the rest of the way.
It takes about 1-2 hours, or you can use the zipline, but it’s not often running. The villagers are very welcoming and will let you stay in their home for around $5 but amenities are very basic.
Making an informed choice
Of course, health and safety standards aren’t a priority for Buscalan, so caring for your new tattoo while it’s healing is essential to prevent infection. Whang Od will use the same thorn until it’s blunt, which is usually after several people, so there is a risk of cross contamination. No gloves are worn and nothing will be sterilized.
You need to remember that this is a traditional way of tattooing and will vary greatly to any practices that you’ll find in modern tattoo studios, therefore it’s up to you to make an informed choice about whether the safety concern outweighs getting your own Whang Od tattoo.
Many tourists believe that getting a tattoo by Whang Od is one of the best souvenirs they can take away with them when visiting the area. Although she is the last mambabatok, she has passed on much her of knowledge to other bloodline villagers to keep the art alive and to boost the local economy by welcoming tourists.