Two bamboo sticks clacked in rapid succession as Apo Whang Od, known as “the last tattoo artist” of Kalinga, hammered one onto the other, causing the long calamansi thorn at the end of one of the sticks to prick and pierce the skin on my back. I was getting a batuk, a native tattoo that once adorned the bodies of ferocious headhunters.
In the mountainous province of Kalinga in Northern Philippines, lies the serene community of Buscalan. Situated in one of the many heights of the Cordilleras, the town has acquired fame around the globe for the ancient art of tattooing. Last year, Apo Whang Od was featured on CNN.
While tattoos are valued for their aesthetic quality, the markings here convey more than mere skin art. In the olden days, these tattoos set apart special women from wallflowers and men from boys.
For people of the tribe, a lady with tattoos was—and is—regarded as beautiful. She decorates her arms with sleeves of snake skin and rice grain patterns. Her forehead and temples are embellished with crosses, triangles and dots to enhance her visage.
A boy, however, only earns his first marking after his first kill—specifically, when he cuts off an enemy’s head and brings it back to the village. As he grows into a strong warrior, he earns his ink armor one amulet at a time: centipedes in the arms for protection, pythons on the shoulders for strength, and the most elaborate of which, the mighty eagle on the chest and back– reserved for the most valiant.
Although hidden by green forests and protected by deep ravines—not to mention the gruelling 15-hour drive from Metro Manila—Buscalan has acquired fame over the years for being the home of the beautiful Apo Whang Od.
Like many of the elderly women in the village, Whang Od, now 93, sports intricately tattooed sleeves, a scarf wrapped around her head and beads dangling from her hair and neck.
Even in the village, it is rare to find people as heavily tattooed as she is. As the head-hunting practices vanished, the inking tradition slowly followed suit. Tattooing is becoming less and less popular with the younger tribe folk. A quick visit would show tourists like me queuing and waiting for their turn to be branded.
I sat on a low stool with my back towards the tattoo artist. It felt surreal finally being there, bracing myself for the pain of the thorn that was about to pierce my skin again and again. It worried me how the result will turn out. Wanting it to be as authentic as possible, I asked the Apo to decide which design would best suit me.
Dipping a long stick in a paste made of soot and water, she traced a semicircle at the center of my back. I was told she planned on drawing a centipede, a symbol for protection.
Perhaps my mind was wandering but it was not as painful as I expected. During the process, I kept recalling that this is what brave warriors experienced centuries ago. I could not help but be overwhelmed that here I was, going through the exact same thing!
Forty minutes after and it was done. I was marked forever. While I know that many people back in the city have their biases against tattoos, I felt nothing but pride in being part of such a rich tradition. I am honored to carry this meaningful symbol for the rest of my life.
• Osep Reyes is part of Culture Shock PH, a travel group that advocates appreciation and preservation of Filipino culture and heritage through guided trips around the Philippines.