“For as Long as My Eyes can See” The Practice of Babatok Lives On
Photograph: Billing, L. (2022). Apo Whang Od. atlasobscura.com. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/fang-od-oggay-kalinga-tattoo-philippines.
By Alayna Jones
How 106-year-old Indigenous Tattoo artist Apo Whang Od became Vogue’s oldest Cover Model
As I lower my head, I look at the tattoo on my wrist that I got when I just turned 20. Coming from traditional American living, my family couldn’t seem to wrap their heads to understand why I could do such a thing. Some people could say I rebelled, but I saw it as freeing. With the wonders that roam through my head as the needle taunts my skin, I think about the people who took the time to create such a timeless practice, in a time when tattoos symbolized beauty instead of rebellion.
TOK-TOK-TOK is the sound of the needle placed into the client's skin. Chickens roam around the tree hut ground as the pain of the throne being knocked in the skin becomes worth it, as this practice is a sacred one. Eight-hundred residents take pride in the tattoos that have been imprinted in their bodies at the Buscalan Village in the Philippines. Their practice remains sacred, as they have stood firm in their culture and practices for thousands of years. Many would say that their body is a temple and to not tarnish it with such imprints but Philippine legend, 106-year-old Apo Whang-Od, thinks differently.
Whang-Od was only 16 when she began her career as a tattoo artist, taught by her father. This thousand-year tradition continued to live on as the pomelo needle was placed in her hand by her father. She first began her practice of tattooing when she imprinted her work on transitioning ancestors and is now praised for her intricate work in publications such as Vogue. Whang-od is not only a guardian of this cultural heritage, but she is also an ambassador of indigenous artistry which she shares with the rest of the world.
Back in 1912, in the culture of the Bubut tribes, women without tattoos were deemed as undesirable and flawed. As other women were tattooed for “fertility and beauty” and their ancestors were imprinted as they couldn’t take their gold and jewelry to the afterlife, their markings were said to protect them, and allow them to bring symbols of their riches with them when they go. Men who were tattooed were seen as head hunting warriors. Head hunting is a Kalinga practice of collecting the severed body parts of a human after defeat in a war. Many men would get bikkings (patterns on the shoulders and arms) tattooed as a sacred practice where it represented strength. Back then, it would cost “a pig or rice”. As years went by, the reform of Western culture began to settle in the village and many women found shame in tattoos, as wearing long sleeve shirts to school now became normalized. This eventually led to generations stopping the widely recognized tattoo tradition that was once so significant.
We have come into an age where tattoos are seen as different and trendy. Some have deep meanings associated, while others just use it as a random staple piece, simply used to decorate the skin with art. Nevertheless, over the past decades, tattoos have made a return to popularity, regaining recognition of the first and oldest living Mambatok, Whang-Od.
Mambatoks can only pass this craft to existing bloodlines. Even though Whang-Od is getting older, she passed her knowledge to her niece Grace, when she was only 10 years old, now 26. Many tourists from around the world come to get their tattoos done by the oldest Mambabatok living, assisted by Grace. Several of those tourists were team members at Vogue who traveled thousands of miles to get tattooed and hear her story.
Months later, the recognition of her work by Vogue workers gained her an opportunity to be on the cover of Vogue Philippines earlier this year. As I looked at the cover, I felt the same feeling I felt when getting my first tattoo. That same freeing feeling that as a woman, my body belonged to me and not to the thoughts of anybody else. In this article, a pioneering tattooist was giving us a glance of her culture, her history, and her story. She delivers the message that one should make tattoos what they want, whether a symbol or just for decoration of the skin. Your body belongs to you, everybody has a story, so imprint it how you want to.