Art is timeless, its form varies from generation to generation. Tattoos are an ancient form of art and have been a part of many generations, traditions, and cultures recogised worldwide.
Some get to experience this art’s truest form from the one of a kind Whang-Od, the world’s oldest tattoo artist.
Who is Whang-Od and why is her art recognised worldwide? Whang-Od, also known as Maria Oggay, is a 103-year-old tattoo artist from the Northern Mountain in the Philipines, Kaliniga, in a small village called Buscalan. She is not only the oldest tattoo artist in the world, but the first woman tattoo artist in her tribe But-But. Whang-Od started practicing the art of Mambabatok at the age of 15, and 90 years later she is the oldest living tattoo artist of the Kalinge people.
Mambabatok, which can be loosely translated to ‘person who hits/taps’, are artists who use traditional bamboo sticks to poke the ink into the skin. No machines or guns are used during the practice. This practice began thousands of years ago by the Kalinga head-hunters and But-But warriors. The tattoo was a sign of strength, masculinity and power. For the Kalinga women, however, the tattoos were a sign of admiration, beauty, and fertility. The more tattoos a woman had, the more beautiful she was perceived.
‘ A Once In a Lifetime Experience ‘ Tourists make a 15-hour trek up to the Buscalan village from Manila to meet Whang-Od. The ones who have met her say it is an eye-opening, once-in-a-lifetime experience definitely worth the long travels. Whang-Od holds many deeply rooted traditions and stories of warriors and lifetimes which are reflected through her story-telling tattoos.
For the tourists who travel to receive a tattoo from Whang-Od, ‘she has a unique style of tattooing’. The tourists cannot choose their own designs. She has 20 tattoo styles they can choose from, each with a different, unique and special meaning, such as health, protection or direction. The tattoo is performed by tapping the needle into the skin, quickly, with the right pressure and great accuracy. Despite being 103, her hands are very steady and strong, with the ability to tap 100 times into the skin per minute.
Whang-Od is the only tattoo artist alive in Kalinige and does not have any children of her own, but she is passing on her Filipino culture to her two nieces, Elayang and Grace. The Kalinga believe the tattoos will be infected if the tradition is passed down to the people of not the same origin, so the two nieces spend many hours, from sunrise to sunset, learning from Whang-Od, to keep the tradition alive.
For those who wish to meet this extraordinary tattooist, the journey isn’t an easy one, but it is definitely a part of an exciting experience. To get to her village of Buscalan, you must first get to the province of Kalinge. The easiest way is via the nearest large town, Bontoc. From Bontoc, it’s another two hours via private vehicle, hitchhiking, or jeepney to get to the start of Buscalan.
From there, you’ll have to walk or hire a motorbike to take you to the start of the Buscalan trail, where you can hire a local guide to take you up the mountain and put you on Whang-Od’s waiting list. The climb is a tough one, made out of vertical stairs that wind through rice terraces, but once you’re through, the tough job is done and you will reach a small thatch-roof cabana where you will find Whang-Od.
It is not an easy journey, but it is a magnificent adventure worth all the efforts and long waits, as the result is a rare and unique work of art created by a tiny 103-year-old-lady with a thorn and wooden hammer.