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Buscalan Kalinga, Philippines ….

Introduction to the Story 

The normal concept behind travel writing is to try and share travels, ideas and observations with readers, to perhaps motivate people, to follow in our footsteps. As writers for Suja Travel  we are encouraged to talk about our own country. For myself, I have come to understand that the geography of the Philippines is not the only aspect of interest. The world is interested in our culture, our social habits and indeed in all the ways we think and live. I have a friend who had a tattoo from our mountain country. As the circumstances of her story were told to me, the seeds of a cultural, travel tale were born.  

The story was one of a journey, up into the mountains, to visit a tribal, village elder. The purpose of the trip was for a tattoo inscribed in the way of the ancient methods.  I spoke with the Suja Travel Editor and the discussions encouraged me to explore the methods of the tattoo, and why it was done by a tribal artist. He believed there was a human interest story and agreed to publish the tale,  However,  it was a requirement that the storyteller would need to approve the final script.   

Rossana Gabito Jimenez is not only my friend and college classmate but, one brave warrior from travel to hiking and tattooing and she has only smiles about her experience. Without her, there would be no story, no tale, and no recording of a different travel experience. I  

She went to a remote village in the mountains and ended up with a tattoo. My “Thanks “ to her, for her approval, to publish this tale, is profound. 

Jimenez spoke with me in our native language “Tag” and her ideas, observations and record of events were blended with  English words to form the story. This is my rendition and it is told in the first person………. 


The Making of A Tribal Tattoo 

The final truth is that I decided to have a tattoo inscribed on my back.  Today a tattoo is considered social, modern art, but, to have mine done by a 102 year old tribal artist was a way to link myself with history. The art of tattooing dates back to ancient times, thousands of years as tattoos were found on mummified remains dating back to  3770-3100BC.  They were used to signify membership in society, the slave status of the wearer, as female adornment and other, various reasons. I believe that the name “ tattoo” comes from the Samoan word “tatau”. 

The art of tattooing a body is like precious jewelry, with every design having many meanings. In my mind, it has to be a real statement of value, or it is just disturbing the natural state of the body. The choice of the tattoo and the artist is of priceless and obviously long-lasting importance. It becomes even more priceless, if created by one the oldest tattoo artists in the world. The far north of the Philippines is where the mountain province of Kalinga is located. The mountain is called the sleeping beauty mountain, by the locals. Sitting proudly on the peak is a small beautiful village called Buscalan and in this village, the famous Apo Whang-Od, the tattoo artist, makes her home.  

If you want to have a tattoo by Apo Whang-Od you need loads of patience and motivation.  To begin with, just thinking about the 18-hour pilgrimage from Manila to Buscalan province, makes you wonder if it is worth the journey. But for a tattoo enthusiastic, or the person who wants to make the tattoo special, it’s like going to heaven and letting one of God’s dear angels design your skin. Apo Whang-Od surely is not a God nor an angel. But in the eyes and in the hearts of her Butbut Tribe, she is a well respected last of her kind; she is one of the original, Mambabatok, traditional tattoo makers.    

The Butbut have a reputation of being among the “strong people of the mountains”.They place a high value on family and kinship. Up until the late 1960s,  they gained leadership and respect through headhunting, and other individual excelling talents. They were feared due to their talents as headhunters. Today they practice farming in their rugged and mountain topography.  With the help of tourism, coming from tattoo enthusiasts, mountaineers, artists and curious travelers, sustainable, positive tourism has entered their way of life.  

Mambabatok  comes from the root word “batok” and  it means hand tapping the traditional, tattoo, art form on the body, by the use of a bamboo stick and thorn. This was practiced in the days gone by for a variety of reasons. The male headhunter actually earned their tattoos by protecting their tribe or by killing enemies.  For the women, they adorned their body with tattoos to attract a suitor. 

The mountainside itself is a challenge. No cars can make it up the mountainside. One has to spend the 2-hours hiking on a foot path up the mountainside, a narrow, rocky and muddy path.  Tropical rainfall and landslides often renders the path into a muddy obstacle course.  However, hunger and exhaustion just fades away like a song when you reach the mountain top and see the large, magnificent, mountain expanse around you. I had the feeling that I was living in the past and that the modern world simply did not exist. I believe I became closer to God, because mountains do that! 

Then I met Apo Whang-Od, a sweet and beautiful woman even though I did not understand her dialect, her look made me know she was happy to see me through her actions and smiles. Her father was a Mambabatok artist. When he noticed that Apo Whang-od tattoo works were beautiful, and even though this was breaking a patrimonial tradition, he still decided to teach her his craft. Despite being the first and only woman, the tribe accepted her decision. For a 102 year woman she still has 20/20 perfect vision. She can still create a tattoo but since her body is in the stage of weakening, she just starts the pattern and then lets her grand nieces finish the work.   It is a family tradition now and of considerable fame. 

The best part is the tattoo session is when she does the tapping using the plain, calamansi thorn attached to a bamboo stick with her own handmade charcoal ink. Clouds of mixed emotions like the pain on the skin and the feeling of happiness that you are being touched by the head hunter spirit, come alive because of her. In truth, she is a professional in her craft. Her tattoo fee is way cheaper than the one in a tattoo shop, and her reason is simple, she wants to share her culture with the people. 

Some years ago, the villager knew that she was heading to the sundown of her life and that is why she had started training others, including her grand-niece who was only 10 years old. Some of them now are in their early teens and twenties and are good Mambabatok artists themselves. 

Apo Whang-Od  only wishes that her legacy will not stop when she dies and hopes that the Mambabatok tradition and culture will still continue to the next generations to come.  Apo Whang-Od has now become a celebrity in her own right and locals and travelers both, beat a path to her door, to be a part of her history. She truly is the real last of the old-age tattoo artists, yet, the artist in her has taught others. Somehow, in my mind,  it makes so much more sense to have her do a tattoo. If you are going to adorn your body, let it be a part of your culture and history. Then it has the meaning of ages. 

I just had my tattoo, my back has been inked with the star design, by a modern-day legend. The design is a part of my very person and it will have meaning to me, forever. 

The culture of the tattoo, in ancient terms, still lives in the Philippines and it is part of our history and culture. Life is a travel journey that we share with others.”