Whang-Od Oggay, at 102 years, is the oldest mambabatok, a traditional Kalinga tattooist, in the Philippines. She started her apprenticeship at age 15 and keeps the ancient tradition alive in Kalinga province. Her day starts at dawn when she mixes ink from pine soot and water to hand-tapped on the many people who come to see her. Getting to the village of Buscalan where she lives is not an easy trip, it takes a 15 hour drive and then a mile long hike through a forest and rice terraces to the village.
A thorn from a pomelo tree, a foot-long bamboo stick and her hand-mixed coal and water ink are the only tools Whang-Od uses. The thorn is inked and tapped deep into the skin with the bamboo stick and are permanent. The motifs used are lines, simple shapes, tribal prints or animals, each has a meaning, such as strength, beauty and fertility.
The body art started with the indigenous Butok warriors, each tattoo has specific meaning and they could only be inked after having killed someone. For women, the body art is all about beauty. Whang-Od’s arms and legs were covered in tattoos by her friends in her teens which is also when she learnt how to apply tattoos under her father’s guidance. Traditionally only men were allowed to learn tattooing.
The culture believes the art can only be passed down to blood relatives and tattoos will become infected if this is not the case. Fortunately Whang-Od, although she has no children of her own, have trained her grandnieces in the art.
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