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Whang-Od, Kalinga’s oldest tattoo artist, holds her portrait by Jake Verzosa. Photo by Jake Verzosa

Whang-Od and the journey of the portraits of Kalinga’s last tattooed women

When Jake Verzosa started working on the portraits, traditional Kalinga tattooing was a dying practice
JEROME B. GOMEZ | Jun 01 2021

The sight of the tattooed women used to give Jake Verzosa a scare as a child. Growing up in the rural capital of the Cagayan Valley Region which is visited frequently by townsfolk and tribes from neighboring Kalinga, the young Jake would hear stories about the women as headhunters. Who would have thought that decades after, he would become their unofficial ambassador, introducing their culture to the world and creating an understanding of their distinguishing marks through his photographs? 

In 2009, the Tuguegarao-born photographer wanted to take portraits of the women of Kalinga who have undergone batok, the practice of tattooing in the Cordilleras that began even before the period of Spanish colonization. The project began for the photographer as curiosity and a way to scratch an artist’s inherent itch to create something that pays tribute to his place of origin. 

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Verzosa would make the trip to Kalinga a few times beginning in 2009 until 2012, staying in the villages from two weeks to a month each time. Photo by Jake Verzosa

Chancing upon a break from his commercial work, Verzosa organized a trip on his own and found Natividad Sugguiyao, provincial officer of the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples in Kalinga to help him out. She would be his indispensable companion in Kalinga, leading him to the villages and ushering him to the women’s homes, introducing Verzosa to his subjects, some of whom have not faced a camera before. She would inform them of their mission: to document the last of their kind. 

Verzosa and Sugguiyao encountered no hesitation from their sitters, even if the women had to take their tops off for the pictures. It must have been a while since they last displayed their markings to an audience, beautiful patterns tapped onto their flesh, once badges of beauty, strength and character—until Western concepts of beauty seeped into their villages and the next generations of women started finding the tattoos strange, ridiculous, even dirty. 

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The Kalinga tribe can be found in the Cordillera region, a group of indigenous peoples who have protected their culture from outside forces for centuries. Photo by Jake Verzosa

Shooting the women 

In the villages, Verzosa would enter each house armed with his film camera, a tripod, and a white backdrop rolled up in his backpack. The decision to shoot with film doubtless benefited the portraits. It dictated the shooting process proceed like a ritual. The time needed to set up served as opportunity for the women to ask their questions—What is this gadget? Why are you taking our pictures?— and for Verzosa to answer, sparking a connection between lensman and subject. (There was a language barrier, yes, but here Sugguiyao would serve as bridge.) 

Unlike in his other shoots where the digital camera would give Verzosa the freedom to click away as much as he wanted, this one needed to be more formal, each pose more intentional, the fall of a hand or the angle of the head arranged just so—the better to keep the photographer to his limit of 12 shots per subject. The portraits show the women in varying expressions: amused by the contraption in front of them, pensive, sad, tired, uneasy about exposing their breasts, proud, happy. And then there’s something else the film captured. “The women’s stares,” says Verzosa, “you can’t get that from a digital camera or anything instant.” 

The project took three years to complete. On each trip to Kalinga, Verzosa would stay with a family from the village, delay shooting for a week in order to immerse himself with his surroundings, and then spend the next week or three shooting the portraits. Each time he would return from Manila, he would take with him prints of the portraits to give to the women. This was initially the only projected end to Verzosa’s endeavor—to document the last tattooed women of Kalinga and award them a copy of their likenesses. 

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Whang-Od learned the practice of tattooing when she was 15. Photo by Jake Verzosa

Beyond Kalinga 

But the portraits will travel far and wide, in book pages and framed photographs, apart from ending up in private collections. They’ve been published in book form twice: the first was co-published by Silverlens Gallery and the second with Gerhard Steidl in Germany, following the project’s win at the Steidl Book Awards in Singapore in 2016. This second book was launched at the influential Paris Photo, the annual international art fair devoted to photography. 

In the past decade, the collection have traveled to many festivals and exhibitions—in Amsterdam, Denmark, Paris, Nepal, Chicago, Gwangju, and Dali, China. Just as the photographs were spreading its wings and landing in different institutions abroad, there also was a growing interest in tattooing in different parts of the world. 

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Portrait sitting with the tattooed women. Photo courtesy of Silverlens Gallery

An important exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris in 2014, called Tatoueurs, Tatoues, included Versoza’s pictures. The show presented images of inked bodies from different cultures around the globe, exploring “the artistic nature of the practice” of tattooing, with the Kalinga women likely serving to illustrate one of its earliest incarnations. The exhibition traveled to Ontario, Seoul and Los Angeles, exposing more eyes and nationalities to the Kalinga women, their unique markings and the culture they represented. “It also gave a face to our history when it came to tattoos, alongside others in the world,” said Verzosa. 

Meanwhile in the Philippines, local and foreign tourists were making a pilgrimage to the thatched roof village of Buscalan to seek the services of Kalinga’s oldest mambabatok, or tattoo artist, Whang-Od. The lady found herself a sensation at nearly 100 years old, with fans lining up for hours just to get inked by her in the traditional way. What was a dying art when Verzosa began his project was all of a sudden so popular, thanks to fans who would post their tattoos on social media. Whang-Od, one of the women in Versoza’s portraits, already had by this time passed on the skill she learned at 15 from a Kalinga warrior to her grandniece. 

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A Bo Nao Sicdawag. Photo by Jake Verzosa

In 2017, the famed mambabatok’s presence at the furniture and design fair, Manila FAME—she was flown in by the Philippine Air Force for the event—caused a furor. It led to accusations that the organizers were exploiting the tattoo artist after a photo of what seemed like an exhausted Whang-Od went viral online. It turned out Whang Od did agree to the two-day live tattooing, including a speaking engagement. The ruckus would, however, spark a discussion about the commodification of culture and the use of indigenous peoples for business interests. 

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Lacdag Awingan. Photo by Jake Verzosa

Ten years after 

Most recently, an ethnographic film called “The Modern Mambabatok” is being screened in different places in the US. Directed by Kayla Sotomil, an ethnographic filmmaker, it “explores the modern practice of Filipino hand tap tattooing” through the eyes of Lane Wilcken who calls himself a cultural tattoo practitioner, and whose mother is from the Philippines. The strange thing about Wilcken’s version is that it seeks to decolonize the practice, strip the procedure of the rituals and spirituality attached to it and put the focus solely on the artmaking. 

More than 10 years after he started taking its first pictures, “The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga” has become the body of work most associated with Verzosa. Through its sheer popularity and the extensive journeys it’s been through, the collection will doubtless one day be spoken of in the same breath as the works of Eduardo Masferre and Tommy Hafalla whose photographs are so deeply attached to the Cordilleras. 

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Kalinga children look at the portraits of the tattooed women. Photo by Jake Verzosa

Looking back, Versoza is grateful to have taken on the project, which continues to reinforce its relevance by being invited to participate in exhibitions, and because people continue to inquire about it—especially Filipinos outside the Philippines looking for a deeper connection to their motherland. Working on the project in 2009, Verzosa would ask children in the villages of Kalinga if they wanted tattoos like the ones the women wore in his pictures. Back then, the kids readily said no. It would be interesting to find out if they have changed their answer.

[To visit the ongoing "The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga," click on this link.]