Honored or exploited? Whang-ud's trip to Manila stirs online debate

Rhys Buccat, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 22 2017 06:54 PM | Updated as of Oct 22 2017 07:50 PM

MANILA -- Escorted by the Philippine Air Force, Whang-ud Oggay, Kalinga's oldest practicing tattooist, arrived in Manila last Wednesday, October 18. 

As soon as the chopper landed, Whang-ud geared up for her long-overdue meeting with her showbiz crush, "Ang Probinsyano" star Coco Martin, who unhesitatingly wrapped his arm around the old woman's frail body. 

Witness to this once-in-a-lifetime moment was Whang-ud's great niece and protege, Gracia Palicas, who also giggled when Martin and hugged her "apo" [grandmother]. 

Whang-ud's admiration for the actor is apparent in her humble hut in the village of Buscalan, where she keeps a vast collection of Coco Martin memorabilia. Last July, a team from "Ang Probinsyano" visited Whang-ud and gave her Martin's personal gift, another addition to the collection. 


Martin, who is currently busy shooting his Metro Manila Film Festival entry "Ang Panday," assured Whang-ud that he would personally climb the mountains of Kalinga someday to pay her a visit. And by then, perhaps, he could finally get a Whang-ud tattoo. 


Apart from meeting with Martin, the 100-year-old was also in town to participate in Manila FAME, an annual event organized by the Department of Trade and Industry and Department of Tourism. This trade fair aims to showcase the craftsmanship, design innovation, and artisanship in Philippine products. 

A special platform was built for Whang-ud and her nieces in Manila FAME, where they showcased Kalinga's age-old tattooing tradition. 

People from allover the city lined up and paid up to P2,500 for a tattoo.


While many were grateful for the chance to meet and get a tattoo from the world-renowned tattooist, some expressed their concern on how the event was handled. 

Some netizens criticized the event, saying it was not really intended to promote Kalinga's tattooing tradition -- but only to earn money. The anger increased when a photo of what seemed to be a restless Whang-ud went viral

Some even likened Manila FAME to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, where a number of Philippine indigenous people were brought to the United States as living exhibits.


File Photo

In a statement by Manila FAME, the organizers clarified that all proceeds from the tattoos of Whang-ud and her nieces were handed to Kalinga elders. According to them, it was Whang-ud who wanted to accommodate more people. 

The statement added Whang-ud's participation was to promote "the culture and heritage crafts of the region [Kalinga], while also enabling a deeper understanding and appreciation of the country's pre-colonial identity through our enduring traditional tattoo art." 

The organizers also assured that comprehensive care was given to Whang-ud throughout her participation and that a professional team ensured that all her medical needs are addressed. 


In 2015, a year before her death, the late Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago urged her colleagues to nominate Whang-ud for the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA), or the National Living Treasures Award.

The GAMABA is given to Filipinos who are at the “forefront of the practice, preservation, and promotion of the nation’s traditional folk arts.” If she gets conferred, Whang-ud would receive a gold medallion, an initial grant of P100,000, a P14,000 monthly lifetime stipend, and medical benefits.

In their statement, Manila FAME announced that the nomination of Whang-ud to the GAMABA has been accepted by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). Together with the GAMABA Committee and a panel of experts, the NCCA will be conducting an evaluation to see if she qualifies for the highly coveted award. 


After her stint in Manila FAME, Whang-ud was flown back to her home in Buscalan on Sunday morning. There, in a makeshift hut, she accommodates 20 to 30 people a day. 

Before journeying back home, Whang-ud's protege, Gracia, and other Kalinga tattooists marveled at the old walls of the historic Intramuros along with the organizers of Manila FAME. 

The group went through a quick history lesson, while they took selfies with portraits of heroes their ancestors never heard of because Kalinga was never conquered by Spaniards.