TINGLAYAN, Kalinga – The thick fog gradually fades as the summer sun penetrates the village of Buscalan, home to the Butbut tribe.
Beside the village’s only school, an elderly woman gears up for another day of literally bloody work. She looks harmless with her family’s heirloom beads entwined with a glow-in-the-dark rosary. But rumor has it, she knows how to cause pain.
This ash-haired woman is Maria Oggay, better known by her Kalinga name, Whang-ud (pronounced as Fang-ud). She is Kalinga’s oldest practicing mambabatok, a living artifact of a once forgotten tradition.
Sitting on five-inch-high wooden stool, Whang-ud carefully stirs a mixture of water and soot for her ink. Guided by an expansive repertoire of age-old motifs, she draws a stencil on the skin of her first client.
She uses nothing more than a bamboo stick and a few lemon thorns, but she performs batok, a local term for tattooing, with a surgeon’s precision.
Tek. Tek. Tek.
At 100 taps per minute, the mambabatok inscribes her cultural identity on a bleeding canvass.
Buscalan, once a territory of legendary headhunting warriors called maingors, is a village hidden behind the mountains of Kalinga in the fourth-class municipality of Tinglayan, some 15 hours from Manila.
The maingors have successfully warded off intruders, defending their land and culture against colonizers, for almost 400 years.Today, these tribal warriors have become nothing more but legends, whose stories of courage and bravery only exist in books and oral accounts of the villagers.
According to elders, the maingors were the finest warriors in the Cordillera. A proof to this are their highly elaborate tattoos that signified their stature in the ancient society.
Tattooing traditions in Kalinga and other parts of the Cordillera date back to the precolonial period. Archival photographs show that both Kalinga men and women were heavily tattooed-- a reminder of a flourishing cultural practice during Kalinga’s early civilization.
Among Kalinga tribes, batok or tattoos signify prestige, honor, beauty and fortitude.
Tattooing is also an essential rite of passage, separation, and transition that one must go through to become a full social person in the community, explained Dr. Analyn Ikin Salvador-Amores, anthropologist and author of the book “Tapping Ink: Tattooing Identities.”
The distinct, symmetrical patterns of Kalinga tattoos are inspired by different animals, insects, and objects found in their environment. These include the sun, mountains, rice terraces, centipedes, pythons, crabs, and hawks, among others.
For Kalinga men, tattoos signified courage, bravery, and valor. Distinct designs were given to warriors after a successful head hunt to serve as a badge of honor they will wear for life. Kalinga women, on the other hand, adorned their bodies with tattoos to enhance beauty and attract a prospective partner. Those with no markings were considered bare, ugly, and barren. Tattoos were also believed to cure infertility and ward off diseases.
These permanent markings are also believed to be their identifiers in the afterlife. Elders say their ancestors would know they belong to the Kalinga tribes when they wear their distinct designs.
As a sacrosanct rite, batok is performed by a specialized practitioner called mambabatok.
But apart from making indelible marks on the skin, the mambabatok also plays other social functions in the community. They also serve as fortunetellers and epic chanters, as well as arbiters of life and death.
“When people have problems, they approach the tattoo practitioner to consult them especially when a woman cannot conceive. Tattoo is one of their solutions— to pierce the skin, bring out the bad blood, and rejuvenate the body,”Amores said.
In her 16 months of commulative fieldwork in Kalinga, Amores found that there used to be both male and female tattoo practitioners travelling in the region.
But only a few of them remained in practice. Among them is Whang-ud, who was already 80 years old at that time.
Amores believes that religion and formal education are the main culprits why traditional tattooing practices almost became extinct.
In the ‘60s, headhunting and tribal wars stopped. A certain stigma was also attached among those who were heavily tattooed. They were seen as criminals or deviant members of the society.
This negative perception on tattoos, Amores said, discouraged the younger generation from continuing this certain cultural practice.
While a broader understanding on tattooing tradition is now available in books, Naty Sugguiyao, provincial director of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples in Kalinga, noted that many still see this tradition as “a thing of the past.”
“There is still that stigma attached to the tattoo and a negative perception linking it to being barbaric and a thing of the past,” Sugguiyao said.
“The more educated appreciate it more,” she added. “From my own people, some appreciate it for keeping the traditions alive while some scorn it saying that why do I have to destroy my body.”
In 2009, tattoo anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak travelled to Kalinga to make a documentary about Whang-ud and the forgotten tradition of batok.
Krutak’s documentary was shown on Discovery Channel, catapulting Whang-ud to global spotlight.
In no time, local and foreign tattoo enthusiasts started knocking on Whang-ud’s door. All of them willing to undergo the painstaking tattooing process to wear a batok, an indelible proof that they met the last practicing mambabatok.
Among the witnesses of this “tattoomania” is Francis Pa-in. He is one of the first tourist guides in Buscalan, and has worked with journalists and academics from different parts of the globe.
According to Pa-in, the sleepy village was, in several ways, not prepared for global tourism. In the early days of the “tattoomania,” travelers had to go through a perilous trek since the cliff-side road to the village was rough, bushy, and almost inaccessible.
But as soon as money began coming in, roads have been widened and cemented. The trail to Buscalan has also been paved. Most of the young men in the village have also left the rice fields to work as tourist guides and porters for a generous fee of P1000 a day.
Although it brought roads and livelihood in the village, Pa-in believes “tattoomania” and global tourism has disadvantages, too.
Currently, Pa-in noted, Buscalan’s main problem is garbage disposal, since tourists bring plastic-based materials and leave them behind when they return to their places of origin.
“Maganda na dumadagsa ang mga turista; may disadvantages at advantages. Ang advantage ay nagdadala sila ng income. Ang disadvantage, nagdadala sila ng basura," he explained, adding that most villagers burn wastes since there is no sanitary landfill in the area.
(It’s nice that tourists are coming in; it has disadvantages and advantages. The advantage is they bring income. The disadvantage is they bring waste.)
Recently, the local government began collecting an environmental fee of P75 per person. Locals, however, say that this does not directly benefit the village.
To this day, eight years after Krutak’s documentary, Buscalan remains open to anyone who wants to experience an age-old tradition and a life away from the city.
The great-grandchildren of the fierce and territorial maingors turned into welcoming hosts to approximately 500 tourists per week, according to the local tourism office.
Even the dogs in the village are notably tame. They don’t bark when a visitor intrudes their territory.
As a form of hospitality, many of the townsfolk have turned their houses into home stays for P250 to P350 a night per person.
High school teacher Isabel Paclay, one of the first college graduates from Buscalan, owns one of the biggest home stays in the village.
Paclay comes home to the village on weekends to visit her parents, and to supervise the construction of her seven-door apartment. Investing in Buscalan, she said, is her own little way of giving back to the place where she spent a bittersweet childhood marked by hardship and poverty.
"Noong bata pa kami, karaniwan ang mga tao dito walang pera,” the now 34-year-old Paclay recalled. “Wala kaming tsinelas, abot-abot [butas-butas], walang mga damit, kahit may mapa-mapa [mantsa] sa likod. Lahat ng mga trabaho, ginagawa namin. Talagang mahirap 'yong kabataan namin, compared sa mga kabataan ngayon.”
(When we were young, most of the people here did not have money. We didn’t have slippers. We didn’t have clothes. We would do all kinds of work. It was really a tough childhood, compared today.)
According to Paclay, the current generation is lucky because they now have the means to go to college and pursue a career.
“Makikita naman natin na improved na 'yong status of life ng mga tao. Nakakabili na sila ng gusto nilang bilhin, nakakatulong talaga sa buhay nila. Mayroon na silang pera. Makikita natin na mayroon ding nakakapag-aral na sa kolehiyo,” she said.
(As we can seem, people nowadays have improved their status of life. They can now buy whatever they want. It is a big help to their lives. They now have money. And some can even afford to go to college.)
Apart from home stays, tourism has also brought various business opportunities to the village. Some Buscalan residents who work in neighboring towns and cities have decided to come home and open small businesses.
One of them is Selma Dugay, who left her job in Kalinga’s capital city to build the first and only eatery in the village.
“Noong nakatira pa ako sa Tabuk, may mga dumarating na turista [dito sa Buscalan]. Tapos noong pumunta ako dito, parang nahihirapan sila. Umuuwi sila kasi wala silang makainan. Wala pang maraming homestay noon e. Kaya naisip ko noong may mga nagtayo ng homestay na parang maganda yatang mag-establish ng eatery,” Dugay said in the local language.
(When I was still living in Tabuk, there were tourists coming her in Buscalan. When I came home, I saw they were having a hard time since they had to go home because there was no place to eat in here. Back then, there were no home stays yet. That’s why I thought it was a good idea to establish an eatery.)
Her meager savings combined with borrowed money from a lending firm helped the 32-year-old actualize her entrepreneurial dream. It was a risky decision, but business is doing great so far. Dugay said she has an average of 15 to 20 customers a day, and she charges P100 per meal.
But perhaps the biggest threat to Buscalan’s booming economy and livelihood is Whang-ud’s deteriorating health condition.
“Iyan talaga ang problema,” Dugay admitted. “Dapat sana ma-i-promote din itong mga ibang tattoo artists. Sana hindi mawala. Kasi Butbut tradition ‘yan e. Para kahit wala na si Whang-ud, steady pa rin ang pagta-tattoo.”
(That’s the real problem. They should promote other tattoo artists. I hope it doesn’t disappear because it’s Butbut tradition. So that even when Whang-ud is gone, tattooing will still be steady.)
Overdependence on tourism is becoming a problem in the village, said Amores, who continues to do research in Buscalan. Since most livelihoods in Buscalan are anchored on Whang-ud’s popularity, the question of sustainability is becoming more worrisome as the mambabatok gets older and sickly.
“When I went to the village, they wanted tourists to come in because it adds additional income to their agricultural livelihood. It's an added income for them. It's an easy money,” noted Amores. “Well that, for them, is good. But I don’t know how long will that last. I'm not sure if it's sustainable.”
Whang-ud recently went on a tattooing hiatus after her coughing and diarrhea worsened. Thankfully, she was able to regain her health after more than a week of rest.
Then, it was back to business-- as usual.
Yet, despite Whang-ud’s deteriorating health, a glimmer of hope still shines for Dugay and the rest of the village.
The art of batok is now being revived by the younger generation, particularly Whang-ud’s grandnieces Gracia Palicas and Elyang Wigan. These young women work simultaneously, day by day, in a makeshift hut they call a tattoo shop.
According to the 20-year-old Palicas, she was just 10 when her curiosity with batok began. At first, she just observed Whang-ud, asked questions, then, eventually, began tapping the ink, too.
“Noong bata kasi ako, lagi akong pumupunta sa bahay nila [Whang-ud],” Palicas recalled. “Ten years old ako, nanonood lang ako, nagpapaturo, parang gusto ko rin.”
(When I was younger, I would always go to their house. I was 10 years old, watching, wanting to learn.)
Her first canvass was her best friend’s arm, and the design was a name.
According to Palicas, that day she finished her first tattoo, she couldn’t stop tapping the stick. There was one instance when a teacher scolded her because she just kept on tapping her ballpen against the armchair. “Hindi ko na talaga mapigilan,” she quipped.
With a newfound passion, Palicas eventually dropped out from school and began tattooing under the tutelage of Whang-ud.
Just like Palicas, Wigan also discovered her passion for tattooing at a young age, albeit for a different reason.
“Gusto ko lang para may maitulong ako sa mga magulang ko, sa pag-aaral ko,” she said. “At saka hindi basta-basta mawala ang kultura namin.”
(All I wanted was to help my parents in supporting my studies. And also, so that our culture will not fade.)
Wigan’s parents are both farmers. They live in a small hut, just a stone’s throw away from the tattoo shop.
With hard work, her dreams came true in just two years. She is now funding the construction of a two-storey house with a picturesque view of the mountains.
Yet, despite the stable income that tattooing brings, Wigan, who is now in Grade 11, hopes to continue her studies and become a computer engineer someday. She is confident that she can juggle work and school.
While these young tattooists have learned the techniques of tattooing, they both admit there other roles of the mambabatok that they cannot perform. Their skins are also not as elaborately tattooed as Whang-ud’s.
“Kasi new generation e. ‘Yung old na ano, talagang hindi ko kaya,” Palicas answered when asked why she doesn’t want to have her arms and chest tattooed.
(We’re the new generation. I really couldn’t bear the pain.)
According to Amores, despite having prospective successors, Whang-ud may still be the last mambabatok of the village. The indigenous chanting and fortune telling traditions may also die with her, along with the deeper symbolic meanings attached to every design.
“The cultural transmission is just technical. You just pass on the technical skill, but the deeper symbolic meanings of these tattoos are not in fact transferred,” stressed Amores. “It stays with Whang-ud. And probably she is the last one to have that multiple social roles in the society.”
Today, anyone who is willing to undergo the painful process of batok can get one. But unlike before, people no longer pay the mambabatok in kind like textiles, beads, and livestock. Instead, they give her cold cash, depending on the size and complexity of the design they want.
Tattooing has also become mechanical, and the relationship between the mambabatok and the tattoo wearer has become impersonal and purely business. Gone were the days when Whang-ud would sing a chant while tattooing.
The tattoo designs are also changing. Some would ask Whang-ud to tattoo a Roman numeral or Baybayin on their skin, without considering that these symbols do not exist in Kalinga tradition.
From a person’s skin, the designs have been replicated on graffiti, street signage, and souvenir items, such as shirts, necklaces, and coffee mugs. There are also items that bear the phrase “I got inked in Buscalan.”
According to Amores, this ongoing commodification of culture may be interpreted as either a form of creative adaptation or just mere pollution.
“We forget that tattoos are the biography of the wearer. It's an archive of a person,” explained Amores. “You see them in sneakers, in fashion clothes, so sometimes you devalue the tattoo because they become graphic designs. Their deeper symbolic meaning is gone.”
“It also becomes a form of cultural appropriation where sacred designs now become mere
graphic decorations on the body as part of a personal or individual identity, and no longer
Indeed, Buscalan has become a brand name, while Whang-ud and other tattoo practitioners are the major shareholders.
According to tour guides, Whang-ud works seven days a week if she’s in the mood. She tattooes approximately 20 to 30 people on a daily basis.
Joining the long queue of travelers are London-based Pinay scholar Cristina Juan and her 16-year-old son, Tristan. They traveled over 6,500 miles to get tattoos, and possibly learn a thing or two about the Filipino culture.
According to Tristan, he joined his mom in this trip to reconnect with his culture of origin. “I put a lot of effort in like trying to find out about the culture that I came from,” he shared. “I'm trying to understand it more.”
Tristan’s interest in Whang-ud began when he heard about her from a friend in London. His curiosity grew when he saw photos of elaborate Kalinga tattoos on social media.
“I think, mostly, my son he's second-generation. He doesn't really know Philippine culture, as much as I would want to,” his mother said. “And the fact that he's like a teenager-- he's 16-- and he really wanted to come. I felt like I needed to give him that.”
After two days of observing Kalinga’s tattooing practices, Cristina and Tristan conquered their fears, and decided to get inked for the first time. But due to the long queue of tourists waiting for Whang-ud, they settled for Emily, a younger tattooist who has also been trained by the mambabatok.
“I was afraid. They said it's very bloody when she does it 'coz she's old,” Juan explained. “And parang I felt sorry in a way, for her. Earlier, we went, she felt like annoyed that there's too many people waiting. So I feel like give her some space.”
The mother and son tandem had matching designs inscribed on their backs. They also had Whang-ud’s signature design— her own artistic stamp pad comprising three dots.
For Tristan, these Kalinga tattoos will serve as permanent reminders that they once set foot in Buscalan and met the iconic mambabatok. “It's amazing-- this whole experience,” he enthused.
He added that this experience has given him a deeper understanding of the Filipino culture, besides being a perfect bonding activity between him and his mother.
According to Amores, countless Filipinos who grew up in foreign shores visit Buscalan to experience batok. They see it as a way to reconnect with their origins.
In one of her interviews with Whang-ud, the mambabatok told Amores that she expects the wearers of her tattoos to return to the village when the time comes for her to rest.
“She told me that she left a mark to many people that she tattooed,” Amores recalled. “So when she dies, the tattoos become energized. And naturally, that would be a reminder for every person she tattooed to come visit her. So when the time comes, she would expect that these people will come and see her and bid her good wishes in the afterlife.”
When asked if he’s willing to return to the village, Tristan said: “Definitely. I won’t miss that chance.” And he plans to bring some friends, too.
After almost 10 hours of work, Whang-ud finished her last tattoo for the day. She removed the lemon thorn from the bamboo sticks and handed it to her last client as a souvenir. Then she wiped away the soot and bloodstains that accumulated on her tired, veiny hands.
Alone and unassisted, the mambabatok walked back to her house. With her was a bag full of cash, chocolates, and other gifts from her visitors. It has been a habit for her to drop by the houses of her relatives to hand money and chocolates to her sisters and nephews.
For Amores, it is natural for Whang-ud to give back to her village. She is the go-to person when someone is sick. When a person dies, she helps the family of the deceased.
That afternoon, while feeding her pigs, Whang-ud looked around the village she never once left. Behind her was an open niche, where she hoped to rest after a lifetime of continuing an age-old tradition.
Recently, netizens started an online campaign to have Whang-ud named as a National Artist. The late Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, however, believes the mambabatok is more apt 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.”
According to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, they are currently finalizing the documents needed for Whang-ud's conferment. Then, they will have to wait for President Rodrigo Duterte to sign it.
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. By then, she may never have to work again.
But due to her old age, Whang-ud may never live to fully enjoy these perks. Until then, she will continue tattooing day by day in a makeshift hut, sharing her culture with the world, bringing pride and honor to her village.
Only one thing is sure for now. The mambabatok will live in the indelible marks she has left on everyone who wears her tattoos, as well as in the memories of Buscalan residents whose dreams she helped actualize.
And perhaps, the world will remember that in the Philippines, there’s Kalinga. In Kalinga, there’s Buscalan. At the heart of the mountaintop village was a small hut where an old, childless woman tattooed an age-old tradition on global map.