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Kalinga tattoo artist Whang-Od’s National Living Treasures Award

The oldest Philippine tattoo artist is truly deserving of it!

Left, the legendary Whang-Od. Photo by Cyril Raysseguier

Finally, the long wait is (almost) over! Our national pride, Maria Oggay, or more famously known as Whang-Od, the oldest tattoo artist in the Philippines at 97 years old, is set to receive the “Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan” (National Living Treasures Award) soon. According to National Center for Culture and the Arts (NCAA) – Cultural Communities and Traditional Arts Section chief Ferdinand Isleta, it's now all a matter of finalising the documents to support the award, which are to be presented to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for official signing. 

Backpack traveler Julian Rodriguez getting a traditional tattoo in Buscalan

Whang-Od (pronounced Fang-Od) is a mambabatok (traditional tattoo artist) born, raised and living in the village of Tinglayan in Buscalan in Kalinga in the Mountain Province, 464km north of Manila. She's a celebrity of sort, prompting travelers from all over the globe to brave the day-long travel to her village only to get that prized tattoo from her. You can ask Whang-Od to follow your own design, or you can choose from her bible of designs. Backpack traveler and Archipelago insider Julian Rodriguez got himself a tattoo of a zigzag line, circling his arm like an armband. Rodriguez shares: “Whang-Od used bamboo sticks that were about eight inches long to clip hold a thorn taken from a dalandan tree. With one hand, she held the bamboo stick to position where the needle would prick into my skin, and used the other to gently (but surely) pound on the rear of the bamboo stick. The thorn is used instead of a needle. The ink used was extracted from burning a special kind of pine wood.”

In the earlier days in Buscalan, men wore tattoo as a trophy for battles won while tattoos for women were more like accessories. 

To get to Buscalan, take a Genesis bus bus from Pasay to Baguio, from where there are GL Lizardo buses that travel to Bontoc. From Bontoc, take a jeep to Tinglayan (P110 fare), which usually leaves at 8am and 1pm and get off to where the jeep stops. From there hop on another jeep to Turning Point, the jump off point to Buscalan (one-hour trek). 

Watch this video of Whang-Od giving a tattoo. 

By Monica De Leon. Cover photo by Cyril Raysseguier

Published September 2016