The Philippines is home to a diverse set of cultures brought to life by the varied communities located in different parts of its archipelago.
However, one by one, these communities’ unique cultures are dying out – and urbanization is one factor to blame.
But the Butbut Tribe, who reside atop Kalinga, are trying to go against the urban sprawl that’s trying to erase their beloved way of life – and it’s through their unique tattoo tradition called ‘batok (hand-tapping).’
Spearheading the preservation of this distinct art form is Apo Whang-Od, a 103-year-old elder of the mountain tribe located in Busculan.
She is considered the last mambabatok of the Butbut indigenous community and has been practicing the art of tattooing for more than 80 years.
Whang-Od plays a significant role in her tribe, serving as the go-to tattoo artist for head hunters – protectors of their villages – who see the body art as a sign of bravery and courage. Women also commission tattoos from the elder as it’s considered a sign of beauty and elegance.
Now, after more than eight decades, Whang-Od is sharing her tribe’s unique tattoo tradition with the rest of the world.
Filipinos and foreigners alike undertake a rigorous 10-hour trip just to get inked by the symbolic Whang-Od.
The distinct batok-style uses a mixture of charcoal and water as the ink for the tattoo. For the needle, a thorn from a citrus plant is used, which is then attached to a 12-inch long bamboo stick.
The hand-tapping motion is what embeds the ink into the skin, which is not the most pleasant experience.
Visitors can freely choose the design they want from Whang-Od’s collection. They’re also encouraged to bring offerings to the tribe as a sign of courtesy, which can come in the form of food, medicine, and other essential items.
Passing Down of Tradition
Because Whang-Od remained childless and unwed after the passing of her partner during the Japanese occupation, the tradition is being passed down to her blood relatives.
At present, she’s training her grandniece – Grace Palicas – to keep batok alive for the future generations of their community. Grace is more than happy to take on their tribe’s unique art style and has participated in different tattoo festivals around the country.
Although her age is catching up to her, Whang-Od is still actively practicing the art of batok – for her community and those who want a glimpse of it through her tattoos.
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Image credit: Mawg64