Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Day in the Village of the Last Tattoo Artist of the Kalinga

She picked up a small wooden bowl containing a thick, black ink made from soot. From a compartment under her house, she retrieved her tools—a bamboo stick not longer than her forearm with a short and thin pomelo thorn sticking out of one end, a slightly larger and sturdier bamboo stick, a thin leaf of dried grass, a piece of cloth riddled with splotches of the pigment she uses, and a tiny bottle of oil she rubs on the skin as treatment. She set down her tools in a small area right outside her house and began layering on her work clothes—a pair of brown cargo pants and a purple coat, both of which looked worn out and ink-stained. When everything was ready, she stood upright, turned to us smiling, and asked in her native tongue, "Who is getting a tattoo today?"

Busacalan, Kalinga, Philippine Cordilleras
Whang Od, 93, in her element. She is the last mambabatok (tattoo artist) of the Kalinga.

Her name is Whang Od (pronounced fang od). At 93, she is the last in the Kalinga hill tribes who practices the ancient art of batok (tattoo). The rather spirited artist acquired her skills from her father, a mambabatok (tattoo artist) in a long line of practitioners spanning hundreds of years. Men of the Kalinga have been getting these body markings as a sign of being victorious in battle. A tattoo in these parts was the mark of a warrior. Up until World War II, hill tribes in the Cordillera region of the Philippines resolved conflicts through spears and arrows. As for women, the tattoos served to adorn, to promote fertility, or to associate themselves to their warrior kin.

Interest sparked on the tattoo culture of the Kalinga when in 2010, Discovery Channel and National Geographic tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak featured the art of batok in a documentary. In his paper published a year before, Krutak wrote about what is perhaps the first tattooing of a true Kalinga warrior since the practice was discontinued in the 1940s. Whang Od, who was already in her late 80s in 2009, gave a Kalinga man a full upper body tattoo. It resembled the wings of an eagle, a potent warrior symbol in this region.

Busacalan, Kalinga, Philippine Cordilleras
Whang Od's own tattoos up close. These are made to resemble the scales of snakes, which according to tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak, are considered good friends of the Kalinga warrior.

Today, in 2013, Whang Od and her life in the hilltop village of Buscalan in Kalinga province remain pretty much the same. We came here with the intention of knowing more about a facet of Philippine culture largely unknown to the rest of the country. For one of us, however, a good traveler friend of mine, Angelica, her intention to come here was precisely to get inked.

The Long Road to Buscalan

The trip to Buscalan was no easy feat. From Manila, we took a night bus to the capital of Kalinga—Tabuk—located in the province's lowland areas. Come morning, we boarded a jeep which took us along winding and undulating mountain roads. We reached the town of Tinglayan around lunch time. Here, we met our energetic local guide, Francis Pa-in. Aboard a bus full of people and cargo, we then made our way to Bugnay, from which our overloaded vehicle started a slow and bumpy ascent up a mountain. Rocks were littered on the narrow dirt road, one side of which dropped off an unfenced cliff. Soon, we were jolted by a loud explosion of a rear tire popping. Surprisingly, the bus trudged on until a few minutes later when the road ended. I was only glad that from here, we started trekking on foot.

Busacalan, Kalinga, Philippine Cordilleras
Beautiful views on the trail to the village of Buscalan in Kalinga province

The walking trail hugged the side of a mountain as it made a turn towards a small valley. On the other side of a valley on top of a hill, we finally saw the small huts of the village of Buscalan surrounded by terraced rice farms. The path continued down to a stream before climbing up again to Buscalan proper. I was already walking very slowly and breathing heavily when I reached the village. Here, I found my travel companions along with locals and other visitors huddled around Whang Od. She was currently tattooing a leg of a tourist from Spain. Right before we arrived, the locals said, the Spanish tourist fainted, overwhelmed by the pain.

Life in a Small Mountain Village

Francis led us to a house located behind Whang Od's hut. It was to be our accommodation for the night and the owners of the house—Whang Od's close relatives—our kind and gracious hosts. It was easy warming up to the owners, a group of mostly women. As we settled in, we heard them laughing and joking around, most of the time at the expense of our jolly guide.

Walking around the village, it was easy to forget there exists a world outside of it. Many of the huts still adhered to traditional Kalinga architecture. The living quarters stood on stilts accessed by a small door. Dwellers had to stoop very low to pass through. The roof was made of dried hemp and the ground below the house served both as storage area and poultry pen. I noticed, however, that not much time was spent inside the house. Two girls were out pounding rice grains using a heavy pole. Men had a designated area for their metalwork. An elderly man sat silently in a corner sawing a broom by hand. Even the chickens and the pigs moved around freely through the narrow lanes and alleys of the small village.

Busacalan, Kalinga, Philippine Cordilleras
A kid playing right by the front door of their traditional Kalinga house

Busacalan, Kalinga, Philippine Cordilleras
Girls pounding rice grains to remove the husk
Busacalan, Kalinga, Philippine Cordilleras
Elderly man making a broom by hand

Busacalan, Kalinga, Philippine Cordilleras
Briana, a niece of Whang Od, slung on an aunt's back while the latter goes about her daily chores

Busacalan, Kalinga, Philippine Cordilleras
The Buscalan version of a bachelor's pad. Male adolescents move out of their parents' house
and shack up here with others male adolescents in the village before they are married.

Not much happens in this tiny mountain village. Only the sudden appearance of a line of young men scampering down the mountain disturbed the peace. Two of them carried a woman in an improvised stretcher made out of two wooden poles and a blanket. Francis later told us the woman suffered ulcer and had to be taken to the nearest clinic, located a couple of hours away on foot. The young men of the village would take turns carrying the woman so that speed of carriage might be maintained and that the patient might receive medical attention the soonest possible time.

When the commotion died down, we found ourselves surrounded by the terraced plantations at the eastern end of Buscalan. Here, it was easy to see why Whang Od refused to leave this mountain retreat, not even for a short while to receive recognition in a prestigious tattoo festival in Manila.

"I might get sick from the fumes and pollution," Francis quoted Whang Od as saying. She was probably right.

Busacalan, Kalinga, Philippine Cordilleras
Our guide, Francis, stands by the terraces of rice which surround Buscalan. Francis likes telling us how crisp, clean, and fresh the air here is.

Getting the Kalinga Tattoo

The next morning, Whang Od was ready for us. She called Angelica and had her sit in front of her on a low wooden stool. Using an ink-stained dried grass, she stenciled the shape of a centipede on Angelica's back. The centipede is another creature considered a good friend of the Kalinga warrior. When the drawing was done, Whang Od positioned the bamboo stick with the pomelo needle on the tracing and repeatedly tapped it using another slightly larger stick. The needle punctured the skin taking with it the ink the artist had applied earlier. The needle being made of organic material sometimes lifted Angelica's skin as Whang Od retracted the implement, only to tap it again for another puncture, and another. The tapping went on until the punctures started bleeding, at which point Whang Od wiped the tattoo clean and repeated the process: stencil, tap, bleed, wipe.

Busacalan, Kalinga, Philippine Cordilleras
Whang Od skillfully and diligently tattooing a centipede on Angelica's back

I admired Angelica for not wincing and keeping composure during the entire process. A few more minutes passed and it was done. The marking of a centipede was now imprinted forever on Angelica's back. More importantly, however, she now carried with her a piece of an ancient Kalinga art form.

Busacalan, Kalinga, Philippine Cordilleras
The batok is that of a centipede, considered a good friend of the Kalinga warrior.

The Disappearance of an Ancient Art

Because of the bellicose meanings implied in a given batok, young men and women of the Kalinga no longer carry these markings. The people of the Cordillera have left their head hunting days in the past after all. Majority are now believers of the Christian faith. Nobody knows, not even Whang Od, what will happen to the ancient Kalinga art form in a few years' time.

Busacalan, Kalinga, Philippine Cordilleras
Photos of Grace inside the house we stayed in. On her young shoulders rests the carrying on of an ancient art form of her people.

Inside the house we stayed in, we saw a photo of Whang Od with her niece, Grace. At the time of our visit, Grace was in the city attending to her studies. Our guide said that Grace has been learning the skills of the mambabatok from Whang Od. She has certainly been giving tattoos herself and assisting her aunt in the craft whenever she is in the village. From a recent encounter between Grace and a Pinay traveller, however, there is an impression that the young apprentice is not fully into the art, at least for now. Let's hope that changes, if only to preserve a piece of culture which seemed to permeate, or at least give meaningful insight into, the many aspects of life in the Kalinga.

*For those interested, do read Lars Krutak's paper available online here. It is a very interesting and fascinating read, a comprehensive one at that, about the Kalinga tattoo culture as well as the different customs, beliefs, and rituals of the peoples of the Philippine Cordilleras.

**For some of the most amazing photos you will see on the Philippine Cordilleras including Whang Od and Buscalan, I recommend this gallery by Philippine-based American photographer Jacob Maentz. I have been a fan of Jacob's galleries and unbeknownst to me at the time, we actually already met in Buscalan as our visits happened on the same weekend. The odds!

Do you know of any ancient art forms that are slowly disappearing? What are they and where are they practiced?

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