102-Year-Old Tattooist Whang-Od Keeps Kalinga Tradition Alive

102-year-old tattoo artist Whang-od.

102-year-old tattoo artist Whang-od.
An ancient art dating back thousands of years, tattooing, has helped to shape and show the history behind each civilization and culture. Though tattooing evolved independently throughout various countries, it holds a similar meaning for each culture: the art of story-telling through keeping an ancient tradition alive.

Whang-od Oggay (who also goes by Whang-od or Maria Oggay) is the Philippines’ last and oldest “mambabatok” (traditional Kalinga tattooist). The 102-year-old artist applies permanent hand-tapped tattoos (a concoction made from pine soot and water) with a few simple tools: a bamboo stick, a thorn from the pomelo tree, water and coal. Using the bamboo stick, she gently taps the ink-laden thorn deep into the skin. She is particularly famous among tourists, who make the long 15-hour journey to visit her in the mountain village of Buscalan in the Kalinga province north of the Philippine capital of Manila.

Historically in the Philippines, the practice of hand-tapped body art began with the indigenous Butbut warriors. In the beginning, only men could ink themselves after killing someone. For women, though, it was the opposite. They regarded tattoos as a practice of beauty.

Whang-od remembers how she learned to apply these tattoos as her friends covered her arms and legs in simple patterns and designs. During that day and age, only men were allowed to learn how to tattoo. She defied gender norms as she began her tattoo apprenticeship under her father at the young age of 15. And she has not stopped since then.

tattoo artist Whang-od Oggay

Keeping the tattooing tradition active will be a difficult task for Whang-od. Her culture believes that the “mambabatok” can only be passed down to blood relatives – otherwise, the tattoos will become “infected.” Though Whang-od does not have children of her own, she has made sure to pass the practice down to her grandnieces.