Apo Whang-Od is the last mambabatok—a traditional Kalinga tattooist—and has fans flying in from around the world to get inked by her.
Apo Whang-Od's tattoo-covered arms move in rhythmic motion as she taps an ink-soaked thorned into the arm of the tourist who has traveled thousands of miles to meet her. Tattoo enthusiasts from every corner of the world regularly travel to the Kalinga province located in the mountainous area in the northern Philippines just to meet the 103-year-old. And why wouldn't they? Whang-Od is the last mambabatok—a traditional Kalinga tattooist—whose skilled hands are keeping alive a 1000-year tradition of batok, a technique where a razor-sharp thorn is fastened to a stick, dipped in soot-based ink, rapidly tapped into the skin with a wooden mallet, and guided by a hand-made stencil.
According to BBC, batok is a dying craft as modern-day Kalingas have come to prefer the vibrant inks and refined technologies available today over the thick black ink and tribal designs of the traditional tattooing method. In the early day, every Kalinga village had a mambabatok who would honor and usher in life's milestones. "Tattoos are one of our greatest treasures," Whang-Od said in a 2016 interview. "Unlike material things, no one can take them away from us when we die."
Rajayana Librojo Fajatin is one of the fortunate few who've been lucky enough to be tattooed by Whang-Od. "I had a 4-day trip going from Baguio to Sagada to Buscalan, where the village of Whang-Od is. The villagers were friendly, and I had fun, especially with the kids. They dance to modern hits from a phone there. They respect their elders so much," she told Bored Panda. Speaking of why she decided to get a tattoo from Whang-Od, she said: "She’s been famous since I was little, but my decision of getting a tattoo from her was impulsive. I was in Baguio and I decided to go all the way up north to get to her since she’s pretty old already. But still very healthy. I got a serpent eagle tattoo on my shoulder because I wanted spiritual guidance at the time."
"For me, Whang-Od is the most beautiful woman I’ve seen," revealed Rajayana. "The tattooing was not as painful as it was illustrated and lasted for less than an hour. I had it done on my right shoulder. Going down the mountains after getting a tattoo was quite exhausting, but the villagers, even the old women, can do it fastly and smoothly. Overall, a fun and humbling experience!" Although she had a deluge of customers coming in regularly, Whang-Od hopes her popularity doesn't drown out the significance of the designs she pokes onto skin. "I want people to know that the traditional tattoo is not just a graphic – every design represents something," she said. "I want people to have tattoos not just to be in fashion, but because the design you choose means something about you."
Although the craft now has fans across the world—who are more than happy to make the tattoo pilgrimage to the quaint village seventeen hours north of Manila—the fate of the tradition is still in doubt as mambabatoks can only teach within their bloodline. Since Whang-Od doesn't have children, it was feared that the art form would die with her. The only hope now is her great-niece, Grace Palicas, who has been training under her since the age of 10, learning the archive of ancient designs and the necessary coordination and finesse to tattoo at 100 taps per minute. "For Grace to become a good mambabatok, she will need passion and patience," Whang-Od explained.
Luckily, Palicas shares her great-aunt's passion for the tradition and hopes to keep it alive after her time. "I want to continue the Kalinga traditional tattoo," said the youngster who is already well-respected in the international tattooing community. "When Whang-Od passes on, I am here to take care of our Kalinga traditions, to keep them remaining for the people, and to not forget our culture."