Eyes rolling. Air of disapproval. Tattoos are normally frowned upon. Not everyone appreciates body art. There still exist misconstructions about donning inks on the epidermis. However, for different indigenous groups throughout the archipelagic Philippines, even before the arrival of foreign colonizers in 1521 and the proliferation of Christianity, the art of tattooing has long been an integral part of their traditions. The first Spaniards who arrived in the country in the early days of European exploration called the natives as “pintados”—painted people—for people were heavily covered in tattoos. Nearly 500 years on, albeit on the brink of extinction, traditional tattooing is still practiced in some parts of the Philippines, most notably in the area up North Luzon where the indigenous peoples of Bontoc, Ifugao, Igorot and Kalinga are located.

In Kalinga, Apo Whang Od has managed to get the attention of people from all sides of the globe with her efforts to continue the centuries-old tradition of tattooing for the members of the Butbut tribe. The Butbut tribe dwells on the plateaus and mountains along the Chico River at Buscalan, Tinglayan in the southern part of the province of Kalinga. As they were not subjugated by the Spanish conquerors, they have preserved their ethnic culture and animistic religion.

Getting a tattoo from Apo Whang Od is not a comfortable accomplishment for, aside from the pain of the skin being hammered, going to Buscalan entails strength and patience. Visitors have to endure a 10-hour butt-numbing bus ride to the Kalinga capital of Tabuk, a 3-hour jeepney ride to municipality of Tinglayan, and a 2-hour strenuous and dangerous uphill trek to the mountains. However, for several visitors of the village, the journey is nothing short of magnificent. One will be exposed to panoramic views of several rice terraces, verdant mountains and untouched waterfalls.

Going to Buscalan and getting a tattoo from Apo Whang Od is grueling but extremely rewarding. One will be remunerated with breathtaking sceneries that pictures can hardly translate. Kalinga is an off-beat destination for travelers that the province has remained less explored.

Going to Buscalan and getting a tattoo from Apo Whang Od is grueling but extremely rewarding. One will be remunerated with breathtaking sceneries that pictures can hardly translate. Kalinga is an off-beat destination for travelers that the province has remained less explored.

The 97-year old1)Apo Whang Od’s exact age is uncertain. As there is no official document to prove her birth year, there is no consensus. Upon visit to the village, the writer of this article was given the information from a member of her direct bloodline that she is 97 years old. Apo Whang Od has been inking the members of her tribe for more than eight decades. She is the oldest mambabatok (tattoo artist) in the Philippines. Until a few years ago, Apo Whang Od is the last surviving mambabatok of her Butbut Tribe. Now, her grandnieces 18-year old Grace and 16-year old Iris are honing their skills to continue the art. Formerly, tattoos are reserved to Butbut warriors for their fearlessness to defend their lands and waters and to women for ornament to enhance their beauty. These tattoos are believed to bestow spiritual power that aids in the well-being of the bearer. Now, Apo Whang Od and the tribe are sharing their long-standing practice of tattooing to anyone who braves it.

Before, it was feared that this practice will end with Apo Whang Od’s adept hands as the younger generation of the Butbut tribe had shown disinterest to learn the art. It was not until a few years ago that Apo Whang Od’s blood relatives Grace and Iris agreed to be her successors. Dubbed before as the “last mambabatok”, Apo Whang Od strived for decades to continue this tradition. Despite her old age, she remains to be welcoming to locals and foreigners who wish to get tribal tattoos.

Before, it was feared that this practice will end with Apo Whang Od’s adept hands as the younger generation of the Butbut tribe had shown disinterest to learn the art. It was not until a few years ago that Apo Whang Od’s blood relatives Grace and Iris agreed to be her successors. Dubbed before as the “last mambabatok”, Apo Whang Od strived for decades to continue this tradition. Despite her old age, she remains to be welcoming to locals and foreigners who wish to get tribal tattoos.

Apo Whang Od, Grace, and Iris use a tapping style of tattooing that can be dated hundreds of years back. The ink comes from a mixture of charcoal and water. It will then be hammered onto the skin through the sharp thorn of a pomelo tree that is attached to a bamboo stick. The designs are often basic geometric shapes that are heavily derived on imaginings of the natural environment of the tribe. This primitive method is not for the faint-hearted. The process is slow and painful.

Most visitors prefer smaller tattoos as they are extremely painful to tolerate and should be endured for short periods only.

Most visitors prefer smaller tattoos as they are extremely painful to tolerate and should be endured for short periods only.

Traditional Tattoos in Southeast Asia2)Information based on varied sources listed as follows. Addis, K. (2013, January 2). Getting a Sak Yant Tattoo from a Monk. Retrieved December 28, 2015, from http://www.bemytravelmuse.com/sak-yant-tattoo/; Donnelly, P. (2014, September 30). Skin and ‘bare’ it: Tattoo artist in Indonesia shows off ink craft to help promote ancient tribal tattoo heritage of country’s indigenous people. Retrieved December 28, 2015, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2775433/Skin-bare-Tattoo-artist-Indonesia-shows-ink-craft-help-promote-ancient-tribal-tattoo-heritage-country-s-indigenous-people.html

Yantra tattooing is a traditional tattooing method mainly practiced in Burma and Thailand and in slighter degree in Laos and Cambodia. The tattoos are based on deity, animal, and geometric images that are perceived to provide power, fortune, and protection to the bearer. The tapping method of Yantra tattooing is similar to the Butbut; the artist, usually a monk, taps a long bamboo pole with ink that is a mixture of charcoal, palm oil, and venom from snake.

Hand-tapped method of tattooing is also surviving in Indonesia. Although also on the verge of vanishing, the tapping practice is still done in Kalimantan and the Mentawai Islands. Instead of using bamboo, artists use ulin which is an extremely hard kind of timber.

Tattoos in relation to ASEAN Integration

It is surprising that there are surviving congruencies of traditional tattoos in Southeast Asia. As much as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) prides itself for its cultural diversity, the parallelisms in cultural symbols should be exalted to bolster the sense of unity in the region as they can be instrumental in the approaching integration of ASEAN member states.

It would be challenging for the Philippines and the ASEAN member states to redefine symbols that will make respective citizens of each country to feel bonded with one another. However, these sites of hand-tapped tattooing can be transformed into a tourism opportunity. Not only will the promotion invigorate the economy of the locality, the practice will persevere, which, in turn, will diminish the dread of losing the art and, more importantly, will raise the awareness level of Southeast Asians of this kind of enduring tradition. Certainly, there will be difficulties in making the bloc a tourism hub that would showcase Southeast Asian symbols and expose them to the world. However, it is not impossible.

It is in the will of ASEAN to use these similarities to its advantage. Thus far, the organization is focusing more on economic processes for regional integration. Although ASEAN has formulated a blueprint for socio-cultural integration, we have yet to see more manifest concretization of the plan.

 

By Lea Salen Peralta, ASEAN Correspondent from Philippines

 

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References   [ + ]

1. Apo Whang Od’s exact age is uncertain. As there is no official document to prove her birth year, there is no consensus. Upon visit to the village, the writer of this article was given the information from a member of her direct bloodline that she is 97 years old.
2. Information based on varied sources listed as follows. Addis, K. (2013, January 2). Getting a Sak Yant Tattoo from a Monk. Retrieved December 28, 2015, from http://www.bemytravelmuse.com/sak-yant-tattoo/; Donnelly, P. (2014, September 30). Skin and ‘bare’ it: Tattoo artist in Indonesia shows off ink craft to help promote ancient tribal tattoo heritage of country’s indigenous people. Retrieved December 28, 2015, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2775433/Skin-bare-Tattoo-artist-Indonesia-shows-ink-craft-help-promote-ancient-tribal-tattoo-heritage-country-s-indigenous-people.html