This year, I turned 40. Marking this new chapter of my life, I made the pilgrimage up into the mountains of the Philippines to meet with the legendary Apo Whang-Od, herself.
At 105 years old, Whang-Od has been practicing batok, a traditional hand-tap style of tattooing, for the past 80 years. She's part of the Butbut tribe, locally known and respected for their head hunters within the tribe. These were fierce protectors of the land and their people. So much so, that during the time of Spanish colonization, the Conquistadors knew better than to make moves up north into the Kalinga region of Luzon.
Reaching Whang-Od's village is not an easy trek, by any means. It's about 25 hours north, by bus from Manila. For roughly half a year, I'd already been living in the Philippines, but I hadn't spent any time on the island of Luzon up until this point. Due to the long journey up north to Buscalan, I decided to break the trip into four legs, staying at each point for at least one to two weeks. Kicking off in Manila (the capital city of Luzon), then a couple hours north to the red light district of Angeles City, then further north to the quaint mountain town of Bagiuo. Finally reaching Whang-Od's mountain village, Tinglayan.
Once you reach the furthest point that you can by vehicle in Buscalan, you sign in at a police check point and begin the hike up to the village. The mountain air is noticeably different from the heavily polluted/populated cities further south. You're surrounded by majestic valleys, decorated with tiers of rice paddies. As we slowly made our way further up, we passed locals from the village, some balancing an impressive amount of goods on their head as they hiked up alongside us.
Upon arriving up to the village, we were instantly treated like family. Many in the village rent out shared rooms and prepare large feasts each night. Another perk of Tinglayan is that they grow/smoke quite a bit of marijuana. Anywhere else in the Philippines, it's not worth the risk to smoke, but it seemed that the purpose of the police check point before the trailhead was more so to make sure that nothing was being taken out of the village and trafficked back down into the cities.
Whang-Od never married or had children, but she does have two nieces in the village that apprenticed under her tutelage, honing their skills in the batok tattoo tradition. In the Butbut tribe, it would be considered a corruption of the tradition to teach someone outside of the bloodline. There were probably a total of fifty people that made the trek there for a Kalinga tattoo and many were already lining up for a first initial tattoo, via one of Whang-Od's nieces. They were passing around a wooden menu, displaying possible designs and the meanings behind each one. The main reason that you might get a tattoo from one of her nieces is that Whang-Od no longer gives any of the larger tattoo designs. These days, she limits her work to her signature, alone. Three simple black dots. Three dots that are instantly recognized anywhere in the Philippines with the utmost respect.
I was tempted to get a full design by one of her nieces. After watching a few people receive their designs, I noticed that they didn't always come out looking as proportionate on their body (I'm being kind here). So it was a bit of a gamble. I ended up discussing a possible design with one of the nieces and after asking the price, she paused for a moment and quoted me about three times the price I'd seen her charge for the locals in line ahead of me. Although I had brought enough cash to lock it in, it was the principle of it that turned me off. Also, my original plan was simply to get work done by Whang-Od herself, anyhow. I decided to skip the additional work from one of the nieces and instead I spent the day exploring the village and going to a nearby waterfall.
Exploring the village, I realized quickly how easy it was to get lost. There were so many twists and turns that getting turned around was more likely than not. I came across many grave sites that were underneath the various raised housings. I'd read that Whang-Od's grave site has already been prepared for years now, in what will be a museum dedicated to her and her work. However, immediately after meeting her, you realize just how healthy and vibrant she is. There's something to be said about her way of life, as many elders in her tribe reach above the one hundred year mark in life.
The next day, I waited patiently in the area of the village where she was putting in her trademark work. I watched everyone gather around her, in awe of simply witnessing her in action. Instant goosebumps. It was mostly all Filipinos there, but I did meet another traveler from Switzerland that had come to the Philippines, specifically to visit Whang-Od. I should also note that another feature of her fame is cupping your balls after completing her three dotted signature. In her tribe, the testicles are considered to be the power center of the male human body. In handling your balls, she's getting back some of the energy that she put forth from your initial tattoo.
I was fully prepared and not bothered in the least by this. However, I noticed that one by one, she had been completing her work on different men and not a single instance of ball grabbing took place. I leaned in to one of the locals that could speak English and asked them why she was bypassing that whole ritual. Apparently, due to her internet fandom in recent years, there has been an outcry by some in the west that she's sexually assaulting folks, or just being generally creepy by cupping her visitors balls. After hearing about this response, she decided to end the practice altogether. I would argue that perhaps there's something to her vitality that could be attributed to the ball handling.
In terms of the process and technique of Kalinga tattoos, the set up is nice and minimal. She uses a bamboo stick that's been narrowed down, with a thorn from a calamansi tree affixed to the end of it. Imagine a tiny lime, the size and shape of a pinball, but the inside is basically the innards of an orange. This is a Calamansi. A popular fruit in the Philippines and apparently even its thorns are equally important. The ink itself is made up of a mixture of charcoal and water. After dipping the thorn in the ink, she spends a decent bit of time on one dot, making sure it gets deep enough to become a permanent addition on the skin.
Getting the opportunity to meet Whang-Od and so many other incredible people on this trek was well worth the journey up and I couldn't have asked for a better 40th. I wish her many more years to come and I hope she gets back to grabbing balls in the future. If she kicks it in the mean time, that is on you, internet.