– Uncovering One Life in One Story
At 103 years old, Whang-Od Oggay is helping to keep an ancient tradition alive in the Kalinga province of the Philippines. She’s the country’s oldest ‘mambabatok’, a traditional Kalinga tattooist.
Every morning straight, Whang-Od wakes to craft a mixture made of ink from pine soot and water to apply hand-tapped tattoos on people’s bodies from around the world. Every year thousands of strangers make the journey to see her and get one of her famous tattoos.
Although many come to see her, their journey is no small feat. Visitors make a 15-hour drive north of Manila to the mountain village of Buscalan, which is only accessible by hiking a mile from the nearest dirt road through a forest and rice terraces.
The artists are masters of their thousand-year-old trade, originally giving tattoos to warriors in battle. “During the old times, men could only have a tattoo if they killed someone,” she said, “but now, anyone can get a tattoo.” At age 15, under the guidance of her father, she started her tattoo apprenticeship. It represented a break in the practice as men were the only ones allowed to learn how to tattoo.
To deliver the art she uses coal, thorns, wipes, and a hammer made from a coffee tree. The thorn is from the pomelo fruit tree. “There are different kinds of tattoos, snakeskins, centipedes, ladders, numbers, and more.” “My father was also a mambatok, I don’t want this tradition to go away.”
Today, Whang-Od is training her grandniece to carry on her legacy, keeping the family mamababatok tradition alive.