In a small village called Buscalan in Kalinga, The Philippines A woman called Whang Od is possibly the last of her kind. At a sprightly 97 years of age she is keeping alive the traditions of her ancestors, the tradition is called “Batok” and is the art of tattooing.
Tattooing has been practised in the Philippines for centuries, however the arrival of Spaniards, Americans and Christianity led to the decline and almost extinction of indigenous tattooing.
The arriving Spaniards named the natives of the region “Pintados” meaning the painted people. Illustrations from the Boxer codex circa 1595 show heavily tattooed people from the region. These people were mostly slaughtered by the invading populations.
The markings within the tattoo designs were deeply significant, a language which spoke of a man’s warrior strength and prowess, of heads taken from enemies and of bravery. Female tattoos brought protection and fertility to women.
Using soot and water to create pigment, and a thorn and sticks to create a device with which to apply the design. Whang Od permanently marks the human skin with designs from her cultural past. This is a slow and painful way to be adorned, and is considered a rite of passage. Yet many travel from all over the world and trek to this tiny village to be adorned by Whang Od. Traditional designs of the Philippines are applied to people of many cultures here, but some sacred and deeply significant designs are kept solely to denote a warrior status of persons only from the region.
Filipino tattoos are designed to bring strength and bonds of unity, of belonging, and the responsibility which belonging brings. A set of designs show that a group of people belong together, and this shared symbolism unites them. This is in contrast to the western tattoo culture where design is used to show individuality. In some ways the rituals and beliefs around each are the polar opposites.
Whang Od is a single woman, she has no children. Traditionally her daughters would have taken on her role in the community. Yet here are none to do so. Whang Od has taught her great niece Gelles
to tattoo in the traditional way, but Gelles prefers her studies and may take a different path and become a teacher. If this is the choice which Gelles makes Whang Od will be the very last of her kind.