Just like the lotus feet in China and the neck rings in Thailand, there is a tradition in the province of Kalinga that women undertake in pursuit of beauty. The tradition is called “batok” or the art of tattooing tribal designs using thorn and bamboo stick. The female citizens bear the marks for beauty, which they are allowed to get when they come of age. The men, on the other hand, have to prove themselves worthy of the mark, hence, the majority of men who have these tattoos are warriors. This alone makes batok an experience like no other. It is also a tradition that is slowly dying following the passing of the original mambabatoks. There is, however, one of them who is still alive and despite her old age, shows no sign of retiring from doing this art. And just a week ago, I have had the privilege to experience this traditional tattooing procedure under the hands of the legendary mambabatok of Kalinga, Apo Whang-Od.
One thing you should expect when traveling in the Cordillera region is that you will spend a considerable amount of time for trekking. Just like in Batad, reaching the barangay of Buscalan entails an hour worth of hiking. Armed by trekking poles, hats and cloth to cover our heads with, we walked under the midday sun and followed the lead of our host, Charlie Dekalidad. [Read: Travel Guide to Buscalan]
Though the trail was not as challenging as the one we took in Batad, it was still long, strenuous, and exhausting. It had my heart racing, so painful I had to stop several times to catch my breath. To survive I tried to distract myself with the beautiful view and imagining myself coming face to face with one of my life’s icons. After what seemed like forever, we reached the small village of Buscalan, to the sight of smiling people, black pigs walking about like they were dogs, the simple houses made of wood.
We settled ourselves in Charlie’s humble abode. The guest house of the Dekalidad is a character of its own. Bones of animals, wood knickknack, and whatnot hanging by the ceiling. Charlie’s family welcomed us with warmth. As we settled ourselves in our room, they served us hot Kalinga coffee, which I swear to you is one of the best I’ve ever tried.
After we have showered and settled our things, we went to the house of Apo Fang-Od. The old artist and her niece, Grace, were already bent on their work, inking tribal designs to another group of tourists. Seeing Apo Fang-Od in person is synonymous to the bliss you feel upon seeing your favorite celebrity; I was really excited and happy. [Read: Whang-od | Ode of Thorns and Ink]
As we waited, we busied ourselves watching how the others winced in pain as Apo Fang-Od and Grace worked their magic on their skins. We also checked out the books that bear photos of different ethnic designs. This is the first time I’ve taken a tattoo without an image in mind. But it didn’t take long for me to find the design that I want. It’s of a cross that says to help ward off evil spirits.
Seven of us braved the pains of this tattoo technique, which was three times more painful than the modern alternative. The pain was so intense I bit my lips and inside cheeks several times to keep myself from crying out.
The batok experience is not for the faint of heart. It is also not for the hygiene freaks. The ink is made of coal, sanitation is not the foremost concern, in fact, the thorn they used for the other group, they also used for us. Before the tattooing they didn’t wipe the skin clean. Save for the oil which they apply on the inked area, there was no plastic to cover the tattoo when it was all done. The act itself is a leap of faith. You are not assured of proper sanitation, there were no words of advice for after tattoo care. You go there, you tell the artists the design of your preference, and then suffer in silence (or shout expletives whichever works for you). Nonetheless, it was a risk our group was willing to take. [Read: The Redeemers of Traditional Hand-Tapped Tattoo in the Philippines]
Grace they said, wields a gentler force than her aunt. Even so, I determined to gain the mark from Apo Whang-Od. After all, she is the reason I’ve embarked on this trip.
This was the trip where we exhausted more time for the journey than appreciating the view or getting acquainted with the life of the locals. But I consider it as the most meaningful trip I have ever had. I have been given a rare opportunity to meet a national treasure, a legend, and an artist most respected for her craft. [Read: Why Whang-od for National Artist a Misguided Campaign]
On the 7th of June 2014, I received my fifth tattoo. Just below my nape, on top of my spine, I’d been marked by the last mambabatok of Kalinga.