The Legendary Mambabatok Of Kalinga Apo Whang-Od

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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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.

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  1. You brave little beauty! Aaaw!
    You hit me right at the spot about the “hygiene freak” lol. I will definitely enjoy the trek and endure the pain but I might annoy the “mambabatok” for my endless questions about hygiene safety ha ha ha.

    Btw, is that a pet wild boar? Everything is exciting on that trip – lucky you!

  2. I'd like to have a tattoo done by her too. I told my little sister that If I ever decide to have one done, I'd choose “Sometimes when we tatts” as a caption in my IG photo. ehehehe

  3. Because she is the last from from the old tribe. The other mambabatok from the original order have passed away. She just passed on the tradition to her niece, who, from what I've heard is not very determined to continue the tradition.

  4. I do not know how to thank you for having introduced beautiful places in the Philippines. Kalinga is new to me. I do not have a tattoo but am so interested in the art of the tattoo. I congratulate you on getting the fifth tattoo. You have been bitten by the travel bug !

  5. You define the word “fierce”!!! It's even an understatement.

    The “hike” itself is already a challenge and accomplishment. In your case, you went beyond everything. As you perfectly described it “The act itself is a leap of faith”

    Ang galing at tapang mo!!

  6. Marge, ikaw ay binatokan ng mambabatok sa batok! Parang tongue twister no haha 🙂

    What a nice experience. I'm really glad you got to be tattooed by her as it means a lot to you. I'm sure that made all the travelling and hiking all worth it 🙂

    Si Rhoda din ba ung isang nag pa tattoo?

  7. a question….how can she be called the last mambabatok if her niece is also practicing the craft?

  8. Wow, Hats off to you for braving the tattoo. I don't think I could have gone through it. Your post made me miss a trip my best friend and I did in Batad and surrounding areas. It was the trek that kick started our wanderlust and that trip made Banaue one of our favorite places in the Philippines.

  9. It is really the pain that gave me second thoughts about getting the tribal tatt. My friend just got inked last May. And mtagal nga yung healing process, at namaga sya.. Maybe dahil sa sanitation issues ng process, pero magaling at napakaganda ng tattoo nya ngayon. Congrats again!

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