In the Kalinga province of the Phillipines lies the remote village of Buscalan. To reach this village, one must survive the chaos of intense traffic before scaling narrow mountain passes, steep dirt roads and mudslides. Although the journey is a tough one, each year hundreds of people travel across the world and make the hair-raising journey to Buscalan to visit tattoo artist Whang Od, the last of the tribal tattoo artists known as mambabatok.
Mambabatok translates into English as “to pat on the neck”. The name describes the way in which Kalinga tattoo artists hold a stick with a thorn or needle secured at one end, and tap the “neck” of this stick with another stick, held in the other hand. The tapping repeatedly drives the needle into the skin to allow the ink to penetrate the sub-dermal layer . This method of hand-poked tattoos requires a lot of skill, patience and steadiness of hand. Whang Od has had seventy years to practice the craft that she learned from her father, and although her designs are not as perfectly formed as those created with modern tattoo machines, it is the creative imperfections within her designs that add character and proclaim the hand-made nature of the tattoos.
Whang Od, also known as Fang Od, has earned her place among the world’s most influential tattoo artists with her determination to keep the traditional Kalinga tattoo method alive and her life-long dedication to her craft. She says, “Happiness for me is to live till I’m 100 years making tattoos. I am delighted that people come to my house from around the world to visit and get tattooed, giving meaning to my life.”
If you’d like to learn more about Whang Od and Kalinga tattoos, read this in-depth article by Lars Krutak.