The Tattoo Village (1/4)

I am guiltily one of the people who made my way to Buscalan, Kalinga when mass tourism started hitting the area. The first time I visited was about 4/5 years ago. It is an understatement to say that it was one heck of a journey.

People like myself would willingly take on 13-15 hours of total travel time on land to get to the province. Way back, we had to hike for about 1 1/2 hour on top of our tiring multiple bus rides. This time, because of the continued road development in the area, you would only need 1/2 hr of hike to get to the heart of Buscalan.

Part of the hike trail back in 2015
This in now the ‘turning point’ where the hike starts

It isn’t just a question of ‘what’ are people spending all that time and effort on, but ‘who.’ You see, living on top of those mountains is a legendary woman, who, by opening her tribe’s tattooing practice to the public, was able to put her entire village on probably millions of travellers’ maps.

Apo Whang-od, a woman who’s at least 100yrs old, has been recognized in multiple aspects both in the Philippines and abroad. She is famously known as the last of the original ‘mambabatok’ in the country.

In the most basic of sense, I would describe ‘batok’ as the art of traditional tattooing using soot as ink and calamansi thorn as needle. And, to put the process simply, the artist taps the ink into the person’s skin using a couple of bamboo pieces.

There’s probably hundreds of articles on the life of Apo Whang-od and the history of ‘batok,’ if those subjects piqued your interest. On these series of blogs, however, I would like to focus on my personal experiences.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog, it wasn’t my first time visiting the But-but Tribe. Since hearing the story of Apo in my college days, it has been my goal to go up there and see her. When I was finally able to meet her, I was legit fangirling on the inside during my entire stay. I decided not to get inked back then. I think the universe knew I just wasn’t there yet.

My first time meeting Apo (2015)

Now, after a few years, I was able to go back. This time, I felt that I’m finally ready to carry a piece of my country with me.. permanently.

Finally getting inked (2019)

Going back to Buscalan, I wanted Apo to do my tattoo. But asking to be inked by a woman in her hundreds requires time and a stroke of good luck.

We didn’t have the gift of time. We had just a tiny bit of luck tho. During the day of our tattoo session, we heard that Apo has been having headaches. She would usually skip tattooing on days like this but our guide told us that Apo is working that day. She’s limiting it to her ‘signature’ tho.

I personally didn’t mind. To me, even a single dot would suffice. I just needed that experience from her and I’m good.

After getting signed, our local host said “I’ll find you an artist, I’ll go and see who’s available.”

This was music to my ears. You see, way back, I only heard of two artists: Apo Whang-Od and her grandniece, Grace. With what our host said, she clearly meant that more people from the village is doing ink now. It felt like the art flowed with time and continues to live on.

In fact, as we killed time walking around the village in the afternoon, I realized that they have centered things around tattooing now. To some, it’s turning more and more into just plain “tourism.” But you can’t deny the fact that the art is alive and I would like to believe that there will always be people who has genuine intention of carrying the ink.

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