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Living Legend of Tattoo Art, Apo Whang-Od

Living Legend of Tattoo Art, Apo Whang-Od

The art of tattooing is both a taboo and preservation of culture in the Philippines. Know more about Apo Whang-Od, a centenarian tattoo artist legendary for her expertise in traditional tattooing. 

Living Legend of Tattoo Art, Apo Whang-Od

You might have seen a story or photograph of Apo Whang-Od in your history textbooks, she is a prominent artist in Philippine culture and tradition, preserving the batok or hand-tapping culture of Kalinga. Although she usually wears traditional clothing, her body is strikingly covered in tattoos that have unique designs and meanings.

The artist and her technique

At the age of 15, Whang-Od started tattooing in the town of Buscalan, Tinglayan Kalinga, Philippines. She learned to do tattoos from her father who is a master of the said art. Until now, Whang-Od taps to keep the tradition going. 

Whang-Od makes use of traditional resources such as a mixture of charcoal and water for her tattoo inks. Along with a thorn from a calamansi tree that serves as her needle, a blade of grass to create designs, and a stick for tapping. 

Photos from Frederik Wissink

Her profession, culture, and home

The hand-tapped tattoos began as a symbol for male warriors who killed someone after protecting their village. More ink means bravery. Women, on the other hand, only had tattoos for decorative purposes. Whang-Od then deviates from the stereotype. Despite the custom that only men were permitted to study the special skill, she still learned how to do tattoos.

To tell the story and pass on the tradition, Whang-Od chooses her two nieces, Grace and Elyang to train and continue the tribe’s art. 

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Photo from Frederik Wissink

World-class tattoo art 

Whang-Od and her tribe’s tradition of tattoo art is already well-known throughout the world. Both professionals and tourists travel to their location to get tattoos and shoot documentaries. It is not just the hype that made them travel to Kalinga, but the appreciation for the symbolism and process of the tradition. 

Inked or marked skins are forms of art, it does not mean that someone came from prison, addict, or is a sign of impulsive and rebellious behavior. For some, it is a tradition passed on from the oldest generations and a sign of breaking gender stereotypes.

Appreciate art!

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