In a small village in the Philippines, lives a woman who is one of the oldest tribal tattoo artists in the world. Whang Od Oggay started tattooing at the young age of 15, when she learned how to practice from her father, a master of the unique art-form of hand-tapped tattooing or batok.
Now, with a career spanning nearly nine decades, this 103-year-old is considered to be a respected Mambabatok or the traditional tattoo artist of the Kalinga ethnic group and a legend among the tattoo community at large. Countless people travel hundreds of miles from all over the world to visit her remote location to be inked by her talented hands.
In a procedure that is relatively painful compared to conventional techniques, Whang Od uses citrus thorns to prick the skin with ink that is composed of charcoal and water, and a bamboo hammer as her tattoo gun.
These days, getting inked is a sign of individuality but the millennium-old batok style of tattooing emerged from a need for signifying tribe and community. The village warrior-men who would protect their people from enemies would get tattooed as a symbol of bravery and courage. The village women would get tattooed as a way to express beauty and elegance.
At a time when only men were allowed to practice the art, Whang Od has defied societal expectations and paved her own way. Choosing to remain unmarried, she has dedicated her life to her art and to ensuring the younger generation is able to carry on the dying art-form of the batok. She now has around 20 apprentices, all women, that practice with her as a way to extend her legacy as well as support their families and the village’s tourist economy. She has even been nominated for her country’s National Living Treasure award, recognizing the beauty and grace of the ancient art of tattooing.
Age is not a barrier for Whang Od Oggay and she will continue to do what she truly loves until she no longer can. She is happy and secure that she has passed on her knowledge so that the rich Filipino heritage of the mambabatok will continue to exist long after she’s moved on.