Maria Oggay, known to the world as “Whang–od,” sits calmly on a small homemade bangkito [small bench], as people flood and invade her small house which had been renovated to accommodate more visitors.

Whang–od, from the Butbut tribe in Kalinga, is single, childless and with a  distinct sense of humor that might only come from the world-renowned mambabatok, (traditional Kalinga tattooist).

As you approach her with reverence, she will stare back at you with her old eyes, slowly warming up to a wide smile, as if revealing the mystery of her person.

The eldest in a brood of seven, she takes care of her extended family of granddaughters, nieces and siblings with her daily earnings from tattooing a multitude. Despite her fame, she remains unassuming and unaffected by it.

Whang-od’s  house  is located at the entrance of Buscalan village, in the municipality of Tinglayan,  Kalinga province. It can reached through a hike from the two-kilometer paved road starting from the point where vehicles unload their passengers.  Depending on one’s endurance of heat and the steep route, the hike may take an hour or two.

As you arrive huffing and puffing, Whang-od would greet you with a smirk and tease you to get a tattoo. She would scoff when you say you’d be content to just have her signature [three dots] and would coax you to choose from the designs displayed. It would be hard to resist.

Whang–od’s humor is like that, dry and always surprising.

However, her humor is sometimes misunderstood. Recently, Buscalan was rocked with controversy when a film and television studio posted compiled photos of Whang–od clutching the genitals of some of her male clients with a satisfied smile on her face. The social media post went viral, eliciting varied responses from netizens.

A Kalinga elder slammed the studio for the malicious compilation which made Whang–od a laughing stock and the butt of green jokes.

It is true that Whang-od is into the habit of groping her male clients to elicit laughs and after feeling them up, would announce “bassit” [small]! She’d then laugh her heart out to break the tension of having a traditional tattoo.

(In other contexts, groping is considered sexual harassment – Editor)

The myths

Whang–od’s tattoing ink is a mixture of charcoal and water which is tapped into the skin with the use of a thorn from a lemon or pomelo tree. The Kalinga hand-tapped tattoo technique is called “batok” that dates back to a thousand years.

Whang-od  is said  to be the oldest mambabatok and the last of the breed, but Whang–od has no proof for such claims. She has no birth certificate to attest she is 100, only a postal identification (ID) card issued by the Philippine Postal Service, making her eligible for the Centenarians Act. But she does not really care. She would smile when asked about her age.

Whang-od is also said to be the last living traditional tattoo artist in the province. However locals say there are more tattoo artists in neighboring villages, but none are as famous as she.

Grace Palicas and Elyang Wigan, grandnieces and heirs-apparent, said Whang–od’s strength and longevity comes from her being childless. “Buong buo pa ang lakas niya, [Her strength is full],” they said, adding that their aunt has provided for all their needs.

Whang–od would only smile and laugh a lot when asked why she never married. She said it is her “gasat” (destiny) to be single and to live a long life. She’d smile every time her love life is brought up, as it is rumored that she had plenty of lovers.

Spurring tourism

The Whang-od phenomenon has created a thriving tourism industry for the small, obscure town.

The main source of livelihood in barangay Buscalan is already shifting from farming to tourism. Since 2014, residents have chosen to become guides for tourists visiting Whang-od and are paid PhP1,000 (around US$20) for every group of five.

At present, there are over 60 accredited tour guides in Buscalan alone. This does not include the porters who are paid the same rate daily. There are also homestay programs for those who want to spend the night, and a small eatery and stores within the village for food and supplies.

All the industries thrive on the popularity of Whang–od and her renowned tattoos. She, however, claims nothing and is seemingly oblivious to the uproar she is causing.

Tinglayan Mayor, Sacrament Gumilab, said it was Whang-od who placed the town on the map, compelling the world to take a look at their area beyond the fear of headhunting and marijuana plantations. Whang-od spurred tourism and jobs for the community.

However, the influx of tourists has taken a toll on the community as droves of people hiked to meet and get a tattoo from Whang-od. A written warning to foreigners, locals and guides is posted in Whang-od’s home: “Tourism brings livelihood and positive awareness to a community but also brings certain problems. The influx of tourists can stress the community with their demand on supply and services.“

Slowly, Buscalan is adapting to accommodate travelers but it would take time to learn the hard lessons. Tourists, villagers said, should not be part of the problem.

The visitors brought plastic waste. Tourists are advised to take their trash back with them, including cigarette butts. However many throw their garbage near the highway or  dump their waste on adjoining village before taking a ride home.  

Having traveled for long hours, some visitors feel entitled to demand for services. The mambabatok can be overwhelmed with so many people wanting the artwork that tourists are advised to observe the personal time and respect the privacy of the artist and the community.

Everyone — locals, foreigners, celebrities, government officials – are asked to get in line. Some guides promise priority services but tourists are advised not to insist on getting ahead.  Deserving to have this rare artwork on your skin is earned by patience being what locals call, a “Guardian of Buscalan” to help preserve this national treasure.

Awards and citations

Last year, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) conferred the Dangal ng Haraya for Intangible Cultural Heritage  to Whang-Od.

The NCCA said Whang-od has stood witness to the changing landscape of the province and has stood resilient, strong and dedicated to preserving what has been passed on to her by her elders and for making the community a vessel of age-old wisdom. Whang-od was recognized for being a bearer of Filipino indigenous identities and living traditions.

The NCCA acknowledged the contributions of Whang-od in the promulgation and preservation of Butbut- Kalinga traditional tattoo known as “fatok or whatok” and engendering awareness to Philippine traditional arts and practices and intangible cultural heritage in general.

Whang–od will continue to mystify the world with her art, inking a multitude who will flock to her small village and spur tourism for the town and its residents and yes, continue to shock with her humor.

Posted by Maria Elena Catajan