World’s oldest tattoo artist-Whang Od Gypsy Tales

Buscalan is a hidden village in a mountain of the Luzon Island and the only way to arrive to this town of the Kalinga province is walking an hour through treacherous tracks. If it wasn’t so hidden, it would probably be a hot bed for tourists and not only because of the location. Its valleys and irrigated rice plantations are spectacular, but are also very similar to those you can find in other towns accessible by public transport in the nearby mountains.

Whang Od is 92 years old and she is the last Kalinga tattoo maker, according to specialists this practice is about a thousand years old and was used as a skin natural language transmitted from generation to generation. However, Whang Od hasn’t got a family that can inherit her art, she lost her boyfriend when she was 25 years old and never matched up again.

Within the tribal culture the tattoo symbolizes feminine beauty and male courage. “If you haven’t got a tattoo you aren’t a true warrior,” says Whang Od. Those who have an eagle tattooed on their chest beheaded a Japanese enemy during the Second World War.

“Before making a tattoo they showed the enemy’s head and after celebrating their victory we made the tattoos as an evidence of their authorship.”

The tattoo before was drawn only after war and victory. It was a culture of exchange that did not require money. Now, however, people have to pay for their tattoos as they are required to start using money for things like electricity or buying pigs and hens.

For years, the tattoo making tradition wasn’t giving much of importance, in fact it was almost extinct until the first foreigners arrived. Actually, it was a journalist who pointed out to Whang Od that she should train her sister’s granddaughter as the next Kalinga tattoo maker, despite the fact that the young woman studies computing engineering at a university far away from Buscalan like so many other young people.

Some kids try to learn by watching what she does, but Whang Od says that the future artist must be from her family.

Buscalan villagers have put their shoulders to the wheel during the last months in view of the business driven by foreigners. The National Commission of Indigenous People has imposed on visitors an environmental quota that is collected by locals.

Besides, Whang Od’s family has hung a sign on their house door as an indication for lost tourists and she provides them with food and lodging. The tattoos will come afterwards starting at a price of 500 Philippine pesos.

Whang Od’s house is quite modest, although she is always well dressed and one of the richest women in the tribe thanks to the money from the tattoos.

Charlie Pan-Oy also hangs around her house. He is one of the neighbors but he’s the one that pulls the strings in Buscalan. He sells marihuana and makes the most out of the visitors. His hut is far more luxurious than Whang Od’s, it has a television with dvd and his son can drink coffee with industrial pastry bought from outside the village.

Whang Od house has two floors and is in the top, into a room where there are many photographs of the reporters who have reached Buscalan, where guests sleep on the floor with mats.

The Kalinga tattoos are no longer made according to traditions. however the material for the tattoo is the same with which the ancient tattooed warriors. Whang Od’s working material is a coconut bowl to mix water, charcoal and the sweet potato that will provide texture to the mix. She also uses a Calamansi twig or Philippine lime and a nail made out of a thorn joined to a bamboo stick.

Clients can choose where they want the tattoo but the design is up to her, that or the possibility to choose from one of the drawings in her arms.

“The eagle is for the warriors, not for tourists or any other person that is not to be respected by our community”

However those who make a long way to be tattooed by Whand Od, they feel proud to carry on your skin the art of an ancient culture that is very close to disappearing in the tribe.

Staff Contributor
Rabia Arshad