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  • Writer's pictureScott Glazier

Apo Whang-Od: The 106-Year-Old Woman Keeping Batok Alive

Good Morning Speakeasy Readers!

It’s time to start the weekend. I hope everyone has fun plans. Just make sure to grab your sweaters, it's going to be another cool and cloudy week in Los Angeles.

Today’s topic is the 106-year-old tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od. Apo Whang-Od is a legendary tattoo artist known for her mastery of the traditional art of hand-tapped tattoos in the Philippines known as batok. Batok is an ancient tattooing technique that uses a mix of water and charcoal that's tapped into the skin using a thorn end of a pomelo or calamansi tree and a wooden mallet.

Born on February 17, 1917, in Kalinga province, Apo Whang-Od has spent her entire life in the mountain village of Buscalan, where she learned the art of traditional tattoos from her father, She is the first and only female mambabatok of her time and has been tattooing since she was 16 years old.

Whang-Od would travel to far and neighboring villages, summoned by host communities to imprint the sacred symbols of their ancestors on individuals who have crossed or about to cross a threshold in their lives. For men, this meant being an accomplished headhunting warrior. Which was expressed with a chest tattoo with patterns that crawled up the shoulders and down the arms, and could take days to finish. Women were tattooed for different reasons, primarily for fertility and beautification. The tattooed elder women of Kalinga often say that when they die, they can’t take their beads and gold with them to the afterlife. They only have the markings on their body.

Despite the fact that Apo Whang-Od was not the first in her family to practice the art of hand-tapped tattoos, she quickly earned a reputation as a master tattoo artist. Her artistry was passed down from generations and underwent significant changes. She is known for her intricate designs and a blend of ancient and contemporary art.

For many years, Apo Whang-Od lived a quiet life in the mountains, tattooing locals with her traditional and ancient designs. However, in the early 2000s, her fame spread beyond the borders of her village, thanks to documentaries, cultural expos, and tourists who came to visit her.

Nevertheless, Apo Whang-Od's popularity doesn't make her rich, as she has always charged minimal fees for her tattoos, unlike other artists who charge thousands of pesos. She earns a living from the small income she gets from her art, from selling souvenirs such as native bags, and from the food and lodging fees paid by tourists who come to her village.

Whang-Od is one of the last mambabatok of her generation and has been training and inspiring the next generation of artists who will follow in her footsteps, continuing a thousand-year-old practice. Among her proteges are her grand-nieces Grace Palicas and Elyang Wigan.

Mambabatok can only pass on their craft within their bloodlines, and Whang-Od never had any children of her own so she chose her grand-nieces Grace Palicasa and Elyang Wigan. “I was the first child to learn how to tattoo. I just observed what she did," says Grace. “When I left for college in 2015, Elyang was next to learn so that she could help Apo when so many tourists were coming.”

Apo Whang-Od is a national treasure and a living icon of Philippine culture. Today, she is considered a cultural master and a leader in the preservation of Kalinga culture. Her contribution to the preservation and promotion of the traditional art of hand-tapped tattoos is immeasurable.

Until next time my fellow apes,

Peter Hernandez


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