The Philippines is home to 7641 islands, making it the world’s second largest archipelagic nation. One fourth of these islands are inhabited and home to more than 175 culturally and linguistically distinctive groups. With their ancient indigenous populations and vibrant maritime trade history, the islands’ communities have been thriving for more than 700,000 years, centuries before the arrival of foreign rulers. Migration from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas has only added to the diversity of the country’s landscape.
When the Spanish conquistadors landed in 1521, they encountered heavily tattooed locals, hailing the archipelago as “the Islands of the Painted Ones”. Five-hundred years later, tribal tattooing is almost extinct, but there’s still a special group of practitioners in the mountainous region of the Cordilleras, in the north of the Philippines.
For 1000 years, pre-Hispanic tribes of the archipelago earned their body art through victory in battle. The distinctive patterns marked the wearer by tribe, rank and triumphs, and were believed to provide spiritual protection. Women were also tattooed, as bodies emblazoned with meticulous designs were considered more desirable. The sprawling wings of an eagle symbolising strength; a rice field for fertility or abundance; and a millipede, the many legs of a community walking together as one.
With a foot-long bamboo stick embedded with a thorn plucked from a calamansi citrus tree, the Philippines’ oldest and last “mambabatok” (traditional Kalinga tattooist) embodies her country’s time-honored customs at 100 taps a minute. In the village of Buscalan in landlocked Kalinga province, Whang-Od Oggay combines charcoal, water and sugarcane juice to imprint motifs imbued with meaning that can take days or even weeks to complete.
A 15-hour drive north of Manila followed by a mile-long hike through lush jungle and rice terraces, Kalinga is one of the Philippines’ most remote regions. Ink enthusiasts from across the country and the world make the challenging journey not only to be tattooed by the smiling, wizened Whang-Od, but to experience a community that has mastered the art of cultural preservation. During the 1700s, with the encroaching Spanish military and ascendancy of the Church, tribal tattooing had almost disappeared from the archipelago, but not in the remote Cordilleras, where warriors had generations of experience defending their tribal lands from invasion.
The first female of the Kalinga tribe to be taught the art of tattooing, Whang-Od began her training at 15 under the guidance of her father, a master tattoo artist. Though some say she is now more than 100, Whang-Od does not know the exact year of her birth. No matter her age, her eyesight remains true. She will only retire once her vision fades.
With no children of her own, Whang-Od is keeping the tradition alive by sharing her knowledge with her two grand-nieces, Grace and Iliang. Her signature tattoo of three dots denotes the master and her eager apprentices. Perhaps one day, one of these young women will have signature tattoos of their own just like Whang-Od.
Story by BBC Travel