Since learning about the traditional tattoos of the mountainous regions in the northern Philippines and the last living mambabatok, Erron Ocampo has always been drawn to the idea of traveling all the way to Kalinga and getting himself inked by Whang-Od herself. After getting his most awaited skin art and experiencing Buscalan hospitality, it was only inevitable for him to return for more.
written and photographed by Erron Ocampo
Whang-Od is the oldest living mambabatok or traditional tattoo artist, and until recently, the only one left in Kalinga. Her enigmatic tattoos are the main reason travelers from all over the world come to Buscalan. A closer look at this surreal town on top of the mountains will make you fall in love with the place and the people.
Making my way through the mountains of Kalinga and trekking up to reach the (literally) breathtaking and picturesque small town of Buscalan, I was in awe when I rst saw Whang-Od. She had this regal aura. I rarely get mesmerized and this was one of those rare moments when I actually got starstruck. After hanging out with her, I found out she has this fun side, as she cracked jokes which needed some translation as she only speaks their native tongue. I even received a marriage proposal when she found out I was single.
At age 98, she is still continuing this once endangered Filipino art. Tattoos, or batok in the Kalinga dialect, were traditionally done only on warrior men who triumphed over an opponent through a fight to death, while tattoos on women are applied for aesthetic values that aim to attract warrior men for marriage. It is a painful process that was endured only by the bravest men and women of the tribes.
There were plenty of mambabatok in the early days and Whang-Od got her first tattoo at an early age (when she was about 12 years old) from a man named Whag Ay. She was trained to be a mambabatok by her father around the same age. As the eldest of eight siblings, her parents had hoped that she would be married to the best warrior husband of the tribes. Many warriors became her suitors, but unfortunately her parents never approved of any of them and she never married. Names of these suitors are tattooed on her arms and Whang-Od gets emotional when she is reminded of them.
Whang-Od is happy to still be doing batok, imparting this tradition to people from all over the world. She says she will be performing tattoos for as long as she can. Her oldest grandniece Grace is her prodigy, practicing since the early age of 10. Though hesitant at first, she has recently decided to be a full-time mambabatok. At 19, she has tattooed hundreds of people. The lines of her tattoos are finer compared to Whang-Od’s, and her tapping, lighter. Visitors getting their tattoos in Buscalan who want to experience both Whang-Od’s and Grace’s tattooing sometimes ask for one design to be done by both of them. Whang-Od will start the tattoo and then Grace will finish the design. Whang-Od says she is confident about the continuation of this treasured tradition through Grace.
Batok is done using a mixture of soot from the bottom of a cooking pan and water as the ink, while the needle is a thorn from a kalamansi plant (or any other citrus plant). The thorn is then secured at the end of a thin bamboo that is tapped with another piece of wood. The design may be chosen from a book that was published about Whang-Od which contains all the traditional designs and their meanings, or you may just choose where you want your tattoo and let them decide what pattern they deem appropriate for it. For my first trip, I left my fate on their hands and asked Whang-Od to tattoo my right arm and Grace my left arm.
As I was the only guest then, the preparations started early in the morning. The hut where the tattooing took place is just in front of Grace’s parents’ house, where I was staying. It has an amazing view of the mountains and the trail that we took going up to Buscalan. Whang-Od gathered her tools and two tiny stools and asked me to position myself. After some final discussions about my tattoo, she began doing her magic. The pattern was drawn on my skin using the same soot-and-water ink and then the tapping began.
I knew the tattoo process would be painful, but to my surprise, it was not as painful as I thought. Having gotten some tattoos before, I did not underestimate the pain and batok being done manually is a whole different experience. I watched how the thorn pierced through my skin over and over—sometimes the thorn will snag and pull up my skin and seeing this makes it more seem painful, so I decided to just look away. While Whang-Od was doing my tattoo, some locals came over the hut and over our chat, I learned that in the olden times, they perform a ritual of offering a native chicken or pig by wiping some of the blood on the freshly done tattoo. The ritual was done for a speedy healing of the tattoo. I asked them if we could perform the ritual afterwards.
The process took about two hours. After a coffee break, Grace then took over and inked my other arm for another two hours. Though Grace’s tapping was lighter, it felt more painful as my pain tolerance was worn out from the first session. They then applied some coconut oil over the tattoos. For the ritual, the pig was held by a couple of men, Whang-Od uttered some chants before another man slit the pig’s throat. Whang-Od caught the first drops of blood with some leaves then proceeded to wipe them over my tattoos, while chanting some more. The men then took away the pig and prepared it for cooking. Some of the pork were grilled for snacks, some were made into dinuguan or pig blood stew, and most of the pork were boiled with only salt as the ingredient—a traditional way of cooking in the mountainous region of Luzon. All the food were then divided to all the extended families of the host and then we ate seated on the floor of the first level of the house, sharing whatever food we had before proceeding to chat over drinks.
The small town of Buscalan, with less than a thousand residents, is perched high above the mountains of Kalinga. Houses are built closely together as most of the people there are related and from the same tribe of Butbut. There are still some surviving old traditional houses made mostly of wood and are elevated, while some are built of stone with modern conveniences like electricity, refrigerators, and satellite televisions. When you walk around the town you’ll be greeted with warm smiles from the locals. Pigs and chicken roam around freely. Also, bringing candies that you can hand out to children and matches for the elders is a tradition for travelers to Buscalan. You may also pack some basic medicine especially during monsoon season as locals might be in need for some and they would need to travel far to get their hands on these much needed medicine.
Buscalan locals have their own rice terraces in the higher parts of the town. Making your way there is a good way to explore the place and get the best views of the whole of Buscalan with the mountains as the backdrop. If you are lucky and you travel when an elderly is celebrating their birthday, you will be treated to a traditional celebration, as the whole of Buscalan and everyone, including guests, are welcome to join in. Carabaos or pigs are prepared for the feast and indigenous dances are shared during the celebration.
Unknown to many, the Buscalan people also produce wine from sugar cane called Whijas. Its aroma bursts with caramel scents and is light on the palette. I could compare it to dessert wines—the three- month old brews are sweeter and the older batches are stronger. This is a great pasalubong for family and friends and also make for a great addition to your wine bar at home. For keepsakes, you may take home some knives and blades crafted by the resident blacksmith.
I definitely recommend staying in Buscalan for at least three days to get a glimpse of this hidden paradise in the mountains of Kalinga. Staying longer will give you the best experience of the culture and hospitality of the Buscalan people. Whether you want a traditional Kalinga batok, an authentic Filipino indigenous experience, or a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis, Buscalan should definitely be a top choice.