ON January 5, 2019, I got inked for the first time.
It was a long and grueling 12-hour drive from Manila. We passed through mountainous areas of the Cordilleras just to get to the remote Buscalan Village of Tinglayan, Kalinga, to get our tattoos by the legendary and oldest living mambabatok of the Butbut tribe, Apo Whang-Ud.
It was freezing cold when we first stopped and sipped our coffee at Halsema Highway in Atok, Benguet, the Philippines’ second highest point in the highway system, next to Gui’ngaw in Barangay Eheb in Tinoc, Ifugao. Since it was just 5 a.m., we didn’t get the chance to see the breathtaking mountain views.
We had our breakfast in the Bontoc public market and bought food supplies for our two-day stay in Tinglayan. Then it was another four-hour drive just to get to the drop-off point to the village. It didn’t feel tiring at that point as we witnessed some eye candy valleys and rivers along the way; I chose not to sleep. From there, we trekked for 45 minutes through the steep, wet, muddy mountain. As some of my friends were not hikers, we stopped numerous times—it was not an easy feat. The hot daytime weather made the climb more difficult. But we looked forward to something that not everyone had the chance to do.
It was 11 a.m. when we finally got to the mecca of traditional tattooing in the country. People welcomed us with their smiles. We felt at home as the locals offered us aromatic, freshly brewed Kalinga coffee. We stayed in one of the houses in the village.
The unique tattooing culture still thrives among the young generations in the village. Most of the tourists are being inked by the village people. It was not Apo Whang-Ud who did my first tattoo, but her grandniece, whom she personally trained.
Kalinga tattoos, I observed, are inspired by objects of daily life—images from nature such as ferns, snakes, centipedes, the sun, the moon, or a traveler, a compass, an arrowhead, and even a dog. Other visuals such as symbols of faith, hope, and love are also on their list.
I chose the symbol for prayer—there were six of them in my tattoo to represent my immediate family members
The mambabatok used a lemon thorn attached to a bamboo stick to apply a charcoal solution mixed in a coconut shell. They used grass with ink to mark the design on the skin. I chose the symbol for prayer—there were six of them in my tattoo to represent my immediate family members. It bled but it did not hurt.
After the two-hour session, we decided to walk around the village. It was very quiet and simple. It was also very evident how the tribe gave importance to nature; you got to appreciate the preserved beauty of the scenic rice terraces and verdant mountains.
The day after, I grabbed the opportunity to have my first-ever Whang-Ud signature tattoo, the three dots. We fell in line early, as there were lots of tourists waiting for her. There was a registration system, so they knew who came in first. We bought the thorn for our tattoos in the souvenir shop, or else she would have to use the same ones she used on other tourists.
She wore a beaming smile as she asked me where she’d put her signature tattoo. Her preserved cultural aesthetics showed in her stylish, colorful three-strand dalisdis necklace.
It felt incredible; I just couldn’t believe that a living legend was doing her art on my body. Despite her deteriorating health due to age, Whang-Ud tapped the tattoo way harder than her grandniece did. She remained very focused despite the big crowd waiting for its turn. It hurt more than I expected; there was even a lot more blood.
We decided to leave the village right after everyone in the group finished getting tattooed. We went to the souvenir shop and bought a kilo of coffee before going down to our service van.
We had a quick snack in a restaurant in Sagada, Mountain Province before heading to our last stop in Baguio City. We arrived in Manila at around 3 a.m. It was tiring yet fulfilling.
My tattoo healed within a week.
The rich history of traditional Kalinga tattooing represents cultural uniqueness and identity. The symbolic body art has long been a representation of bravery and a celebration of victory. Luckily, the tradition is still being practiced by younger generations today. But, in my observation, the art no longer carries the same significance for the tribe and the community. The tourism brought by the tattooing seems to have done away with that symbolism; it has been commodified, such that anyone with the means to visit the area can be pierced according to a cultural tradition one knew nothing about.
So my question is, is the current practice of just anybody getting tattooed culturally appropriate? Think about that.