Hand-tapped Tattoos & The Beautiful Apo Whang Od
A getting-back-to-God’s-arms kind of thing. You wouldn’t know when, where or how, but when it comes, you would know.
Out of our worldly deeds to maintain the illusion of daily living and survival. Repetitive work, deadlines to meet, bills to pay, and other responsibilities that leave our minds and spirits some times exhausted and disconnected from God, spawns a surprise calling for Spiritual Cleansing.
As for a struggling and confused laborer such as I, who takes tattooing for a living, I was called by Jah Tattoo Gods to know my roots to the Cordillera mountains of the Philippines for refuge. On one of its highest peaks lives the legendary 93-year-old woman named Apo Whang Od (“Wh” pronounced as “F”). The Philippines’ last “Mambabatok” (hand-tap tattoo artist). The only one left in their tribe.
It was 10 hours’ worth of bus ride to the mountains of Banaue, (Home of the Golden Rice terraces) from Manila where I live, and another 60 minutes of a cool and misty, all windows-down, breathtaking ride to Bontoc.
On the way up, it gets cooler, greener and more quiet. Cuddling with my husband for warmth felt so soothing. You will then realize you are away from the busy, illusory world down below. Away from the hustle and bustle of daily survival. Away from man-made creations that sometimes even harm us. Everything we see now is created by God. Pure and all-natural. And the sights were mesmerizing.
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Every 30 minutes we would pullover, toke up, take photos, breathe in the fresh air and marvel at the mountains’ vast beauty.
It was such a majestic sight to see a young eagle hovering over thousands of green, healthy trees of different sizes and kinds, soaring high, wild and free. When you look below, you’ll realize you’re standing on a cliff and looking at the beautiful face of Death. Plants and flowers of different, exotic appearances all share drops of morning dew on their leaves and petals, all of them forming a path and cradling a concrete trail that is the road, spiraling higher and higher to Heaven. We all suddenly felt so small.
Bontoc is a small town located in the valleys of the Cordilleras. From Bontoc would be another hour and a half’s worth of van ride to Buscalan village, Kalinga, where Apo Whang Od lives.
Bontoc was the place where we met our tour guide Kuya (“big brother”) Charlie, a Buscalan native. He had the features of a mountaineer. Lean, tanned, and tied around his neck is a handy dagger wrapped in a leather pendant. His mouth was stained bloody red out of chewing Tobacco which the locals call “Nganga”, and this kind of tobacco when chewed secretes red juice which the chewer would then spit to the ground.
You’d think you wouldn’t wanna mess with this guy, for he is a descendant of Kalinga’s heavily tattooed headhunters, each tattoo representing a head decapitated in war, but Charlie’s actually a funny and free-spirited man. From the moment we met him til we left, he and his family took care of all of us. They cooked us rice which they planted, harvested, sun-dried and pounded. Meat which they hunted, Water they collected and lent their home as our temporary shelter.
But before all that great food was another hour and a half of trekking under the hot afternoon sun. It was the final path to take to reach our destination. The trails became steeper and narrower, and the path led deeper into the forest. If you were afraid of heights, it would be Do or Die. The trail to Apo Whang Od’s village is only a meter-long wide and everything else is a cliff leading to a fool’s own death.
On the hike up, we were greeted by local villagers on their way up as well. They passed us so easily even with heavy loads on their backs. Climbing was their second nature. They knew in an instant that we were visiting their village to get a tattoo.
The moment we set foot in their village, situated at the summit, we were greeted with welcoming smiles of busy, working villagers. Men were transporting loads, women were washing clothes, children were running and playing with their bows and arrows, and black pigs, chickens and dogs are wild and everywhere!
I remember a native woman who greeted our tattoos as “Fake” and pointed at her handtapped tattoos as “Original”. Ryan & I smiled back and told her: “That’s why we’re here”.
On our way to Charlie’s home, we saw the signage outside her hut that reads: “<WELCOME> Tattoo Artist: FANG OD”. I didn’t see her that day because she was out in the rice fields below, at work with her people.
I suddenly felt thrilled inside. All these long hours of traveling to see Apo Whang Od! I felt a little nervous too, because this was my first handtapped tattoo.
The villagers say that handtapped tattooing is not for everyone…because the spirits of the mountains choose only the worthy ones.
And indeed it isn’t. For some who attempted passed out and didn’t get the tattoo at all. And some feared the pain it brings.
Kuya Charlie hunted a pig and cooked it for dinner while his wife, Ti-i, cooked rice and home-grown potatoes. They both advised us to eat well for next day’s tattoo session. At bedtime, they locked away our shoes for safekeeping, for the villagers believed that it may be infested with the mountain’s playful spirits and possess our souls. They lent us slippers during our whole stay instead. Me and my newfound friends within the group were exhausted and asleep earlier than our usuals.
After breakfast the next day, we all went to Apo Whang Od’s hut. We could hear the clapping sound of wood at a distance, until we finally saw her. Sitting in a meditative bulol position (knees against the chest, feet and bottocks on ground), she silently works and fulfills her purpose.
At 93, she is still so strong and energetic. According to Charlie, she wakes up at 5:30am, begins tattooing soon as the sun rises, and stops soon as the sun begins to set. She would wash her hands in the afternoon rain, for her fingers are stained with black ink, and she would sit to rest in shelter among the people.
I was the 7th person in the group to get the tattoo. I was so excited that I read about some of my favorite tribal patterns off their designs book the night before. I wanted to get the “Eye” patterns which they call “Pinyat”.
EYE (“Pinyat”) patterns are shaped like diamonds forming the eyes of a Pineapple fruit. These eyes symbolize the eyes of our Ancestors watching over us. It also represents the Pine-coned shaped gland in the middle of our brains called the Pineal gland. Also known as The Third Eye, it is believed to be the antenna that connects us to the spirit worlds.
When my turn came up, I freezed in front of Apo Whang Od. I was so starstruck that I involuntarily put my hands together and bowed in reverence. I realized I looked funny.
I offered her chocolates, a shirt, and a beaded Gong necklace with little bells tinkling below. Women in their village loved to wear beads and tattoos.
And then we sat down in a bulol position and began. Tap, tap, tap, tap…
She gets a rice straw, soaks it in thick black ink, and sticks it across my arm to make a stencil line. She then picks out a fresh Suha (Citrus) thorn, tests its sharpness on her skin, and loads it through an end of a wood in her left hand, and inks it. Her ink is made from ashes of Pine trees. Using another wood on her right hand, she begins to tap the thorned wooden device into my skin.
I looked in her eyes and it was round and possessed by the present moment. Such a fascinating sight to see strands of grey hair falling in front of her face and people tucking them behind her ear. The villagers respect and admire her, for she works to serve her community.
Although a lot of tourists and villagers were watching, talking and making a noise, she remains focused and unmoved. After tapping a series of points that make a line, she gets a stained cloth which she used on everyone, dips it in a pail of fresh mountain water, wrings it off and gently wipes my bleeding skin. Pretty hardcore! But then again, Handtapped tattooing, as the villagers said, was their Way, and it wasn’t for everyone.
How I wish I knew how to speak their dialect, for I didn’t get a chance to commune with another tattooed soul. I smiled at her a lot, kissed her and hugged her to make up for it.
For me, She is an embodiment of the Mountain’s tattoo Gods. She is a vessel that carries on the Art of Natural, Traditional Tattooing.
Back when tattoos were not only marked for aesthetic purposes, but when tattoos served as badges of honor. Back when they expressed their love for Nature, and worshipped God through the markings in their skin. Everything was zen and simple.
After 30 minutes of a calm and overwhelming tattoo session with the legendary Apo Whang Od, she says “Tapos!” (“Finished!”) and cleans the tattoo for the last time. I hung the necklace I gave her around her neck and and thanked her in Ibaloi dialect, “Manjamanak (Thank you), Apo Whang Od”.
The next day was the day to pack up and go back home. We all gathered the happy children of Buscalan to take one last picture. The group I’m with is a bunch of Photographers who founded JUAN PORTRAIT.
Their goal is to reach out to remote areas in the Philippines where residents, such as those in Buscalan, do not have the means to have their picture taken. What Juan Portrait does is take beautiful, candid portraits of different strangers, print them out and give it back to them. Such a beautiful cause. In the photograph below (taken by Chris Linag), you can see the children holding up their photographs. I am so proud to have met these guys.
Experiencing Apo Whang Od’s simple way of life in the mountains, and observing how she works, was truly a humbling experience.
Apo Whang Od was egoless, spiritual, and dedicated to her craft. She is tied to it for life, as all the tattoos on her body. She is at peace within herself, and she knows very well what she does. Her continued tattooing service at 93 taught us that True mastery of the craft (tattooing) is to go on doing, failing and learning about it. Til Death.
There would always be prejudice, especially for the Tattoo industry. But for as long as our love for what we do matters the most, God will be on our side.
I am so thankful for this enlightening experience. It felt like we got blessed by the Tattoo gods. I learned a lot and I couldn’t put them all into words. One has to experience it first hand. Going back to the busy cities would be a test.
I say KEEP CALM (like Apo Whang Od) and CARRY ON (tattoo tattoo tattoo!!!!)
Struggles are always out there. But “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.” Manjamanak, Apo Whang Od.
Here are some of my favorite excerpts from an old poem entitled “ULLALIM NI BATOK” (“The Story of our Tattoo”) written by a Mambabatok (Hand-tap tattoo artist). I would have to confirm if this was written by Apo Whang Od herself. Beautiful poem, nonetheless.