Whang-Od Is Not the Last Mambabatok

Illustration by  Angelo Esperanzate

Illustration by Angelo Esperanzate


Whang-od is training two of her blood relatives, Grace Pelicas and Ilyang Wigan, to be manwhatok. The tradition carries on in Kalinga.



Whang-od Oggay is the oldest living tattoo artist of the ethnolinguistic community known as the Butbut. She resides in Buscalan, Kalinga, where tourists often trek to receive a hand-tapped—more commonly known as “batok”— tattoo from her. Though many recognize her by the title of “the last mambabatok,” this is not entirely accurate.

There are over fifteen other mambabatok in the village who also practice the art of hand-tapped tattoos, and who are open to tattooing the tourists who come by. Only two of them, Grace Pelicas and Ilyang Wigan, are technically considered apprentices of Whang-od; they are relatives by blood, one of the rules of traditional “apprenticeship.” The prices of the tattoos vary depending on the mambabatok.

So more accurately, Whang-od, who is now 100-and-something years old, is the only living mambabatok ('manwhatok' in their native tongue called Whutwhut) from the last of Buscalan’s headhunting culture. Many consider her tattoos the most “authentic,” which has resulted in great demand and the creation of her “signature,” three dots in a line. She often affixes this signature next to the tattoos done by the other mambabatok in the village.

Back before headhunting was outlawed in the early 1900s, the rules of tattooing were very strict. They were given to men only when they satisfied certain conditions, primarily characteristic of being warriors. Women were tattooed for fertility or aesthetic purpose. Today, those conditions no longer need to be fulfilled in order to receive a tattoo from her, which opens up an entirely new conversation about tattoo culture and the way it has evolved in Philippine society.

Whang-od began her training when she was a teenager, and it is said she was first popularized by the show Tattoo Hunter on MTV in 2009. She has since appeared in multiple documentaries, publications, and even commercial campaigns.


Quick reads GRID Magazine | New York Times
Recommended books Tapping Ink, Tattooing Identities 
Sign The Petition to Make Whang-od a National Living Treasure


Photo by  Fruhlein Econar

Is Kalinga the only place I can get a hand-tapped tattoo?

While Kalinga remains is the most popular place to get a hand-tapped tattoo because of the popularity of Whang-od, it is not the only place in the Philippines that practiced tattoo culture. Many communities in the rest of the country followed the same traditions. Kalinga is the most widely recognized for its tattoo culture due to the rise of popularity of Whang-od.

Buscalan is not even the only village in the area that comes from a history of headhunting and tattoo culture. There are other communities in Kalinga, but which are less accessible to tourists and visitors.

Some people even opt to get hand-tapped tattoos within the limits of the city. Katribu Tatu in Pasig City, Metro Manila, practices hand-tapping tattoos, using the same traditional method, but with modern tools. Kayaw Tatu in Davao City does the same.


What does my batok tattoo mean?

In this day and age, tattoos from Kalinga no longer technically "represent" meaning in the same way that they used to. Although their suggested designs come from those which have historically represented particular symbols (for example, the fern for fertility or the centipede for spiritual protection), tattoos no longer need to be deserved as they were in the headhunting culture of past. Tourists who come to be tattooed can choose from a catalogue of designs that the community has opened up to outsiders.

There are other designs which are not offered outright. It is possible to come to Kalinga having done your own research (since not all traditional designs are placed in their catalogue), but keep in mind that certain tattoos are still held to be more valuable than others.

The book “Tapping Ink, Tattooing Identities” by Analyn Salvador-Amores contains a more cohesive list of traditional tattoo designs and what they represent.


In recent news:

Whang-od was awarded the Dangal ng Haraya 2018 on June 25 “for her lifetime of achievements and noteworthy contribution in preservation and promotion of the Kalinga traditional art of tattooing.” This award is given by the NCCA to “living Filipino artists, cultural workers, and historians."