A Living Legend
Whang Od is a legend in the tattoo world. I originally heard about her when I went on a date one Friday night to the Los Angeles History Museum (First Fridays there are actually a blast) and it just so happened that their Tattoo exhibit was going on. There was a section dedicated to traditional types of tattooing and a video featuring Whang Od. Born February 17, 1917, Whang Od is a Filipina tattoo artist from Buscalan, Tiglayan, Kalinga, Philippines. She is often described as the “last” and oldest mambabatok (traditional Kalinga tatooist). She has been tattooing headhunters and women of the indigenous people of Butbut in Buscalan, Kalinga since she was 15 years old. Bubut warriors used to earn tattoos through protecting villages or killing enemies. Although these warriors no longer exist, Whang-Od continues the tradition, tattooing tourists who make the trek to her village in the hills of Buscalan.
The village isn’t exactly easy to get to, as you have to take a 10 hour bus ride north from Manila, followed by an hour long jeepney ride deep into the mountains. Then, you still have an intense one hour hike waiting for you, down into a deep valley and back up a steep hill where you will finally arrive in the small village of Buscalan. If you know me, you know that this instantly made me super excited, as I love off the beaten path adventures like this, as well as tattoos. I was immediately hooked. I told my date, “I am totally going to make that trek and meet her one day.” I was a little unsure if I actually would though as the exhibit said they were unsure of her exact age and I wasn’t sure when I would be able to take my next vacation.
THE UNIVERSE WANTS YOU TO GET A TATTOO
Fast forward about 6 months to me quitting my job to travel the world and booking the cheapest flight to Asia, $230 for a one way ticket to the Philippines. Immediately after I booked my ticket, I remembered – Whang Od! I had to find her!
After some research, I found out that in order to get to the village, you need to have a tour guide (a local from the village) for at least one day and then you will stay at their house for your remaining time there. I decided to stay for 5 days. After all, I want to experience life as a local as well (not only get a tattoo).
After the 10 hour overnight bus ride, I had finally reached the small city of Bontoc. From there I hopped on a Jeepney and off we went for an hour long trek on a road that hugged the very edge of the mountains, literally. Slightly scary at first but quickly forgotten as the beauty surrounding you is incredible. (I highly recommend riding on top of the jeepney if you are brave enough, but definitely beware of motion sickness) You are surrounded by rice terraces, mountains and a river running through it all. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
After arriving at the bus stop that the locals told me to get off at, there was a guy on a motorbike waiting to take me to the beginning of the path that leads to the village. We rode even higher into the mountains where Gloryahe, my guide, was waiting for me with the prettiest smile I have ever seen. Are you ready for the hike? It can’t be that bad. Sure.
HOW AM I THIS OUT OF SHAPE?
I followed Gloryahe on a path around the mountain and then all the way down to the bottom of the valley where the water was running through the hills. We were heading downhill. Someone was carrying my bags for me. Gloria was smiling. All while I was sweating all the way through my clothes. Do you want to stop and take a break, she asked? Uhh yes. What is wrong with me. After 30 minutes, we reached the bottom and started the trek all the way back up the other side. As we stopped about 5 (or 6) times for me to catch my breath, older women and children, carrying chickens, huge bags of rice, and other ridiculously heavy things, continued to pass me by. How do they do this? (I still have no idea) Finally, we reached Buscalan. The trek was well worth it. The view was so incredibly beautiful! Gloria took me to her cousin’s house where we would be staying, poured me some famous Kalinga coffee (the best), and introduced me to the family.
Want to go see Whang Od? Already? Yes, sure! That is why I came here, right? Gloryahe explained that we should go early before the other tourists all got to town. Sounds good to me. I followed her on the concrete path around the village through front porches, stepping over piglets, puppies, and chickens along the way. We finally reached Whang Od, who was outside squatted down, tattooing another visitor. There is a sort of feeling you get when you see someone in person for the first time and I definitely had that feeling. And she was even more beautiful in person.
GETTING TATTOOED BY A LEGEND
Traditional Kalinga tattoos are done with a thorn (which I picked out myself), soot, and a bamboo hammer. These days, Whang Od generally does her signature tattoo (three dots) due to her age, and the large number of tourists she tattoos on a daily basis. She asked where I would like it and I picked my wrist. She used one finger to scoop up the soot (the ink) and smear it on the edge of the thorn. She then began hammering the thorn into my wrist until all three dots here finished. I paid her about 100 pesos (about $1.50 USD), took a photo with her, and thanked her.
To keep the traditional alive, Whang Od has passed along this art form to her two grandneices, Grace and Ilyang, who currently work along side her. Since I was there anyways, I decided to get one from Ilyang as well. She asked me to select which tattoo I wanted from the board. I chose the compass. She chose a thorn to use and got started, tapping the tattoo into my upper back. After about 5 minutes, she was finished. I paid her 500 pesos and followed Gloryahe back to the homestay. It all happened so fast.
Staying in the Buscalan for the next 5 days, I learned that many others in the village have taken on this practice as well. Throughout the village you can hear a soundtrack of the relaxing tapping noise made from bamboo hammers. Most of the locals have tattoos as well. For men, they were traditionally a sign of power, wealth, and great strength. For women, they are a symbol of beauty. If I stay here too long I have a feeling I will get more and more beautiful as these tattoos are addictive! Tattoo artists from all over come to visit Whang Od. I ended up getting two more tattoos from an artist who was staying at the homestay with me. (I highly recommend looking her up if you are in the Manila area)
This was an experience I will never forget and highly recommend visiting Buscalan whether you want a tattoo or not. Due to the popularity of Whang Od in recent years, this village receives an increasing number of visitors each day, especially on the weekends. If visiting, it is highly recommended to stay for at least a few days to spend time with the locals and explore the village as well! Buscalan is a magical place filled with some of the nicest people I have ever met. If you visit, please be respectful of Whang Od and the Buscalan village in general. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
- Buscalan is located in the northern mountain region of the Philippines, about 10 hours north of Manila
Getting There: Book an overnight bus from Manila to Bontoc. From the bus station, ask someone to point you in the direction of the jeepney pickup point. The jeepney will take you to the turning point where your host will arrange for someone to meet you.
Marina’s Homestay: Must book tour guide for at least one day and then pay for lodging separately. Your tour guide will help you get to the village and take you to Whang Od for a tattoo. Lodging cost includes unlimited Kalinga coffee and rice. The sweetest family ever, I was super sad to leave them and hope to go back to visit them again soon!