Philippines' Last Tattoo Master: Apo Whang Od

Posted on at


Video credits: Omeleto via

Hi bitsers! That's how we call each other before back in the days when I was still new in this site. There were lots of users from the Philippines back on that time and we tried to make a term to call us, the users for this site. Bitsers was the best term we can use.

Anyways, today's blog is really interesting, I decided writing about this because I had a three sentence draft about her before but was never able to finish that draft. And since I am not working right now because of my Maternity Leave, I have ample of time to write, the best blogs to write are those which I have already started thus this topic came to being.

Let's get started.

Tattoo - Life of Apo Whang Od

When you die, all your accessories are taken away, only your tattoos remain with you. 

- Apo Whang Od (Fang Od)

I don't know about you but there was once a featured exhibit in Paris which explored the 5,000-year-old multifaceted world of tattooing and its cultural significance. The exhibit then traveled to Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Canada from April 2 to September 5, 2016 and not surprisingly, Apo Whang Od was part of the featured artists.


Image credits:

This hit the news in the Philippines but before hearing that news, the name Apo Whang Od had already marked certain information in me, when I hear her name, images of tribal tattoos flash in my eyes, my brain is signaling that the name is almost equivalent to tattoos and I am not surprised at all.

It is also not surprising that when you google her name, there are almost ten thousand web results about her. Thousands of blogs are dedicated to her and thousands of those who had gone up to the mountains of the Philippines just so they can get inked by her! This doesn't just include Filipino tattoo enthusiasts but also international travelers and tourists. Amazing right?

Mambabatok (The Tattoo Master)


Image credits:

Nowadays, it is very easy to find a tattoo artist, there are professional ones and let's say beginners. The technology of having tattoos has also evolved throughout the years but one thing remains - Tattoos showcase your life and your beliefs.

Even before technology came in, tattoos have been used as different mediums to provide information about a certain person. Back around more than hundred years ago, in the Philippines, certain tribes and communities specially in the Cordillera Regions such as Buscalan, tattoos inked signified courage, bravery, and valor. While for women who wear tattoos it is to enhance beauty and attract a prospective partner, they also believe that these tattoos can heal infertility.


Some designs you can choose but you can also create your own. Image credits:


Some men who got an eagle tattoo only to be inked to those who showed bravery for the sake of their community. Image credits:

Most specially, they believe that having tattoos can shoo away diseases as blood coming off from the skin are the bad elements. They refer tattoos as "batok" in their local language. And the individual who practices the inking is referred as "mambabatok" or the Tattoo master.

Indeed tattoos had been alive since the precolonial period or even before that. Aside from those signs, the tattoo designs were derived from the elements around the environment such as the sun, mountains, rice terraces, centipedes, pythons, crabs, and a lot more. Flowers and ferns are also one of the famous designs.


Image credits:

While other countries and tribes have criteria on what beauty is, in Kalinga, having heavy tattoos signify beauty. Anyone having no tattoos are considered ugly and coward at the same time. This explains why these individuals have heavy tattoos that has not fade through time.

These tattoo artists or mambabatok in Kalinga had somehow huge responsibilities in their community. They don't just act as tattoo artists but they are also those who were considered as fortune tellers and consultants for those who are having certain diseases and health problems.

The current technology has created a much efficient tools for tattooing, however, the Mambabatoks in Kalinga had used citrus fruit (suha) thorns, charcoal and a small bamboo hammer for their ritual. This is all natural!


Image credits:


Image credits:

During the activity, the artist would simply sit on any chair and the client as well. The thorn is attached to the end of a 12-inch long bamboo stick. The artist will dip the thorn in charcoal ink and will then continuously tap the bamboo along the pattern to inject the thorn with ink, deep in the skin. This is repeated until the ink gets deep into the skin so it would stay for life. This will then make the blood come out of the skin and the duration will depend on the design, if it is a simple design, it will take a few minutes but then if the design is way way bigger, it would take much longer time.

The price would range from Php 300 to Php 1000 depending on the tattoo size. However, there are certain cases when a visitor would come and Apo Whang Od would like him or her, she would not let him or her pay for it. But she appreciates gifts like food and chocolates.

Apo Whang Od

"People who want a tattoo are welcome to stay at home. I am very grateful for the visit of people from around the world who want a tattoo, because they give meaning to my life".

- Apo Whang Od (Fang Od)


Image credits: brianbarqueros2014

Legendary - that's the best description I can refer to her because she is a living legend and the last Kalinga tattoo artist to hold the title of Mamababatok – the tattoo master.

The other tattoo masters or mambabatok had already passed away leaving Apo Whang Od as the last one who practices the inking up to this day. Currently, she is already a century old but still is strong enough to accommodate tourists who travels to their community. But she mentioned in one of her videos that she is afraid she won't be able to ink anymore in the near future because of her eyesight problems.

Whang-od Oggay ([Fang- Od]; born 17 February 1917) is a Filipina tattoo artist from Buscalan, Tinglayan, Kalinga, Philippines. She is considered as the last mambabatok (traditional Kalinga tattooist) from the Butbut people in Buscalan Kalinga and the oldest tattoo artist in the Philippines. She has been tattooing headhunters and women of the indigenous people of Butbut in Buscalan Kalinga for more than 80 years but the Butbut warriors who used to earn tattoos through protecting villages or killing enemies no longer exist. Instead, Whang-od now applies the traditional art form to tourists visiting Buscalan.

Information reference:


Image credits:

As Whang Od does the tattoo, she taps hard and thus is painful to test the fortitude and willingness of a tattoo receiver. She also won't stop until she is satisfied with the her work. She taps the bamboo with the thorn to make the tattoo darker. These types of art stays in the skin for years without fading. This can be seen in her own body which even after a century is still clear enough despite her thin body figure and skin.

Despite the pain, every client is honored that they have received a tattoo from Whang Od herself. She doesn't speak Tagalog though so most tourists would hire a translator when visiting her so they can communicate to them. Note as well that she is single and never had children. Her past boyfriend died during the Japanese regime. She is indeed legendary.

Video credits: Looking for Stories via

Whang Od is also a self confessed fan of a Philipine local TV actor, Coco Martin where in she has been wearing shirts with the actor's image printed on it.

A proposal was made for Whang Od to be awarded as one of the National Artists of the Philippines or as one of the National Living Treasures due to her status as the last mambabatok. There are couple of recognition and awards given to Whang Od. Here are some of them:

  • ➊ Whang-od was present during Dutdutan Tattoo Expo 2012 held in the Philippines where she had her own booth.

  • ➋ Whang-od's image is included in an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Ontario, Canada.[20] The exhibit is entitled Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art and it was first shown on April 2, 2016.Exhibitors chose the photograph from several photos from another exhibit at Musee Du Quai Branly in Paris. They did not know about Whang-od until a visitor told them.

  • ➌ She was featured in the Dayaw series of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts of the Philippines (NCCA), where her contributions to the country's national identity and heritage were presented by former NCCA Chairman Felipe De Leon Jr. and Senator Loren Legarda.

  • ➍ Her life story was featured in Wagas, a GMA News TV's drama series, where Janine Gutierrez portrayed Whang-od.

Information reference:

Current State


Image credits:

Because of Whang Od's health state and age, there were times when she can't do the "batok". And since she is the last mambabatok, the fear of death of this Kalinga tattooing had opened up for her to train the younger women in their community. One of the first trained personality was her 19 year old niece.

Currently, there are already at least 10 Kalinga women tattooist. Women are believed to be more suitable for tattooing because they have lighter hands. The youngest is said to be ten years old.

However, since Whang Od is still alive, most tourists prefer to be inked by her. This also had opened up tourism in the community of Buscalan. More and more tourists are coming from from different countries, making it part of the tourist destinations of the country.

Whang Od is an example of women empowered individuals. I appreciate your cooperation on the  Querlo chat below regarding women empowerment.

Best regards,
Jean Beltran-Figues

About the author


♥ saved by grace ♥

Subscribe 0