kalinga province

The Great Apo Whang-Od Oggay of Buscalan

At the age of 100, Apo Whang-Od continues to help her community by attracting tourists to their town who wishes to be tattooed by her. I didn’t get a tattoo, but being able to witness her strength and passion for the craft was an amazing experience already.

(Buscalan Village, Tinglayan, Kalinga, Mountain Province, PH)

Taking the Stairs - February 2014

I had no idea what this trip would be like. I’ve never explored mountains before.

I was never prepared for this trip. Physically and mentally. I even brought the wrong kind of shoes. Something for the beach. I didn’t know there’d be too much hiking involved. Getting to Tappiya Falls in Batad was no joke. See for yourself. Without the breathtaking view of the rice terraces, it would be impossible for me to get to the bottom of the mountain to see the waterfalls. Thank God, I was with free spirited people whom I made friends with on top of the Jeepney.

Nature has its way of surprising us when she shows off. I wouldn’t complain though.

The eighth wonder of the world right before my eyes. I used to only see this in my history book. I’m still so amazed of the beauty that man has created.

I expected so much from Sagada. Not that I was disappointed. It was beautiful but I wanted more. And I couldn’t decide which way to go. To Kalinga or to Baguio?

I got sick. So, I stayed overnight in Bontoc. I needed time to plan and decide. I almost lost my mind. Out of the blue, someone decided for me. Thank God for technology. I swear I needed the company. He told me to go to Baguio. It was safer. He thought. But the next morning, I felt better so I went to Kalinga.

After the 2-hour bus ride from Bontoc to Luplupa, this kind family from Kalinga brewed their traditional coffee and prepared lunch for me and Francis, a Filipino traveler that I had met in the bus.

After what seemed to be like a life threatening roller coaster ride with a motorbike from Luplupa, I have finally reached my destination and my main goal for this trip. To see Fang-od. The oldest traditional tattoo artist. Some say she’s 91, others say she’s 94. They don’t count their ages in Kalinga village. Instead, they count how many Christmas they celebrated. I couldn’t get a tattoo. But to see her right before my eyes and to be able to take a photo of her is more than enough. My trip was complete, I’d say I can go home right then and there. But then there’s no easy way I could. It took me 3 hours to climb the mountain to get there with the help of my guide. I needed to stay and catch the first bus the next morning.

Grace, Fang-od’s niece who inherited her skills adopted me for a night.

Had a quick tour around Kalinga Village before having dinner.

The Sleeping Beauty in the morning. Do you see it? I don’t exactly remember the legend behind this mountain. But it’s named after its structure. A girl sleeping soundly.

I was so ready to go home the following day. I crossed too many mountains and witnessed a car accident the previous day. Adventure? Too much, I’d say. But it’s never a waste of time when traveling. Either good or bad, you’ll always gain something.

In the middle of nowhere, the bus that I took from Buscalan overheated. The machine was on fire. Everyone hurriedly got off the bus. Good thing we were all safe. We waited for another bus to arrive. Luckily, there was. Off we go, at long last!

“Life is a series of pulls back and forth. You want to do one thing, but you are bound to do something else. Something hurts you, yet you know it shouldn’t. You take certain things for granted, even when you know you should never take anything for granted.”

I came unprepared. But then, why prepare? What happens, happens. 

You’re only young once. Take the stairs.

The renowned mambabatok (traditional tattoo maker) of Kalinga Province in the Philippines, Apo Whang-Od, in her mid 90s, etches the scorpion batek (traditional tattoo) on a man’s arm using the backhand tapping technique. 

In the background Apo Whang-Od’s niece, Grace, of teen age, coincidentally inscribes the scorpion tattoo on a lady’s hip.

Buscalan Village
Tinglayan, Kalinga
January 2015


the cordillerathe highlands of Luzon

From the Central Cordillera Mountain Range, the largest in the Philippines, six provinces and one chartered city make up the Cordillera Administrative Region—Apayao, Abra, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga, Mountain Province, and Baguio City.

The Cordillera region is the ancestral home of several ethnic groups, the Kalinga, Ibaloi, Ifugao, Isneg (Apayao), Bontoc, & Kankana-ey, each with their own languages and cultures.

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Cordillera's vanishing art of tattooing

By Dr. Analyn (Ikin) V. Salvador-Amores

Dutch researcher and photographer Ron Schaasberg has been traveling in the Cordillera to document indigenous tattooing practices. His travels have brought him to tribal villages in Bontoc, Mt. Province and Ifugao. This story is an excerpt from one of his travels and interactions with tribal villagers of the Cordillera.

Schaasberg lives in Tuguegarao City with his wife, who is a marine biologist with an international nongovernment organization.

AFTER being stuck in between several landslides north of Bontoc and what seemed to be an endless trek through the Cordillera mountain range, Ron Schaasberg and his guide arrived in Buscalan, an isolated village at an altitude of approximately 2,000 meters.

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Schaasberg was informed about the mountain people and that some of them could be dangerous and aggressive toward strangers.

“But this is contrary to what I experienced,” says Ron, a Dutch photographer interested in the art of tattooing. “They struck me as being friendly, peaceful, and helpful toward my research.”

Being based in the Philippines for two years, Schaasberg found an opportunity to do research on the traditional way of tattooing and maybe even get a tattoo artist to perform this painful practice one more time.

Not an elder or warrior

In the early years, young men and women in the Cordillera were usually tattooed by an elder who occupied a high position in the community.

The men who returned from war with their enemy’s head, however, were allowed to get their tattoos by a maingal (warrior).

The women would mostly get their tattoos at a young age to make them more attractive, while the men saw tattoos as a mark of manhood.

In Bontoc, Mt. Province, Schaasberg found that tattooing was done by a professional artist. That person was not a village elder or warrior but a woman.

Fang-od is a beautiful lady in her 70s. She is tattooed from her hands up all the way to her upper arms, around her neck and parts of her back and front.

Until about 15 years ago, she was practicing tattooing, but because of her age and the younger generation that wants different styles of tattoos, she has hardly practiced this painful and traditional way of body decoration since.

She explained that she learned the skill from a family member when she was 20.


This was how Schaasberg described Fang-od’s practice of tattooing:

Fang-od prepares her equipment. She puts a pot on a fire, takes a sharp thorn from a shrub (tinik), a coconut shell with water, and then starts scratching the soot from the bottom of the pot and mixes it with crushed charcoal and a little water. The ink is ready.

She has two sticks, one with the thorn and the other to be used to tap or hit the stick with the thorn. While tattooing, the thorn will puncture the skin and leave the ink under the skin.

Fang-od uses pieces of long grass dipped in ink, and presses them firmly on the arm so she can follow the lines while tapping the thorn with ink.

She starts putting on the horizontal patterns. Then she picks up her two sticks, one with the needle and the other to tap on the stick with the needle.

The first punctures are made on the skin and the first line starts to appear. Fang-od slowly but very precisely keeps working away on the upper arm.

She uses a few patterns and figures that can be found in almost all tattoos: grass (inal-alam), centipede (ginay-gayaman), stars (tinat-araw) and the ladder (tey-tey).

Fang-od finishes the work in two hours. Some oil is put on the tattoo to protect it from dirt.

May 2, 2000
from Philippine Daily Inquirer Internet Edition