103-year-old tattoo artist defies gender norms and keeps an ancient tradition alive

Whang-od might be one of the coolest people on Earth. 

The 103-year-old Filipino tattoo artist is keeping an ancient art alive. Whang-od is a mambabatok or traditional Kalinga tattooist. She creates permanent hand-tapped tattoos made of pine soot and water. Like so many others from around the world, YouTuber Jack Shirley and his wife Louise traveled from Hong Kong just to meet the artist

Whang-od does her practice in the mountainous northern Philippines in Buscalan. To reach her the Shirley and Louise travel by bus, motorbike and on foot to the remote area. When they arrive she is already hard at work tattooing a customer. 

The artist uses natural tools like a bamboo stick, pomelo tree thorn, water and coal for the tattoos. When it’s Louise’s turn for a tattoo on her back, Whang-od begins by outlining the design with a rice stalk. To create each tattoo she uses the bamboo and thorn, like a hammer and chisel, to tap the ink into the skin. Shirley says she does 100 taps per minute in the video. When Whang-od is done she coats Louise’s tattoo in coconut oil to protect and heal it. 

Each of the mambabatok’s tattoos has a special meaning and is done in traditional linework. Louise opted for a serpent eagle which means “heavenly guidance, protection and courage.” She also adds her signature to each piece which is three dots in a vertical line. 

The Kalinga province is known for its valiant indigenous community who thwarted colonization. Originally, only Butbut warriors could get inked after killing someone, while women could get them as an adornment. Whang-od defied gender norms to become a tattooist at age 15. The tradition can only be passed on through the bloodline, so she is currently teaching her grand-nieces the practice.

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