102-Year-Old Tattooist Is Keeping an Ancient Philippine Tattoo Tradition Alive


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At 102 years old, Whang-Od Oggay (who also goes by Whang-od or Maria Oggay) is helping to keep an ancient tradition alive in the Kalinga province of the Philippines. She’s the country’s oldest mambabatok, a traditional Kalinga tattooist. Each morning at dawn, Whang-Od wakes to craft a mixture of ink from pine soot and water in preparation to apply hand-tapped tattoos on the bodies of people from around the world. Although many come to see her, their journey is no small feat. Visitors make a 15-hour drive north of Manila to the mountain village of Buscalan, which is only accessible by hiking a mile from the nearest dirt road through a forest and rice terraces.

Whang-Od inks multiple tattoos a day using a few tools—a thorn from a pomelo tree, a foot-long bamboo stick, coal, and water. The handmade ink is tapped deep into the skin using the thorn and bamboo to push it in. The results are permanent motifs that range from lines to simple shapes to tribal prints to animals. Each carries meanings such as strength, beauty, and fertility.

The hand-tapped body art began with the indigenous Butbut warriors. For these men, the addition of tattoos had a very specific meaning; they could only be inked after killing someone. On women, however, body art fell within standards of beauty. Whang-Od recalls that during her youth, her friends covered her arms and legs in tattoos. It's also when she started to learn how to apply them to others. At age 15, under the guidance of her father, she started her tattoo apprenticeship. It represented a break in the practice as men were the only ones allowed to learn how to tattoo.

Keeping the mambabatok tradition alive is more challenging than you might think. The culture believes that this art can only be passed down to blood relatives. Otherwise, the tattoos will become infected. Whang-Od has no children of her own, but she’s not afraid of the art dying out. She's trained her grandnieces to become tattoo masters of their own.

At 102 years old, Whang-Od Oggay is the Philippines' oldest mambabatok, a traditional Kalinga tattooist.


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People venture from around the world to get a tattoo from her.


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Learn more about the Kalinga tattooing culture and Whang-Od in the short documentary, Tattoo Hunter.

Related Articles:

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How Polynesian Tribal Tattoos Played a Major Role in the Blackwork Tattoos You See Today

Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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