On Whang-Ud’s tattoo ‘master class’: Where do you draw the line? | Inquirer News
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On Whang-Ud’s tattoo ‘master class’: Where do you draw the line?

DYING CULTURE NO MORE: The author (left) observes Whang-Ud, the acclaimed preserver of an ancient tattooing tradition known as “batok,” at work at Buscalan village in the Kalinga town of Tinglayan in this photo taken in 2017. (EV ESPIRITU / Philippine Daily Inquirer)

MANILA, Philippines— The controversy generated by Israeli vlogger Nuseir Yassin, the content creator behind the popular Nas Daily, when he offered a master class in tattooing featuring 90-year-old practitioner Whang-Ud has caused a stir. With the popular use of internet vlogging, technology and marketing, it is easy to (mis)represent culture that is vulnerable to commodification.

Buscalan, Whang-Ud’s village in Tinglayan, Kalinga province, has become a mecca for traditional tattoo. Just a few years ago, visitors needed a half-day trek to reach this community in Tinglayan town. Now, it is accessible to anyone — a car or motorbike ride for an hour from the main road in neighboring Bugnay village and then a 30-minute hike to Whang-Ud’s community.

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Nas Daily claims that the online academy will “share her culture for future generations to appreciate and respect the ancient tradition of ‘mambabatok.’” For a P750 fee, enrollees can watch tattooing lessons from Whang-Ud herself.

Here, the permanent skin marking known as “batok” is presented as an “authentic” Kalinga practice packaged for and experienced by the viewer as “real,” supposedly connecting it to Whang-Ud and her remote village.

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Traditionally, batok is learned by observation and by doing it, similar to how Whang-Ud honed her skill as passed down by her elders.

Learning it via clickable, paid content devalues batok and the people identified with the practice. While social media is a powerful tool in promoting the culture of tattooing, it is also meant to “sell” culture masquerading as “authentic.” It diminishes the experience of embarking on a journey and getting hand-tap tattoos in excruciating pain, the kind described by Whang-Ud’s Butbut ethnic community as “naichayu” (skin-deep).Rooted in culture

Deeply rooted in the culture of the Butbut even before the Spanish colonization, the markings served like badges of honor traditionally accorded to the “kamaranan” (elite warriors) and “kachangyan” (affluent) members of Kalinga society. They were meant to convey social status as well as political, religious and social affiliation—a social biography of an individual.

Today, batok has evolved into a more personalized statement, its popularity fed by the influx of curious tourists. Over the last five years, we have seen traditional designs being transformed or reinterpreted by “tattoo pilgrims” from the lowlands, resulting in a fusion of old patterns and new ideas, the latter brought by visitors to Whang-Ud’s village. Practitioners have accommodated requests for such designs as part of the “reinvention” of the traditional tattoo.

In 2018, Whang-Ud was conferred an award—the Dangal ng Haraya for Intangible Cultural Heritage—by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in recognition of her stature as guardian and preserver of batok’s ancient techniques and rare designs. At present, Buscalan, her village, has at least 26 young female tattoo practitioners who were taught by Whang-Ud (the youngest learner I met was 10 years old) in response to a growing demand among visitors. To me, this is the real “school for living tradition,” the transmission of knowledge through learning by doing. Thanks to this, Whang-Ud, once “exoticized” by the media, may no longer be considered the “last tattoo artist” and her art no longer a “vanishing tradition” but an “appearing culture.”

Pitch

Nas Daily claimed that its team approached the family of Whang-Ud to “pitch” the idea of her teaching batok online. It released a short video showing “Whang-Ud’s trusted niece … Estella Palangdao was present and translated the content of the contract prior to Whang-Ud affixing her thumbprint, signifying her full consent to the project … and her immediate family.”

Was the contract explained clearly to Whang-Ud? Was this translated properly? Were details lost in translation? Did her thumbprint give a blanket consent to represent her community? A copy of the contract has yet to surface in public or social media.Why a thumbprint when Whang-Ud can actually write her name? I once witnessed her write her name as Fang-od (pronounced as Whang-Ud, with “f” as “wh”) when I was working among the Butbut in Tinglayan to study batok for my dissertation. In the Butbut’s language, she once told me: “If I continued to go to school, I may have a very good handwriting.”

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Communal property

Batok is in fact a communal property—an intangible cultural heritage (ICH) shared by the Kalinga people specifically, and the Philippines in general.

Tattoos as ICH are protected under the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (Ipra). Section 5 of the 1997 law mentions, in general terms, the indigenous concept of ownership, and notes that the body of traditional practices within the ancestral domains are “community property which belongs to all generations and therefore cannot be sold, disposed of or destroyed. It likewise covers sustainable traditional resource rights.”

The Ipra further states: “The state shall recognize, respect and protect the rights of ICCs (indigenous cultural communities)/IPs (indigenous peoples) to preserve and develop their cultures, traditions and institutions.”

In Section 2, it underscores that the Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) should be secured first when studying indigenous communities. FPIC, as used in the law, means “the consensus of all members of the ICCs/IPs to be determined in accordance with their respective customary laws and practices, free from any external manipulation, interference and coercion, and obtained after fully disclosing the intent and scope of the activity, in a language and process understandable to the community.”

Did the Butbut ethnic community get involved in the agreement between Nas Daily and Whang-Ud?

I reached out to friends in Buscalan and was informed that no “paranos” was held for the Nas Daily team. Paranos is the Kalinga tradition of welcoming guests, with the host butchering animals and sharing meals with the community. Here, guests inform community members and leaders of the intent and purpose of their visit, in this case the details about the documentary.

Santi So-ang, a tour guide in Buscalan, noted the different groups of visitors “coming in and out, telling many versions of their purpose that the community did not understand.”

In the end, it seemed that the agreement was made private and the consent came only from the family. This is called “permissive appropriation” on the part of Whang-Ud, meaning a full consent is given without the parties clearly understanding the agreement’s repercussions.

Traditionally, securing an FPIC is a community event that highlights respect for the local people. Buscalan villagers said nobody knew about the details of the contract thumbmarked by Whang-Od.

I sent an email to Nas Daily to inquire about the contents of the contract, but had not received a reply as of Saturday.

NCIP role

The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) issues the FPIC to researchers and other groups who want to research, document or work on indigenous knowledge systems and practices in different communities.

While the FPIC provisions stipulate that it “respects and protects” the community from the commercialization of culture, there is no provision on the control of what outsiders, such as Nas Daily, do with the information or materials gathered from the community.

Will these videos, films, articles and photographs be returned to the communities to form part of their intangible cultural property?

A weak point in the FPIC process is the lack of specific policies on what to do when people come and leave the village. What are the policies for respectful treatment regarding representation of indigenous cultures? What are the consequences when groups misrepresent culture?

Many indigenous peoples have gained headway in claiming ownership of their intangible cultural property under Ipra, but have been frustrated by the limits of established intellectual property laws.

Assertion of intellectual property rights also results in the “commodification of culture” – when culture is converted into items of economic worth that can be traded for commercial gain “by means of license, sale or rental.” In the case of Whang-Ud and Nas Daily, the pay-per-view scheme confirms the exploitation and commercialization of traditional tattoos online.

This also turned Whang-Ud into a popular “brand” for other commercial entities in different forms: her image or tattoo designs on sneakers, clothing, bags, shirts, caps and other items sold at exorbitant prices on the internet by enterprising individuals under the guise of “promoting awareness” on culture.

Does Whang-Ud get a fair share from the proceeds? Sadly, no, due to the absence of property rights to protect her.

‘Parachute research’

For Nas Daily, spending two days or so in the village only scratched the surface of this once sacred practice of batok; gathering good soundbytes is not enough to feature an ancient practice of cultural bearers of tattoo in a click.

Nas Daily, I believe, had good intentions, but the team failed to follow a respectful protocol and was totally unaware of Kalinga culture.

In the academe, we call this “parachute research” – you come and go without deeply immersing in the culture. To understand “batok” among the Butbut means spending longer periods with the community. Tattoo is deeply embedded in their culture, hence it will take more time to understand the complexities of the practice.

A post from Grace Palicas, Whang-Ud’s grandniece and first apprentice, put the widely popular Nas Daily at the center of the controversy when it warned of a supposed “scam.”

On Saturday, the Buscalan community gave its consent to Palicas to head to the provincial capital of Tabuk to sort the issue with the NCIP. INQ

(Analyn Salvador-Amores is a professor of anthropology at the University of the Philippines Baguio. She is the author of an award-winning book, “Tapping Ink, Tattooing Identities: Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Kalinga Society,” published by UP Press. She continues to work among the Butbut and has published extensively on traditional tattoos.)

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TAGS: mambabatok, Nas Daily, Nuseir Yassin, Whang-Ud tatooing master class
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