Did Whang-ud’s tattooing stint in Manila degrade tradition? | Inquirer News

Did Whang-ud’s tattooing stint in Manila degrade tradition?

AT WORK Whang-ud uses a lemon thorn to carve a story on skin. —ANALYN SALVADOR-AMORES

When a helicopter brought tattoo artist Whang-ud from her home village in remote Buscalan in Tinglayan, Kalinga province, to Manila for a two-day trade event, people cried “exploitation!”

What was a Gawad ng Manlilikha ng Bayan, or National Living Treasure, doing at Manila FAME at the World Trade Center tattooing people on a cordoned-off platform, much like the Igorots displayed during the 1904 St. Louis Exposition? people asked.


Oh, but she fully enjoyed her stay in Manila, said Whang-ud, who had requested the trip and expressed the desire to meet actor Coco Martin.  (She did).  She also brought home some P800,000 for tattooing at least 300 guests at the trade event, according to organizers.


Transplanting what used to be a local tradition and Kalinga ritual to the big city where cash instead of feats of bravery became the mode of exchange for the experience could be part of the outcry.

Known as “batok,” the hand-tap method of tattooing used to be practiced as a collective- and place-based ritual.  Today, with visitors and tourists making the 12-hour trip on rough roads from Manila to Kalinga to get inked, batok has become associated with contemporary tattooing practices, a form of individual expression of identity and fashion.


Tattoo pilgrims

Known as “tattoo pilgrims,” these guests seek Whang-ud’s services to make permanent their individual experiences and personal stories, a motivation that critics see as detracting from the original intent of tattoos as being earned through extraordinary feats among the Kalinga people.

Performing the batok in front of strangers in an unconventional setting like Manila, according to critics, also diminished a key ingredient in the tradition and undermined the authenticity of the Kalinga experience.  Although Whang-ud had been a traveling tattoo artist, her previous trips took her mainly from Kalinga to Bontoc in the Mountain Province and outlying areas.

The tattoo pilgrims, however, see the difficult journey, the hours-long wait and their first encounter with Whang-ud, whom media has dubbed “the last and oldest tattoo artist,” as part of their personal narrative and a prerequisite that approximates the original intent of having the tattoo as a badge of honor.

The pilgrims also cite Whang-ud’s use of traditional batok tools as part of the authenticity of the experience. Whang-ud plucks lemon thorns from her backyard and uses them to tap people’s skin and produce the beautiful tattoos she is known for.  The thorn is considered a relic by the tattoo pilgrims as well because it makes them more emotionally, not to mention physically, invested in what used to be a community ritual.


In fact, the growing demand for tattoos in Whang-ud’s village led her to train young women like Grace Palikas and Elyang Wigan as apprentices, although tourists and guests understandably consider the old woman’s tattoos as “more authentic” than those by her apprentices.

Whang-ud, a good-natured Butbut-Kalinga elder, can tattoo visitors all day with a few minutes of rest between. Her apprentices help, but it is the old woman who caps the tattoo with her signature three dots, which, she said, is an abridged version of her intricate tattoo design. Using this shortened signature reduces to less than 30 minutes what used to be an hour-long tattooing session.

The outcry over Whang-ud’s batok services outside Mountain Province has puzzled other people who cite Palikas’ and Wigan’s similar participation in the 2017 Dutdutan, a major annual tattoo event in Manila, which seemed fine and acceptable.

Was it because the two apprentices are young, unlike the older Whang-ud who has come to represent a venerable tradition and culture that some people view as pure and pristine?

But like people, cultural practices like the batok can change. In fact, there is no denying that tourism has had a huge impact on Buscalan, both in positive and negative ways.

“Tourist gaze”

Anthropologists John Urry and Edward Bruner gave a wider context on the  controversy over Whang-ud’s participation in the trade fair, writing that in the “tourist gaze,” tourists determine the locals’ roles in meeting their demands and expectations. The hosts comply with these demands because of expectations imposed on them.

The “host gaze,” on the other hand, is the point of view of the locals towards tourism, and focuses on the roles and actions of the host community in response to the tourists’ needs and demands.

Both local hosts and tourists meet at the “tourist border zone” when their views are in conflict.  The tourists come to get traditional tattoos in Buscalan, while the locals earn from their visit.

The coming of tattoo pilgrims opened new avenues of economic activities for Whang-ud’s community, as it catered to the needs of tourists and came up with homestay programs, stores and souvenir shops. It also changed the attitude among locals who have been getting inked with the same tattoos that they abhorred 40 years ago.

Whang-ud and the rage over tourism and traditional tattoos are examples of this “tourist border zone,”  as the batok was reinvented and the traditional tattoos’ meaning and context changed.  While tattoos can be had in many cities and urban places, people were motivated to go on long mountain treks like pilgrims to experience the pain of tattooing from Whang-ud.

Symbols of savagery

Originally, batok designs were associated with the Igorots of the Cordillera. Today, the same tattoos that used to be associated with headhunting as symbols of savagery and criminalized during the American colonial period in the early 20th century have become trendy and fashionable.

The tattoos have been appropriated as visible and permanent marks of Filipino identity, but its sudden accessibility to just about anyone in contemporary times has eroded its deeper symbolic associations especially in the absence of the rituals performed around this once sacred and place-specific practice.

The pain, the perforation of the skin and the permanence to individual and social identities through the appropriation of the batok have definitely resulted in a new context for this tradition.

Whang-ud’s participation in Manila FAME highlights the dynamics of the tourist and host gaze, where varied channels used for this practice are today contested, transformed, or continued within the context of modernity.

Whang-ud as host was a pragmatist who took the chance to travel and see other places like Manila and earn a lot (reportedly P800,000 for her appearance and demos), while meeting celebrities like Coco Martin.  Despite being considered a cultural icon, she is still just an ordinary human being with personal needs and wants.

The current popularity of tattooing definitely constrains, threatens, or transforms traditional tattoo practices. And whether they realize it or not, the young, for whom tattooing has become part of self-expression, have done their bit to erase the pejorative notion behind it.

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Baguio-based anthropologist Analyn Salvador-Amores holds a Ph.D. in social and cultural anthropology from Oxford University and teaches anthropology at the University of the Philippines Baguio where she is an associate professor. The director of UP Baguio’s Museo Kordilyera also authored the 2013 award-winning book, “Tapping Ink, Tattooing Identities.”

TAGS: Apo Whang-ud, mambabatok, tattoo artist, tattooing

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