Apo Whang-Od, a mambabatok (traditional tattooist) from the Kalinga people and the oldest person to ever appear on the cover of Vogue, will be honored as such in the April 2023 issue of Vogue Philippines’ beauty issue.
Whang-Od, also known as Maria Oggay, is a centenarian who has been tattooing skin with extremely delicate tools that require the most skilled hands since she was 16 years old.
Her father was an early mentor in her professional life. She was the very first female mambabatok ever seen. Usually, she would tattoo ancestor symbols on people who were about to make a significant change in their lives, such as men becoming headhunters. Tattoos were traditionally done on women to enhance their fertility and sexual attractiveness.
Whang-Od could spend days on a single tattoo, depending on its complexity. How does it function, then? This paragraph from the article in Vogue Philippines says it all:
An aide procures an unused gisi, a bamboo stick with a thorn attached to one end, while Whang-Od traces the pattern on Sela’s arm using a length of grass dipped in the soot and charcoal mixture. Holding the inked gisi in her left hand, she uses a larger stick to whack it with her right hand, driving it over a hundred times per minute into the flesh until the three dots are filled and oozing with blood and ink. She dabs at them with a wet wipe before deciding to go over the freshly wounded spots again for good measure.
Since headhunting was banned in the early 1900s, Whang-Od’s village of Buscalan has catered to a new clientele: tourists.
Batok is a skill that can only be passed down through families. Because Whang-Od did not have any children of her own, she taught her grandniece Grace Palicas, then 10 years old, how to weave. The 26-year-old apprentice is carrying on Whang-Od’s work.
This is a huge deal, as Whang-Od is effectively smashing the patriarchy by guaranteeing that her next apprentice will also be a woman.