Needles? This 95-Year Old Tattoo Artist From The Province Just Needs A Thorn And A Bamboo Stick.


Kalinga is the central province in the Cordillera Region, located in the northern part of Philippines. Composed of seven municipalities and one city called Tabuk, its landscapes are covered with luscious mountains, wild river rapids, slopes, lowland plains, and countless rice paddies.

This province doesn’t have fancy hotels, malls, or commercialized private resorts yet it still continues to make its name in the tourism industry.

Aside from being endowed with breathtaking landscapes, Kalinga is also home to 31 ethnic groups, making it a province that’s both rich in culture and natural beauty. A place perfect for those looking to experience outdoor adventure and those seeking to appreciate a different form of art and culture.

Map of Kalinga, Philippines

But if there’s one reason travelers head up north to Kalinga, it is to witness (or even participate in) their unique tattoo design or what’s locally called “batok.”

History accounts the province as the home of the great tribal warriors (the name Kalinga means “headhunters”). And for the fiercest men in the tribe, tattoos symbolize their bravery and courage. For women, tattoos portray beauty and elegance.

A status symbol that members of the community admire, tattooing is a tradition that is now continued by “The Last Mambabatok,” a 95-year old woman known as Apo Whang-Od.

The Last Mambabatok and the Traditional Tattoo Culture

Up until today, traditional tattoo culture is still practiced up in the mountains of Kalinga.

Elderly men and women carry distinct tribal tattoos on their chests and arms, covering almost their entire body. These body arts are artistically made by a traditional tattoo artist or the ‘mambabatok.’

Many of these mambabatoks have passed away, and the last living traditional artist who is still practicing the craft is Apo Whang-od from the Butbut tribe of Buscalan. Getting to Buscalan is likened to a pilgrimage by travelers who have been there. The 10-hour travel time from Manila followed by a 3-hour topload (riding on top of a jeepney) then another 3-hour trek will exhaust your energy even before you get a tattoo from Whang-Od.

Apo Whang-Od, The Last Mambabatok

Apo Whang-Od, The Last Mambabatok

Apo Whang-Od is already in her mid-90s, but her craft in tattooing is still as impressive as ever. Her whole body is covered with tribal patterns. These patterns were etched on her skin a long time ago, but its tint and design are still dominant and clear.

Without Apo Whang-Od, the tradition might have been forgotten. Fortunately, she has trained Grace Palicas, her 19-year old grandniece, who, at her young age has inherited the craft. Grace has been invited several times to head to Manila to participate in Dutdutan, a famous tattoo festival. Apo Whang-od believes that Grace will successfully continue their tradition and practice the craft for decades to come.

Grace Palicas

Grace Palicas, grandniece of Apo Whang-Od

Preparation for the Pilgrimage

Getting a tattoo requires a lot physical and emotional preparation. Here are some things to learn and prepare to assure that you are physically and emotionally ready for the adventure:

  1. Wisely choose a design. Tattoos will leave a mark on your skin that will last a lifetime. Choose a design that is worth the pain and that you will be proud to carry with you every day.
  2. Get an anti-tetanus shot. This is not required, as many people have been tattooed by Whang-od without even getting an anti-tetanus shot. Getting a tattoo from Apo Whang-Od is generally safe and all materials used are natural and are disposed after each session. But if you are concerned about your safety, you can always consider getting a shot before your trip.
  3. Prepare physically. Exercising before your trip will prepare you physically. The trek might exhaust you.
  4. Prepare mentally. Getting a tattoo is painful but the level of pain still depends on your tolerance. Read blogs and watch actual traditional tattoo session videos. These are not meant to scare you but to prepare you mentally.
  5. Bring “offerings.” It is advisable that you bring simple gifts as offerings like matches, candles, and medicines for your host family and candies for kids. This is not required but a way of showing your appreciation and respect to the community.
  6. You are not allowed to donate blood for 12 months. Getting a tattoo comes also with a sacrifice. You won’t be able to donate blood for one year.
  7. Bring petroleum jelly or other tattoo after-care cream. You will need this right after the tattoo session.

The Pilgrimage: How to Get to Buscalan

Tabuk municipality is the drop-off point  for buses from Manila traveling to Kalinga. Victory Liner – Kamias (+63 2 921 3296) and Autobus have daily trips to Tabuk. Take the first trip which usually departs at 8 PM to arrive at around 6 AM in Tabuk proper. Fare is ₱650 – ₱700 one way.

Ask the bus driver to drop you off in front of St. William’s Cathedral. From Tabuk, take the 7 AM jeepney or bus trip going to Tinglayan which will take approximately three hours. Fare is ₱130. Prepare to topload (ride on top of the roof of a jeepney), especially if you schedule your trip on a weekend as jeepney and bus trips are limited and you will share rides with a lot of locals.

Chico River, Kalinga

Chico River, Kalinga

Coming from a long bus ride from Manila and a 3-hour jeepney ride from Tabuk, you may wish to stay overnight in Tinglayan and schedule the trek to Buscalan the following day. Sleeping Beauty Inn is accessible from Tinglayan as well as Chico River, should you want to go white water rafting during your free time.

I suggest you start your trek as early as 6 AM the following day. Make sure you are wearing proper trekking sandals, light pants (avoid jeans) and a comfortable shirt. Bring enough water as the trek may take up to three hours depending on your pace. If it’s your first time, ask a local to guide you going to Buscalan. For guide services, you may contact Francis Pa-in (+63 915 769 0843). Francis has been guiding tourists up in Busculan for more than 20 years. Coordinate everything with him for a hassle-free trip.

Trek to Buscalan, Kalinga

Trek to Buscalan, Kalinga

Jump-off point for the trek is the municipality of Bugnay. The first part of the trek is a continuous uphill climb on loose sand and can get muddy during rainy season. Expect to experience shortness of breath. The middle part of the trail is the easiest and most enjoyable. Vast mountain terrain, trees and breezy wind will welcome you as you literally walk in the park. The final stretch of the trail is a combination of downhill and uphill climbs on rocks, terraces, and man-made stairs.

After 10 hours of land travel, top load, and 3-hour trek, you will reach this small community at the top of the mountain – the Butbut Tribe.

The Tattoo Session

The tapping sound of Whang-od’s bamboo stick will welcome you the moment you set foot in Buscalan – a sound that will excite and make you nervous at the same time. Apo Whang-od usually does her session in front of her home or in a quiet place. After doing her daily routine of drinking brewed coffee and feeding chickens, her entire day will be occupied with non-stop tattoo sessions.

Buscalan, Kalinga

Buscalan, Kalinga

Apo Whang-od doesn’t speak and understand Tagalog. If you wish to talk to her, you may ask the help of your tour guide or other locals who can understand and fluently speak Tagalog.

If you haven’t decided on a pattern or design, books and other illustrations are provided to help you. Locals are kind enough to explain the meaning of each pattern. Bear in mind that Apo Whang-od only does tribal and ‘Baybayin’ patterns.

Once ready with your design, hand it to Apo Whang-od so she can start creating the pattern on your skin using a very thin bamboo stick and charcoal for the tint. After making the pattern, the actual tattoo session begins.

A citrus fruit (suha) thorn is attached to the end of a 12-inch long bamboo stick. She will dip the thorn in charcoal ink and will then continuously tap the bamboo along the pattern to inject the thorn with ink, deep in your skin.

Apo Whang-Od Tattooing

Traditional Hand-Tapped Tattoo by Apo Whang-Od, Kalinga’s Last Mambabatok

Apo Whang-Od will repeat this process until she is satisfied with the tint or until the ink gets in your skin. You will bleed a lot and feel the pain as the thorn strikes your skin. The duration of the session depends on the size of your pattern. For small-sized tattoos, it usually takes Apo Whang-od 30 minutes to finish it. For bigger designs, it can take up to an hour or two. Apo Whang-od and Grace sometimes take turns when working on big patterns.

Here’s a YouTube video (uploaded by Cherry Pie Vergara) of Apo Whang-Od doing what she does best:

The area will get reddish and swell. This is normal. After the session, you are not allowed to wet the tattooed portion for a day as your pores are still open and your wound is prone to infection. Apo Whang-Od charges a fee ranging from ₱300 for small tattoos up to ₱1,500 for big and complicated patterns.

Tattoo by Apo Whang-Od

Unlike needled tattoos, traditional tattoo swells a lot and may result in bruising. Use petroleum jelly to smooth the wound and avoid infection. The affected area may get itchy after a week, but it’s important that you do not scratch the tattooed part to avoid getting scars. The healing of the tattoo may take two to four weeks before you can finally see the smooth and well-tinted patterns.

Where to Stay

For your accommodation, you can stay at Sleeping Beauty Inn in Tinglayan with rooms as low as ₱200 per person for a fan room and ₱300 per person for an air-conditioned room per night. It has its own eatery and is accessible to grocery stores, a church, and other establishments. Rooms are not fancy; they come with a basic mattress, pillows, and a bathroom with hot showers. You can book rooms in Sleeping Beauty Inn through Francis Pa-in.

Another option for accommodations is the Luplupa Riverside Inn (+63 917 750 1204) at the village of Luplupa, just across Chico River. The room rate is ₱250 per person per night with shared bath.

Going Back to Manila

From Buscalan, you have to trek back to Bugnay proper for three hours. From Buscalan, jeepneys pass through Bugnay going to ,Tinglayan. From Tinglayan, buses bound Tabuk pass through starting 10 AM to 1:00 PM. There are limited trips going back to Tabuk so make sure to catch the bus once it passes in front of Sleeping Beauty Inn.

From Tabuk, Victory Liner buses travel to Manila from Tabuk with the first trip at 3:00 PM.

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About Author

Febbie Alacapa

A middle child. A February baby. Left-handed. Was born to be a wanderer. My left foot is an inch longer than my right foot. A passionate weekend warrior who’s a writer by trade.