Blessing by Apo Whang-od: The Pains and Pleasures of Kalinga Traditional Tattoo | Kalinga, Philippines

DSC00123I will be a hypocrite if I say I wasn’t scared. The surroundings were lyrical with the constant manual tapping of wood on wood, wood on thorn, thorn on skin. I was nervous. I was the last one among the group to get inked. It was my turn, it was painful. I waited. It was my turn again, it was even more painful, way more painful in the master’s wrinkled yet strong hands. The Kinilat (lightning) design just got permanent on the right side of my hip. It started pouring a few minutes after the tattoo was finished. I was protective of the open wound. I was scared it might get infected. We had no options but to head back so we braced ourselves for the rain and ran as fast as we could. We packed our bags and left our home for two days. I felt the sting and the sore, the aftershock of having just been tattooed by Apo Whang-od and Grace. Yet there is pleasure, there is pride in bearing this kind of pain.

We finally trekked down the steep trail of Buscalan village and headed home.

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The aroma of Kalinga coffee blended in with exhaustion, anxiety, uncertainties, and excitement. We expected to get inked by the same day we arrived. However we were told that Apo Whang-od was not feeling well and the supply for calamansi thorns was getting scarce. Everyone then decided to wake up early the next day. Meanwhile, the Saturday afternoon was spent getting to know the locals and exploring the humble village up in the mountains.

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The sun departed the day and the replacing night turned out to reach the peak of the clouds. A circle is formed at the slightly lighted terrace. In the course of the dark and cold evening, inhibitions peeled off, breakup and dog and pig tales enlivened. However blurry and guilty some scenes may be, there revealed friendships to remember. It would be a braver new world the following day.

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The trick to getting ahead of the line is to wake up way earlier than planned.  Questions were already swarming in the area where all action is awaiting to happen – Where will you place your tattoo? Which design are you choosing? What does the design mean? Is it painful? Is it more painful than the machine? Is it painful here, how about here? What kind of thorn do they use? Is it okay to take a bath after getting the tattoo? Is it really painful?

In all honesty, I was a bit nervous, but not the dizzying, not the vomiting, definitely not the backing out kind of nerves. This was my third tattoo and the first two generated pleasure in the needle. What’s in store then for the constant manual tapping of wood on wood, wood on thorn, thorn on skin?
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Are you ready?

  • THE PROCEDURE

– Deciding on the design (you can consult on the illustrations/meanings of designs on the books available in the tattoo area, hence you have the freedom to choose, or if you’re feeling spontaneous and trusting, you can also let Apo Whang-od choose for you)

– Drawing the design using soot and wire on the body part you’ve chosen

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A foreign guy chose two designs: Eagle design (top) and Warrior design (bottom)

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– Preparing the materials: calamansi thorn (one for each person), bamboo sticks, water, wet wipes, oil

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– Experiencing the pains and pleasures of the hand-tapping method for 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on the intricacy/size of the design and the number of tattoos (Advice: feel the pain feeding your skin and bones rather than avoiding it and anticipating for the process to finish)

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– Removing blood from the wound using wet wipes and water
– Applying oil on the tattooed body part

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– Acquiring information about tattoo aftercare (a laminated post of the tips is hung up on the tattoo area for everyone to read)

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– Paying Apo Whang-od, Grace, or Ilyang (cost ranges from Php300-1000, again depending on the intricacy/size of the design and the number of tattoos)

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Reina chose the Warrior design
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Trish chose the Serpent-Eagle design (from what I remember)
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Jeff let Apo Whang-od pick for him. She chose the Centipede design and Jeff clearly looks happy with it
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I chose the Lightning (Kinilat) design. This means the union of man (lower design) and woman (upper design), and also of heavenly and worldly
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Kat chose the Pinulikawkaw design which, according to her, means the “road less traveled”

– Handing prepared offerings for Apo Whang-od, the kids, and the rest of the community: biscuits, shirts, medicine, chocolates, memorabilia, school supplies, more chocolates, cans of milk

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– Getting photographed with the mambabatok women, if you’re lucky

Apo Whang-od (96) is a radiating woman, emanating through is her energy, humor, focus, artistry, content, and lightness. Grace (19) is her granddaughter, a lovely and talented lady, bearing a personality of strength and confidence. It is inevitable to conceal the touch of modernity. Ilyang (13), so young and promising, is a bit limited with her spoken words to the visitors yet very much intent in perfecting her craft with the help of her grandmother. In a small space in Buscalan village in Kalinga Province, these mambabatok women gather and introduce their tradition to locals and foreigners alike. The visitors may carry with them various personal reasons for choosing to undergo, more so to embrace this kind of ceremony which brings pain not only for a day but for weeks, sometimes even months. But the most rewarding part of the experience is being able to rekindle the roots of Philippine (Kalinga) traditional tattoo and to be blessed with the unquestionably sacred art of the three women and their heritage.

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The pain then turns into a blessing.

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Note: If you want to know more about the details of getting there and the rest of the itinerary, comment below your questions or send me an e-mail. I would be the gladdest to share the information with you! 😉


Feel free to contact Pom Regio of Feelgoodtraveler to help with your travel plans at Buscalan and other destinations in the Philippines. Also, if you want to experience hand-tapped tattoo within Metro Manila, explore the talented and kind tattoo artists Ate Jean and Kuya Tan of Katribu Tatu, specializing in Philippine tribal designs which can be customized to relate to your life stories.

6 thoughts on “Blessing by Apo Whang-od: The Pains and Pleasures of Kalinga Traditional Tattoo | Kalinga, Philippines”

    1. Yeah, she’s quite young. But even Grace started earlier, I believe she was 10 years old when she started and that gives her 9 years of doing the tradition already. And I totally agree, it’s a relief to know that it is being passed on.

      When have you been tattooed, Marge? Do you have a photo? Haha it’s quite difficult to remember the names
      Lovey Marquez recently posted…Blessing by Apo Whang-od: The Pains and Pleasures of Kalinga Traditional TattooMy Profile

  1. A true master of her craft, Whang Od doesn’t stop tapping until the skin completely absorbs the ink. In fact, she doesn’t stop tapping until she’s fully satisfied with her work. She regards every tattoo she makes as a work of art, and like any other artist, she takes pride in being meticulous about her work. At dusk, I witnessed the men of the village slaughter a healthy white chicken for dinner. After exploring the village and interacting with the locals, I pleaded to be excused and went back to my hut. I was exhausted and restless, and in pain.

    1. That’s what I admire about her. Yes she’s quite old, but she maintains that naturally resolute passion to put everything into what she’s doing. It’s mesmerizing when she’s at work because it appears that she (Whang-od) and her craft becomes one. The focus and flow intertwines. What a beautiful scene!

      Haha no pain, no gain right? When have you been tattoed, Norris?
      Lovey Marquez recently posted…What I Learned about Habits and Happiness after Meeting Burmese Novices in Mandalay HillMy Profile

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