I’m a fan of well-thought-out and beautifully executed skin art, but I’ve always been torn between my desire to get a tattoo and my slight aversion to anything permanent.
For so long, I’ve held on to a few rad designs I’ve bookmarked, but what kept me from getting them executed on my flesh were these lingering questions – “Are they significant and meaningful enough in my life and identity?” and “Will I like having them on my skin even when I’m gray and wrinkly?”
A few years ago, I heard of Apo Whang-Od, the last living mambabatok (traditional hand-tapped tattoo artist) of the Kalinga ethnic group. And then it hit me – I want my first tattoo to be done by no less than her.
My reasons for wanting to get inked by Apo Whang-Od were threefold – to travel to Kalinga to give reverence to the thousand-years Filipino tribal art form, to experience getting tattooed by a living legend and national treasure (soon a National Artist, I hope), and to get a tribal tat that would constantly remind me of my connection to the Cordilleras and its people. I spent my college days in Baguio City.
On May 29, 2018, it finally happened – I got inked by the now 101-year-old Apo Whang-Od.
I smooth-talked Lovel Aniag, our Creative Director and resident bundok expert, into joining me in this trip. At 10 PM on May 27, we boarded a Coda Lines bus in Cubao, Quezon City that would take us on a 12-hour trip to Bontoc, Mountain Province. We chose a bus with a toilet and paid PhP 935 each.
We reached Bontoc at 10 AM of May 28. The next trip to Kalinga was at 2 PM, so we had a few hours to kill. We had lunch at the popular Cable Café and Restaurant, visited the Bontoc Museum (entrance fee is P70) and had coffee at a small eatery.
The jeepney left Bontoc at 2:30 PM. The scenic two-hour ride to Tinglayan, Kalinga was a feast for the eyes and soul, but it’s not for the faint of heart as the winding road runs alongside a gorge. Some parts of the road don’t have barriers, so it takes one hell of an experienced driver to be able to navigate it safely.
We reached the drop-off point in Tinglayan at 4:30 PM and were met by Letty, our guide. Nowadays, all visitors are required to get a local guide. Fee is PhP 1,000 for 1 to 4 people.
We immediately started our trek to Buscalan, the village of the Butbut tribe where Apo Whang-Od lives. The one-hour trek was difficult and exhausting AF as it entailed both going down and climbing up steep slopes. We were drenched in sweat and had to stop to catch our breath around five times.
We made it to the guest registration hut in Buscalan at 5:30 PM. Each guest is required to pay PhP 75. Those who want to get tattooed by Apo Whang-Od and/or her apprentices (her grandnieces Grace Palicas and Ilyang Wigan) need to get a number – our guide helped facilitate this.
After registration, we went straight to our homestay. The fee of P300 per head/night includes accommodation, the use of kitchenware and unlimited rice and coffee. Guests must cook their own ulam, so we brought canned foods with us.
If you need a contact person for when you visit the place, text Charlie at 09981888697 or 09397484707. He’s the owner of the homestay we were in. Expect a delay in his reply as there’s no mobile signal in Kalinga. People there use analog phones and hang them on their windows to get signal from time to time.
As we were dead beat from the butt-numbing travels and the knee-busting trek, we went to bed immediately after dinner.
If you’re visiting the Cordillera mountains, it’s a must to catch the sunrise. We woke up at 5 AM on May 29 and hiked to the topmost point of the village to breathe in the fresh cold mountain air, take in the jaw-dropping scenery and watch it get slowly illuminated by the rising sun. My wee heart almost couldn’t contain the beauty of it all.
We went down to have coffee and proceeded to the area of the village where the tattooing happens. Nowadays, Apo Whang-Od rarely does full tattoos. Due to the large influx of visitors who want to get tattooed by her, she usually does just her signature three-dot tattoo to accommodate everyone. It was a weekday, but there were more than fifty visitors in the village.
I was second in line for getting her signature tat. I was told by Lovel that age has made her hands heavier and so her taps are a bit more painful than her apprentices’. I was a bit uneasy as it was going to be my first tat, but I kept reminding myself that I have a high threshold for pain.
Apo Whang-Od outlined the three dots on the outer part of my left arm just above the elbow after which she started tapping away while my right hand was holding my phone, recording every moment and the entire process on video.
The traditional hand-tapped tattooing technique uses a charcoal and water mixture tapped into the skin using a calamansi or pomelo thorn. The pain was at its most intense during the first few pricks but after a few more, I got used to it. The experience wasn’t bad at all.
Funny that in the middle her tapping my skin, the thorn got dislodged and flew out of the bamboo stick. I chuckled in embarrassment, asking myself if I’m balat kalabaw. Apo then used a new thorn and in less than five minutes, we were done. I thanked her and gave her the PhP 100 payment – she collects the payments herself.
I then went to line up for Ilyang. I initially wanted to have the Traveler tattoo but Lovel advised me that at this point in my life, the Ladder is more apt as it symbolizes achievements and reaching the heavens. My delusions of grandeur got the better of me, and so I agreed.
I told Ilyang I wanted it on top of Apo’s three-dot tat. She outlined the design on my skin using a twig dipped in the charcoal and water mixture. Then she started tapping away. The pain wasn’t quite different from that of Apo’s taps. I could feel my skin getting pricked three times per second but maybe my mind was appropriately conditioned, so it was totally bearable. I could even say that I loved the sensation. Or maybe I’m just being weird.
As the design is a bit intricate, the process took about 30 minutes. Ilyang asked for PhP 800. I gave her PhP 1,000. She smiled, thanked me and gave me the thorn she used to ink me.
To keep the tat from getting infected and expedite its healing, aftercare consists of not getting it wet for three days and regularly applying topical treatment on it. I wrapped my arm with a cling wrap each time I showered and applied Lucas’ Papaw Ointment on it two to three times a day.
We woke up at 6AM on May 30 to get ready to leave. Before we left, we dropped by Apo Whang-Od’s house to pay her our respects, bid her goodbye and leave her with some gifts – a bag of chocolates and a light blue scarf. She looked at may tat and asked, “Sino gumawa?” I told her it was Ilyang, then she replied, “Maganda.”
Letty led us on our descent at 7:30 AM. As trekking down is naturally faster than climbing up, it took us only 30 minutes to reach the drop-off point. But just the same, we were soaked in sweat and our legs were sore and wobbly.
We caught the 9 AM jeep to Bontoc. Halfway through the trip, we stopped for about 30 minutes as the driver was tipped off on an inspection ahead… and he didn’t have his license with him.
We got to Bontoc at 11:30 AM, had lunch at Cable Café and Restaurant where we also bought our tickets for the 2 PM bus ride back to Manila – the owner is an authorized Coda Lines ticket seller. We arrived in Manila at 2 AM on May 21 – dirty, oily, smelly and oh-so ready to tell everyone about our awesome adventure.
Check out the vid we made about our ‘pilgrimage’: