She's probably the main reason why people from all over make the trek to this little village called Buscalan in Kalinga. She looks far more younger than her actual age, and at 92 years old, Whang Od is keeping her people's tradition of "batok" (tattoo) alive.
Whang Od (or Fang Od) is from the Butbut tribe of Kalinga. Nowadays most refer to her as the "last mababatok of Kalinga" (last traditional tattoo artist). Although many may argue that there are still living tattoo artists in Kalinga, she certainly is the most known figure still practicing the art.
Gone are days of headhunting and tattooed warriors. The tattoos were once reserved for the bravest of warriors - those who actually killed enemies in combat. Today some of the traditional marks are tapped into the skin of those who make the pilgrimage to Buscalan. Certain patterns are still reserved for the warriors.
During the couple of days that we stayed there (I slept in the veranda of Whang Od's house), I saw her work all day, stopping only for a few hours for the tattoo recipient to recover. The process is painful, an hour into it and the bravest of the brave can be seen flinching from pain.
Whang Od working on a centipede pattern
Whang Od's kit comprised of pine soot and water for the ink and a citrus thorn for the needle. The needle is attached to the end of a small stick. Whang Od uses a hand tapping method, similar to other traditional tattooing methods, but with the distinction of "back-handing" the stick.
A pattern is laid out first on the skin using a thin grass stalk to mark the lines. Whang Od then starts to methodologically tap along the lines. It may take two or more passes before Whang Od is satisfied that the pattern have been properly etched. Sometimes the tattoo can be done in one sitting, but most often the tattoo recipient comes back after a few hours or the next day for the finishing touches.
Lonely Planet guidebook toting tourists have found their way to Whang Od's doorstep. Whang Od worked on a Danish couple during our stay there.
There is hope that the art will not be lost when Whang Od's generation of tattoo artists is gone. Nowadays, 16 year old Gelles ("Grace") is picking up the craft from her great aunt (Whang Od is single).
Whang Od and Gelles