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Get to know the oldest tattoo artist in the world: How to reach Apo Whang-Od.

While planning your tour around the Philippines you cannot miss the opportunity to experience the thousand year old Batok tattooing method performed by the oldest tattoo artist in the world: Apo Whang-Od.

The village Buscalan, has not always been a destination for people excited to get their skin signed by Maria Oggay, famously known as Apo Whang-Od: the 106 year-old artist. Actually, it is just in the last 15 years that its popularity exploded.

In fact, very famous magazines such as National Geographic (vol. 143 feb 1973) and Vogue have chosen to dive more into the first mambabatok story. Yet, the village has never been as accessible as it is today.

Apo Whang-Od tattoing with batok technique
Apo Whang-Od tattooing with the batok technique. Image: Beatrice Da Fre

Want to get tattooed by Apo Whang-Od but don't know how to get there, how much it will cost, and what to get tattooed? No worries, just keep reading...

The Barangay, the smallest political unit in Philippines, is located in the Cordillera Administrative Region, in the province of Kalinga, Luzon. However, before reaching the sign claiming "Welcome! Wang-Od Buscalan tattoo village" you need to complete the not-so-relaxing 12 hour-long road from Manila. As a matter of fact, it is not recommended to go there straight from the capital, and I am going to explain why, and the best way to get there.

three dots apo-whang-od tattoo
Apo Whang-Od signature: three dots

First of all, you need to know that Apo Whang-Od only performs her signature tattoo, three small dots one next to the other. The dots represent three generation of mambabatok, herself, her niece and her grandniece. The former, Grace, and the latter Elyang, who have been chosen as her apprentices, perform a wide range of bigger and definitely more painful tattoos, still with the batok technique. The ink is made out of charcoal and water mixed in a coconut shell and hammered into the skin with a thorn attached to a stick.

Batok: pomelo thorn attached to a bamboo stick

Tattoos were given to the headhunters that were protecting the village, and to women primarily for fertility and beautification. Whang-Od started tattooing when she was just 15, her father who taught her the craft, decided to break the tradition that only men were allowed to perform the art. She spoke about her only love who passed away during the Japanese colonization when she was just 25. She was never engaged nor married, and made a powerful decision when she chose only women as her apprentices.

My journey started from Manila, where I took a 12-hour long bus that took me to Sagada, a beautiful municipality surrounded by mountains and rice fields. The closest attractions you probably do not want to miss is the Bomod-ok falls, the Hanging Coffins and of course the village of Buscalan.

The cheapest but longest way to reach Apo Whang-Od is through jeepneys that runs every day from Sagada and back, however I definitely do not recommend it. Jeepneys are affordable but slow and not reliable. You want to reach Buscalan by 7 am at the latest, and jeepneys will not reach there before 10 am. Buscalan has become more and more popular among tourists, therefore the earlier you get there, the more chances you have to get tattooed. In fact, the 106 years old tattoo artist, is happy to satisfy a high number of tattoo clients, but when she thinks she is done, she is done. And if you have not been tattooed yet, the options are going back and trying the following day, or sleeping in the village, and be the first customer the following morning, if you are lucky enough to find a bed.

I hired a van and a driver through the tourism office located in the Sagada city centre and the following morning I left the municipality at 4.30 am.

Buscalan village entrance sign
Buscalan village entrance sign

After two-and-a-half-hours I reached the sign indicating I was close enough to the village to jump out of the van and start hiking through rice fields. It is mandatory to sign-in as a visitor and hire a local guide, otherwise you might get lost.

From here begins a one-hour-long scenic walk before you see the village.

As soon as I arrived I was welcomed by Grace, who offered me a cup of coffee and explained that I had to wait until some customers were done. The wait took almost 2 hours, and then, finally I got the chance to get her signature on my skin. So, how much did it cost? and was it painful?

Apo Whang-Od tattoing.
Apo Whang-Od tattooing. Image by Beatrice Da Fre

When I met her I immediately noticed how young she seemed to be. I definitely could not guess she was 106. Even though during her long life she has always worked in rice fields, she demonstrated an incredible energy. For the entire time I was waiting she remained cross-legged on the floor tattooing, with just a short toilet break.

I almost felt emotional by her attitude towards the customers and the job, she made everyone laughing and wore a smile for the entire time. Since there were more than 40 people waiting to get tattooed, she kept meticulously to express her art until all the clients were happy.

How much did I spend?

The tattoo itself was not expensive, just 100 PHP (1.6 Euro) for the equipment (stick and thorn) and 300 PHP (5 Euro) for the tattoo. The van was 7000 PHP (115 Euro) and 1000 PHP (17 Euro) for the guide. I divided the cost of the van and the guide with other 4 friends I met in Sagada. In total it costed me 33 Euro.

And no, it was not painful compared to other tattoos I have received. However, it did get infected after a week and I had to treat it. I recommend bringing alcohol to sterilize the skin before and after the tattoo.

If you would like more information you can contact me directly through my Instagram DM.

1 Comment

Jan 02

very interesting

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