Meet Whang Od Oggay: The Philippines’ oldest tattoo artist

CNN  — 

Surrounded by lush rice terraces and undulating landscape, the mountain village of Buscalan is home to just 200 or so households. It rests in the Kalinga province of the Philippines and is about a 15-hour drive north of Manila.

Yet thousands of tourists come here every year to meet Whang Od Oggay, the Philippines’ oldest mambabatok – or traditional Kalinga tattooist. Roughly 100 years old, Whang Od has been performing the ancient art of hand-tapped tattoos since she was 15.

“The tradition will continue as long as people keep coming to get tattoos,” Whang Od tells CNN Travel. “As long as I can see well, I will keep giving tattoos. I’ll stop once my vision gets blurry.”

A symbol of beauty and strength

Traditionally, the hand-tapped tattoos were earned by indigenous Butbut warriors.

“Once they’ve killed someone, they are eligible for a tattoo,” explains Whang Od. “Everyone knew when one of the warriors has killed someone because he would announce it to everyone.”

And for women? Tattoos were considered an aesthetic accessory.

“Back then they would say: ‘Go get a tattoo so you would look beautiful,’ ” recalls Whang Od of her teenage years, when friends covered her arms and legs in tattoo sleeves.

But now that the warriors have died out, the hand-tapped tattoos are open to anyone – and Whang Od sees a steady stream of international clients, etching about eight tattoos a day. Each symbol – ranging from lines to circles, animals and tribal prints – carries a deeper meaning. Some designs represent the mountains or the sun, others fertility and strength.

“I like it when tourists and visitors come here because it helps us out [financially],” says Whang Od. “I hope visitors keep coming.”

How she does it

Whang Od follows a millenniums-old technique, using just a few tools: a thorn from a pomelo tree, a foot-long bamboo stick, coal scraped off a pot, and water.

That’s it.

With intense concentration, she paints a design on the skin using the homemade coal-water ink. Tap by tap, she uses the thorn and bamboo stick to push ink deep into the skin, drawing blood. With this simple technique, Whang Od creates meaningful geometric designs – but not without the pain commonly associated with modern tattoos.

Tattooing the future

Keeping the art alive is more complicated than it seems. The art can only be passed down to blood relatives, following the belief that the tattoos will become infected otherwise. Though she doesn’t have children of her own, Whang Od has been training her grandnieces Elyang Wigan and Grace Palicas for several years.

“[My friends who gave tattoos] have all passed away,” says Whang Od. “I’m the only one left alive that’s still giving tattoos. But I’m not afraid that the tradition will end because [I’m training] the next tattoos masters.”

Even though the art is in good hands, the centenarian doesn’t plan to go anywhere anytime soon.

Her secret to living to 100? “I don’t eat canned goods, foods with oil, foods with preservatives,” Whang Od says. “I only eat organic foods like leafy vegetables and beans.”