Skindigenous S01 E01 Philippines: Whang-Od Oggay

In episode one, Skindigneous visits the Philippines and Whang-Od, the Kalinga tattoo master. As I review each episode I will try and give you a little bit of historical information about each artist and their ancestral tattooing tradition. I will also be sharing some of my favourite quotes from each episode.

Whang-Od says, “I’m glad that people from all walks of life visit our village to see our tattoo-making tradition.”

A large portion of the information in this blog comes from Lars Krutak’s large book that is filled with pictures and a ton of information entitled Kalinga Tattoo: Ancient and Modern Expressions of the Tribal. Check his website for your copy I have a link at the bottom of this post.

Here is a little background historical information on tattooing in the Philippines and Whang-Od.

In the Cordillera mountain region of Luzon province of the Philippines lives Whang-Od, who is thought to be 100 years-old. She is known internationally as the last of the Kalinga Mambabatok (tattoo artist), she began learning her trade at the early age of 10, from her father Oggay. Whang-Od lives in the village of Buscalan which is located on the Southern edge of Kalinga territory, even though no tattooed warriors remain in this village it boasts a large population of tattooed Kalinga women. Despite Whang-Od’s increasing age there is hope for the future of Kalinga tattooing through Whang-Od’s apprentice Grace, a tradition which is believed by some to over 1000 years old. Up until recently Whang-Od would daily take the long journey Lars describes as beginning with descending:

some one-thousand stairs that shimmer in morning dew, passing waterfalls and lush foliage in her worn out flip flops that have lost their treads. After reaching the river, she heads two miles upstream on a series of treacherous and muddy footpaths that eventually lead to her family’s rice terrace. She works all day until the heat of the afternoon sun drains her strength, and just after 4pm the trek back up the mountain begins. Now, Whang-Od has a twenty-kilogram basket if rice attached to her forehead with a tumpline (182).

Early depiction of tattooing of the Philippians.

The geographical isolation created by the height of the mountains found in the Cordillera range and long distances needed to reach Kalinga territory have been responsible for the success of Whang-Od’s ancestors to be one of the only tribes to not come under direct foreign rule. Despite the Philippines being under foreign occupation for over four centuries starting with the Spanish, then the United States and for a brief time the Japanese.

Image of Buscalan found at

Skindigenous as a TV series has done an amazing job of placing Indigenous cultural tattoo practitioners within our geography and place. This episode shares breathe taking views of the Cordillera mountain region.

The marking of Kalinga bodies with tattoos have always worked to communicate many forms of information, “including tribal affiliation, maturity, status, as well as cultural pride and artistic ability.  As a cultural practice deeply rooted within the memory of ancestral life, tattooing also embodied personal, social, spiritual and metaphysical values through a wide array of visual symbols that were ultimately derived from nature” (Krutak 98). Batok (tattoos) operated as a process that moved young children from girl to women and boys to men. Tattooing of women happened before and or after menstruation and some elders have reported that they were tattooed between 13 and 15 years old. Lars Krutak says:

There is, evidently, nearly complete agreement that a woman’s tattooing permanently marked her movement from one stage of life to the next. From puberty to adulthood, batok worked to ascribe female identity and personhood through a series of highly personal and painful transformations that were believed to increase a woman’s fertility and provide long and lasting life (48).

A Kalinga woman ornamented with agate beads, earrings, and tattoos.

Dozier reports that women had, “the privilege of being tattooed whenever a male relative received his tattoo. Since all regional members are considered related, a woman is always able to find some tattooed male relative who gives her the right to be tattooed [Dozier 201] (Salvador-Amores 117). There was great social pressure to be tattooed and a desire to not be labeled “different,” if a women was not tattooed. In many cases women who refused to be tattooed were said to be barren.

A tattooed Kalinga Igorot woman in traditional clothing and jewelery.

Tattooing of men in the Cordilera and in the Philippians was closely associated with the headhunting and the life of a warrior. Lars Krutak asserts that headhunting was undertaken to:

defend their families and clans, and to honor the traditions of their forefathers. But it was also employed to resolve inter-tirbal disputes over regional or village boundaries, unfulfilled penalties for the breaking of peace pacts (bodong), the acquisitions of agricultural, fishing, or hunting territories, and to satisfy psychological needs including revenge for killings or to end ceremonial period of mourning (47).

Tattoos were not solely in connection with headhunting but symbols of valor and could be won displaying courage in battle. A man of the Kalinga could not be ensured a suitable marriage partner until he had participated in battle. Headhunting was practiced up until the second world war when Kalinga warriors fought against the Japanese which occupied Northern Luzon Province. In the 1940’ s the government and church outlawed headhunting which lead it is decline and eventual disappearance.

In the early American period Worcester characterized the Kalinga as uncivilized, “wild men” of “No Man’s Land” who, as “inveterate headhunters” in constant search for human trophies (Krutak 46). His words and images were used to justify the Kalinga’s need of, “American assistance to help transform them into managed civilians. After all, he noted, the “name Kalinga, which means ‘enemy,’ is applied to th[ese] people of a sharply marked warlike tribe” (46). Lars Krutak points out that, “instead, Kalinga elders interviewed about 1920 stated. “We are tagu (‘men’) and iluta (‘people of the earth’)” (46).

Tattooing was also used for medicinal  purposes, to ward off disease, tattoos of this nature would be placed on body parts that were in need of healing. Margo DeMello states that, “neck tattoos, for example, could cure or ward off goiter. For women, centipede and python tattoos could bring fertility and prevent aging as well” (337).The snakelike tattoo patterns on the skin were said to have protected the bearer from cholera and malaria. For warriors the tattoos where for protection. Tattoos articulate,”ambaru, the Ilubo concept of beauty. Young men or women become ambaru (beautiful) when their bodies are tattooed. Tattoos make the males mangkusdor (handsome and strong) and the females, bumaru (beautiful)” (125). Many Kalinga’s aspired to include patterns or images that would make them ‘stronger’ or in the case of men add to their predatory ‘power’. Several types of these magical tattoos were drawn from a pool of scared insects and animals called ‘companions’ or ‘friends’ (Krutak 98)

The tattooing tool that has been used by many Kalinga Mambatok is called kisi, this, “tattooing tool consists of a piece of carabao (water buffalo) horn bent by fire resembling the letter L It holds a single row of four or five razor-sharp thorns or needles in its head” The mambatok would tap the design which had been either drawn on or stamped on using a premade stamp of the design. Natividad Sugguiyao shares with us a interview he had with his aunt Luna:

My aunt Luna also related to me how she prepared for her batok sessions. She said she would wait for a storm and gather pieces of pinewood washed down the river. After cutting the pinewood pieces in a special way, she would start to a fire under a broken clay pot. The fire produced a lot of soot on the pot, which she would carefully dust off with a feather until a fistful was collected. With the help of her family, she would add a little sugar cane juice to the soot and carefully wrap the mixture in green taro leaves and dry them on the suugan (a suspended wooden frame used to smoke meath above the hearth) until the contents of the packet became like powder. It is said that the sugarcane juice would produce a shiny and darker shade of tattoo. The tattoo artist 9mambabatok) used the gisi to tap the ink into the skin. The gisi (or kisi) is a general term used to refer to the tapping instrument where the needle is anchored. The base handle is usually constructed from water buffalo horn bent by fire and the traditional needle could be made from the claw of a bat or a thorn from a citrus tree. (Krutak 36, 37)

Lars Krutak shares about the tools that Whang-od uses when he says, “Whag-Od keeps her tattooing tools under the floor boards of her stilted hut. Her hand-tapping kit is comprised of a coconut bowl to mix a pigment of soot and wat, an orange thorn needle (lasi) that is attached to the end of a small bamboo stick, and anbother short stick used to tap the thorn into the skin, She told me her father used a different tool called a kisi or gisi which was a water buffalo horn bent by the fire that held four razor-sharp needles at its base” (114).

Whang-Od being interviewed. Picture from

Lars states, “Tattooing was a natural language of the skin that gave voice to the ancestors and their descendants who attempted to emulate them by sacrificing their own bodies to make them more lasting and sacred” Many tattoo patterns could and would be read by the warrior class and the rest of the community. Salvador-Amores says that, “the batek of the Kalinga are known for their symmetry and elaborate tattoo designs (109).

An ornately tattooed Kalinga chief and headhunter. Charles Martin: National Geographic

For hundreds of years, the Kalinga have overcome deadly colonial and tribal conflicts that threatened their security and survival in an unkind wilderness. Moreover, Christian evangelization profoundly altered their spiritual and social outlook, and new colonizers in the form of transnational logging, mining, and hydroelectric corporations threaten to usurp ancestral lands that have been, as one elder reported, nourished by our blood (Krutak)


As we return to the Skindigenous episode it is exciting to see how this powerful tattooing tradition is continued in the little village of Buscalan. Whang-Od shares how life in Buscalan has changed for the better with the influx of tattoo tourists, with local community members working as guides, providing food and shelter etc. I think this episode paints a beautiful portrait of Whang-od’s personality, including her intoxicating sense of humor.

This episode includes the tattoo journey of Nanette Maranan Green as she rediscovers who she is as a Filipino who grew up in Detroit Michigan.

I got goose bumps when Nanette shares, “history, museums, can’t do this justice. This is really how they did it, and now I did it. I am a part of it!”

Works Cited

DeMello, Margo. Inked Tattoos and Body Art Around the World. vol. 1, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2014.

Krutak, Lars. Kalinga Tattoo: Ancient and Modern Expressions of the Tribal. Munich: Edition Reus, 2010.

Salvador-Amores, Analyn Ikin V. “Batek: Traditional Tattoos and Identities in Contemporary North Luzon Philippines.” Humanities Diliman. 3.1 (2002) 105-142.

Check out a short run down of my episode here:

Update on Skindigenous TV Program on APTN

You can check out Skindigenous the Series in Canada at:


Check out Lars site and pick up some of his books and find updates about his speaking schedule and new publications.

Lars Krutaks Website 

Stay tuned for the upcoming posts.

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