The houses in view, the sound of children playing outside, this couldn’t just be mirage. No, I was here. I had made it to Buscalan. I stopped to catch my breath and waited for Lotus (the lovely lady who became my ‘guide’ to this magnificent village). She walked me through the village of precarious paths, narrowly winding along the edge of the mountains, the tops of walls and sets of small steps built into the rocks. We reached her house and I was introduced to her husband, Sabadu. Greeted immediately with a strong locally grown coffee with heavy notes of chocolate, Sabadu then took me down to have a glimpse at the ‘tattoo parlour’.
There she was, Apo Whang-Od, 98 years old doing what she has done for the past 70 plus years. A master at the art of batok tattooing, known as the last of her kind although this is not entirely true. She had tattooed head hunters for most of her career from the time of World War II. The tattoos had many purposes once. Some showed the lives they have taken, some were symbols believed to give guidance and protection while all brought fear into the hearts of the enemy. Sadly though, the art of batok has been diminishing slowly out of existence over previous decades. Head hunting isn’t exactly in high demand any longer leaving this as a dying art. Luckily about 7 years ago a documentary had been made called the ‘Tattoo Hunter’ bringing knowledge of this beautiful form of tattoo to the world. Since then with growing popularity Apo Whang-Od has become famous throughout the Philippines and the art of batok tattooing is becoming revived.
I sat in silence and awe as I watched the master at work. Also becoming just as well known, continuing the legacy is her grandniece Grace. Only 20 years old she had been training under Apo Whang-Od for nearly 10 years. Grace brings new life to the art and with a modern touch as well. I could have sat for hours watching these two work away in the open air balcony-like room. The Cordilleras spanning the horizon, the cool mountain air flowing through. Something about this place, the village as a whole drew me in and I had just arrived. I was peeled away for dinner as the sun began to fall behind the mountains. Rarely will you receive your tattoo the day of arrival and knowing this dinner was on my mind. My turn was tomorrow.
The diet here was one of simplicity. Based around rice as the staple of any meal, a variety of side dishes could accompany. Apart from the rice, dinner consisted of boiled Napa cabbage and milkfish along with a broth, crated from these two items. Milkfish is the national fish of the Philippines. A smaller fish with a tender flaky flesh with great flavour and a ton of bones to pick through. Not the easiest to eat, but worth the effort. It was a delicious meal, basic as it was nothing was masked. You could really taste what you were eating, clean and fresh. The generosity was overwhelming offering whatever they had, nearly demanding that I eat more. “Eat, eat”, I heard numerous times throughout the meal. Breakfast was similar. Rice along with boiled radicchio, beans and tiny fried fish.
It was time. I shaved the bottom of my right leg and made my way down to beat any queue that might form. Shortly after Apo Whang-Od arrived with her coconut bowl of ink made of soot and water. The excitement was building as I knew this would be like no other tattoo I’ve received or probably ever receive again. I watched her prep the orange thorn that was used as the needle, pushing it through the soft bamboo rod and testing it on the back of her hand. Content with how sharp it was she directed me in the placement of my leg. I was getting the traditional centipede design wrapped around my ankle. Using a rice frond coated in ink to make the stencil, she placed the first line around my leg. Putting some additional ink on the tip of the thorn she went to work, doing what she had known for years.
As a visual it looks nothing but painful, watching it is daunting. Surprisingly enough it wasn’t that bad, well at first. I guess it all depends on each individual’s pain tolerance. It was a different pain, but didn’t find it any better or worse than a regular machine or bamboo. It was a pain I enjoyed. While it is definitely a slower process, it requires an extremely steady hand and eye to continuously tap the thorn into the correct spot. The thorn picking up the skin nearly each time it was driven in placing the homemade ink underneath. Apo Whang-Od worked quicker than I expected the tapping almost becoming meditative.
She had moved on to the legs of the centipede truly driving the ink in deep making its permanence a certainty. Blood had begun to pour out of the miniscule wounds that surrounded my ankle, some spurting as if popping a blister. I turned as she began work on the head and tail. No longer able to watch the almost gruesome work being done, I knew it was coming to an end. After nearly two hours it was a bittersweet feeling. One yearning for the last tap through my skin, yet never wanting it to come. As she went over it for her final inspection and wipe of blood, she added her signature. Three dots underneath and it was all over… for a few hours.
As I stood placing pressure on my leg again, there was an unexpected throbbing. The blood rushing to the thousands of pin pricks in my leg. I kept off it while I ate lunch and waited for Grace to receive my second batok tattoo. After running to the nearby tree to grab a couple more thorns, she was ready to go. She began stenciling the first eight diamonds of the python’s body. Immediately I could tell she had a gentler tap than that of Apo Whang-Od. Finer more precise lines as she went about her work. Some say she is better now, but I don’t necessarily agree. Just a different approach to an age old art. It would have been less painful, but the area was sensitive and raw already from having the previous one done a mere couple hours prior. Each tap was intensified. Even though the pain was becoming immense as we rounded into the fifth hour I still oddly wanted it to go on.
Darkness neared and with it the inability to continue work with it. Underneath torch light the last few taps were placed and it was officially all over. After she had wiped it down with baby wipes and placed a coating of coconut oil on it, she gifted me with not only the thorn used which is often done but the bamboo rod she had used as well. I got a photo with both Apo Whang-Od and Grace before heading back for dinner. My last night in Buscalan before I went back down in the morning. I only wish I was able to leave something as precious as what they had given me. Guidance and protection. As I write this I already have plans to return and can’t wait for the day I’m climbing back up. I’ll see you soon Buscalan!