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Whang-od Oggay: the world’s longest-lived tribal tattoo artist

Whang-od Oggay is now devoting her time to empower women from her tribe to learn the traditional tattoo technique.

In the middle of the heart of the jungle lives the longest-lived tattoo artist. With her hands full of tradition, she is the emblematic representative of the tribal tattoo of the Butbut people in Kalinga, in the Philippines. She is also the example to be followed by women who watch her create her designs in a handcrafted way, so as not to let this millenary tradition die and, at the same time, become independent women.

Whang-od Oggay is currently 105 years old; she’s had a life full of tradition mainly because for most of her life she has been dedicated to the art of manual tattooing. For nine decades she has lived and breathed this art that has positioned her as a living legend around the world. She is the last tattooist to hold the title of mambabatok, the name given to traditional tattooists among the Kalinga people.

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The Kalinga people

During 400 years of occupation by the United States and Spain, the Kalinga were one of the few peoples to stand firm in the face of colonization. Thanks to the bravery of their warriors, they managed to stay out of the foreigners’ domain.

Their warriors were essential for the subsistence of the people, and for that reason, they were constantly involved in bloody battles to defend their lands from foreigners as well as from neighboring peoples. When they achieved victory, they celebrated at night with rice liquor, drank from the skulls of their enemies, and danced to the rhythm of gongs made from human bones.

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In addition, the triumphant headhunters would attend the village mambabatok to get their Batok (the name given to the traditional tattoo). The artist would carve tribal symbols on their bodies as a reminder of their bravery to defend their people. In that sense, the number of tattoos was related to the number of victories experienced by the warriors.

The heritage of Whang-od Oggay

Nowadays, the traditional tattoo of the Kalinga has been changing little by little as their history changes. It went from being a symbol of war to positioning itself as a purely cultural emblem. Today the batuk represents unity, as the members of the indigenous people exhibit them as the pride of belonging. A concept completely contrary to the one lived in modern cities where the tattoo is the maximum standard of individuality.

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Whang-od Oggay, who was the first woman to be awarded the title of mambabatok, is also the last of her people to hold this title. Now 105 years old, she is responsible for keeping her people’s traditions alive through teaching. She allows young Kalinga women to approach her as she uses what nature gives her to create designs on the bodies of members of her people and now tourists as well.

With citrus thorns tied to a bamboo cane, Oggay draws intricate designs on her human canvases, using ink made from charcoal and water. Slowly, she taps the skin with a bamboo hammer, tapping the ink into the skin to shape her art. The women around her watch closely to keep the legacy of her people alive, as she becomes a symbol of empowerment for them on behalf of their people.

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Tattooing has become a strong tourist attraction, and both Oggay and her apprentices have become the main money earners for their village. Their art has helped them generate much-needed capital for their people, who now depend entirely on tourism.

Oggay believes it would be very sad if traditional tattooing died with her, so she intends to pass on her knowledge through observation so that in the future, the next mambabatok will be chosen. Only then will tribal tattooing continue to stand as the greatest legacy of the Kalinga people.

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Text courtesy of Ecoosfera

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