Apo Whang-Od, aged approximately 97, keeps a steady pulse and entrancing rhythm as she completes her tattoos. She is not only the oldest tattoo artist in the Philippines, but the only surviving Mambabatok (tattoo artist that follows the hand-tapping tradition) in the country’s Kalinga province.
The Last Mambabatok, a short film that is part of While I’m Still Here Legacy Project by Foster Visuals, takes us into the world of Whang-Od and her great grandniece, Grace Palicas. Her wrinkled hands and focused eyes demonstrate total control as she performs the ritual. “When you die, they will take away all your accessories,” she says in the video. “Only your tattoos will remain with you.”
The ink used is a mixture of charcoal and water, and is inserted in the skin with the broken end of trees or thorns. With extraordinary patience, Whang-Od produces beautiful geometric figures tap by tap. This method is slower and more painful than modern ones, but thousands of people travel to this tiny village every year for the experience of getting a tattoo by the village elder, who is quite possibly the world’s most hardcore tattoo artist.
Today, as younger generations turn away from the old ways, there seems to be little interest in learning this art. Tradition dictates that the knowledge can only be succeeded through lineage—luckily, Apo Whang Od’s great grandnieces are willing apprentices, and aspire to continue the work of their ancestors.
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