I got inked by the world’s oldest tattoo artist

The first sound I heard upon reaching Buscalan was that of heaving and panting. A group of us had just completed a steep climb to the remote village, which is tucked deep into the undulating mountains of the Philippines’ Kalinga province.

But, like me, my fellow travelers didn’t make this 12-hour journey just for the breathtaking views of rolling rice terraces — we were there to meet Apo Whang-Od Oggay.

At 107 years old, Whang-Od is the world’s oldest tattoo artist. She’s been practicing “batok,” a traditional form of tattooing used by the region’s indigenous tribes, since she was just a teenager.

For over nine decades, she’s been hand-tapping tattoos inspired by agriculture and the local landscape. She has inked tribal warriors with elaborate geometric patterns and women of the Butbut tribe with symbols of fertility.

We were not tribe members, however, just determined road-trippers. Prior to the climb, we had driven for hours under the scorching sun, following road signs with printed photos of Whang-Od.

A sign welcoming visitors at the turnoff to the mountain village of Buscalan. - Girlie Linao/picture alliance/Getty Images
A sign welcoming visitors at the turnoff to the mountain village of Buscalan. - Girlie Linao/picture alliance/Getty Images

The centenarian’s fame draws a stream of daily tourists to Buscalan, spawning a burgeoning tattoo industry in this otherwise agricultural village. Across the mountain, about a dozen other (and significantly younger) villagers sat with visitors hammering away at symbols of mountains, ferns and snakeskin.

A local guide added our names to Whang-Od’s waitlist, and we wandered around the rest of the day, sipping on piping hot barako coffee. We strolled narrow alleys and saw the tattooist’s face on almost everything — from T-shirts to bracelets and coffee packaging — on sale at stalls around the village.

As our time slot neared, we returned to the waiting area, watching as the line slowly crept along. At this point, Whang-Od had been tapping out tattoos, machine-like, for hours, and I worried that she was overworking herself.

I was one of over a hundred people getting tattooed by her that day. Some were foreigners, while others were Filipinos from different provinces across the archipelago. Many were, like me, Filipinos by heritage who grew up overseas and were looking to experience our own culture first-hand, beyond the stories told by our parents.

Just before sunset, it was my turn to sit before Whang-Od, who was hunched over on a small stool.

Whang-Od hammers away on a visitor's arm. - Kathleen Magramo/CNN
Whang-Od hammers away on a visitor's arm. - Kathleen Magramo/CNN

I stared at her in awe. She was dressed in a loose, colorful tie-die shirt and bold patterned pants, her own tribal tattoos on full display. This was my first tattoo and I was nervous. But her wrinkled, bespectacled face softened as her red lips smiled at me kindly.

I handed her the tattooing instrument, which I had earlier purchased as a souvenir — a needle fashioned from a pomelo and attached to the top of a handcrafted bamboo stick. She dipped it into a mixture of coal and water. I quickly rubbed my forearm with an alcohol wipe and pointed to the place where I wanted my tattoo.

Within seconds she was hammering away. Her taps echoed — “tak-tak-tak” — around the makeshift shed outside her home. My arm bled and hurt like it had been pinched continuously at the same spot.

Enduring stigma

Batok, or indigenous Filipino tattooing, has been around for more than a thousand years. The elaborate designs once adorned both men and women, signifying everything from valor to strength and protection.

But the traditional art form fell out of favor, partly due to its association with the outlawed practice of headhunting (historically, men would receive chest tattoos after returning with the head of a dead enemy).

Buscalan is nestled among rice terraces and rolling mountains in Kalinga province, Philippines. - Courtesy Emmett Sparling
Buscalan is nestled among rice terraces and rolling mountains in Kalinga province, Philippines. - Courtesy Emmett Sparling

Landlocked high in the mountains, the Kalinga region remained effectively independent during more than 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, its tattooed warriors fiercely fighting off outsiders.

When American Catholic missionaries eventually arrived to build schools in the 20th century, village girls — who often bore tattoos symbolizing their coming of age — were forced to cover their arms with long sleeves.

Being tattooed came to be viewed as a mark of shame whenever villagers went to nearby cities, as urban Filipinos often considered the practice “backwards.” In recent decades, tattoos’ popularity among criminal gangs has cast further stigma on the art.

“Growing up in the Philippines tattoos were definitely frowned upon, especially for religious families, because of the negative connotations and the criminal association,” said Kent Donguines, the Filipino-Canadian director of an upcoming documentary about Whang-Od, “Treasure of the Rice Terraces.”

Portrait of Whang-Od dressed in traditional Butbut attire. - Courtesy Emmett Sparling
Portrait of Whang-Od dressed in traditional Butbut attire. - Courtesy Emmett Sparling

As I can now attest, this stigma lives on today. After seeing my new tattoo, my Catholic-raised father, who grew up in Manila, did not speak to me for a whole week. Seemingly unmoved by the story of my trip to Buscalan, he warned me I was living a “crazy life.”

But perceptions are shifting — and this may be thanks, in part, to Whang-Od.

Although known locally for decades, Whang-Od shot to fame after tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak featured her in the Discovery Channel series “Tattoo Hunter,” which aired in 2009. (The Discovery Channel is owned by CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros Discovery)

Word quickly spread. Travel vloggers, news crews and Filipino celebrities all ventured out to meet her. Whang-Od graced the cover of Vogue Philippines in April 2023, making her the oldest person to front any edition of the acclaimed magazine. Earlier this year, a former Miss Universe Philippines contestant, Michelle Dee, got inked by Whang-Od after competing in the pageant wearing a costume inspired by her tattoo designs.

Copies of Whang-Od's groundbreaking Vogue cover on display in Buscalan. - Girlie Linao/picture alliance/Getty Images
Copies of Whang-Od's groundbreaking Vogue cover on display in Buscalan. - Girlie Linao/picture alliance/Getty Images

The 107-year-old’s international renown has ignited a wider conversation about Filipino identity. Tattoo enthusiasts say her work celebrates aspects of pre-colonial culture, demystifying preconceived taboos and honoring batok as a mark of belonging.

According to folklore and Krutak’s research, the practice was passed down through families, but often only to the men. Whang-Od learned the art from her father who was considered a master tattooist in the region and saw potential in her skills.

The symbols she tattooed — ranging from geometric lines, circles, animals and tribal prints — all carried a specific meaning. Some designs represented the landscape, local crops (like bundles of rice). Celestial symbols and depictions of the sea have also been added to the list of designs.

Over time, her tattoos have also become symbols of peace. According to Krutak, who has studied decades’ worth of Whang-Od’s work, she has even inked neighboring tribes like the Bontoc, who were traditionally enemies, traveling (most likely by foot along dirt paths, he said) to attend their tribal ceremonies.

A black and white image showing some Whang-Od’s own tattoos. - Courtesy Emmett Sparling
A black and white image showing some Whang-Od’s own tattoos. - Courtesy Emmett Sparling

Changing traditions

Buscalan is still relatively untouched by modern conveniences. There’s no cellphone reception, though a handful of vendors instead sell Wi-Fi access to visitors (local tour guides use walkie-talkies to communicate). Most families still sustain themselves by growing rice.

But this rural area is — for better or worse — evolving as Whang-Od and her apprentices attract more and more tourists. During my visit, I passed a town hall meeting being conducted on a covered basketball court. A provincial representative told a crowd of elders that the village needed to track visitor numbers to determine how many new water tanks and garbage disposal areas should be built.

Krutak said a growing number of locals now make a living through tourism, though village leaders often tell him they should not forget that they are primarily an agricultural community.

“Their ancestors shed a lot of blood to protect the village at the top of the mountain, they put it there for a reason,” Krutak said.

Souvenirs dedicated to Whang-Od on sale in the village. - Girlie Linao/picture alliance/Getty Images
Souvenirs dedicated to Whang-Od on sale in the village. - Girlie Linao/picture alliance/Getty Images

Whang-Od often says that material possessions disappear when you die, but tattoos are the only things you can take to the afterlife, Krutak added, recalling his many conversations with her.

And despite Whang-Od’s impressive old age, she is not immortal.

The tattooist’s family has prepared a crypt for her, tucked away up the mountain, with a giant statue of her surrounded by photographs, awards and memorabilia from the thousands of visitors she has inked over her lifetime.

As Whang-Od sat before me, I felt myself holding my breath, struggling to find the words to communicate, despite us both being Filipinos. I speak Tagalog but she only speaks her tribal language and the regional language, Ilocano.

A placard hanging from the corrugated roof above us offered some help. Reading it I mumbled “manjamanan,” thanking her. I thought to myself that despite the decades between us, we were fortunate to spend those 10 minutes together, so I could experience this tradition passed down by our ancestors.

Photos, identification cards and other mementos left by visitors on the thatched roof of the hut where Whang-Od's grandnieces (and apprentices) tattoo. - Girlie Linao/picture alliance/Getty Images
Photos, identification cards and other mementos left by visitors on the thatched roof of the hut where Whang-Od's grandnieces (and apprentices) tattoo. - Girlie Linao/picture alliance/Getty Images

The tattoo she gave me is, these days, her signature design: three simple dots. With her fading eyesight and the volume of daily customers, Whang-Od has had to simplify her tattoos in order to see everyone.

“(My friends who gave tattoos) have all passed away,” Whang-Od told CNN in an interview in 2017.  “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 tattoo masters.”

The three dots represent herself and her two grandnieces, Grace Palicas and Elyang Wigan, both of whom she is training as apprentices.

To many, including myself, the dots can also be seen as ellipses, a mark symbolizing that the art and stories from her village will live on — that even when she passes away, this ancient art will be shared for generations to come.

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