What are some traditional Filipino tattoos
It’s the first Step in a time-consuming and sometimes painful procedure when the petite 103-year-old Whang-od breaks off a few long, sharp green thorns from a lemon tree. In a coconut shell, she mixes soot with water and sugar cane juice. This is what becomes the ink. This is finally tapped under the skin of a chosen one with a bamboo stick to which the thorn needle is attached. Point by point, the images of millipedes, lizards, ferns or other animals and plants are created.
The tattoo art of the Philippine ethnic group of the Kalinga and the hope of being stung by Whang-od have drawn thousands of travelers each year to the small village of Buscalan in the northern mountain regions of the Philippine main island of Luzon in recent years. At the moment there are no tourists due to the corona. Before that, they had traveled by bus from the capital Manila to Kalinga Province via serpentine mountain roads. The last part of the way has to be done on foot.
But tourists who made it here still need a bit of luck to really get a tattoo from Whang-od. “Apo”, the master, reserves the right to decide who she tattoos and which motif she finds suitable. Some days she's just too tired to do a tattoo.
Meaningful rituals. Traditionally, the tattoo played a central religious role in the Kalinga culture and their relationship with nature. The Kalinga are in contact with good ancestors and evil spirits, whom they can invoke or appease through rituals. Tattooing was and is therefore one of the most important and significant rituals.
Men originally got tattoos for military service. A warrior had to kill up to five enemies to be allowed to carry a large eagle on his chest; a symbol of power that should pass to the wearer.
Women wore tattoos that were supposed to grant fertility and beauty and marked the transition into adulthood. Even today the Kalinga wear tattoos. They stand for education, wealth or political power and continue to be an important and unifying symbol for members of this ethnic group.
Whang-od, who has lived in Buscalan all her life, is the last “Mambabatok” - tattoo master - of her generation. As a child she was one of the first women to learn the art of tattooing from her father.
Her legs are evidence of the exercises back then when she and her friends tattooed each other. While many then turned away from this traditional craft and left the village for more "modern" activities, Whang-od stayed with tattooing: first she also stabbed members of other villages, then other ethnic groups and finally she made this traditional art accessible to outsiders, too Tourists.
Internationally known. Whang-od has gained international fame over the past decade through visits from anthropologists and bloggers.
Those who are not stung by her can get a tattoo from one of 25 other tattoo artists who are now working in Buscalan during the high season.
At the weekend the village counted up to a thousand visitors. The residents offered beds, men worked as guides, women as souvenir sellers. A new road has been built to make walking into the village easier. Because of the lucrative tourism, the village, which now has a population of 1,000, has even recorded immigration from the valley regions in recent years.
But the development also brought problems: Villagers complain about the pollution caused by tourists. Fields that were previously used for agriculture are now fallow.
The new financial possibilities mean big changes for the way of life, especially of the younger ones who want to live in the village but not without cars, televisions and smartphones.
One thing is certain: Whang-od has revitalized the unique tattoo art of the Kalinga, its stories and meanings, and secured both its existence and income opportunities for future generations. Without her as her patroness, this might have been lost. How things will continue in times of the Corona crisis is completely unclear. Buscalan has to wait for the tattoo pilgrims to come back.
Leander Kränzle studies cultural and social anthropology at the University of Vienna. In 2016 he visited Buscalan and has since dealt with different cultures in the Philippines.
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