Meeting Apo Whang Od and My First Kalinga Tattoo


  1. Page 1 – Morning in Tabuk City
  2. Page 2 – Top Loading Kalinga Style
  3. Page 3 – The Hike to Buscalan Village and its Utter Danger
  4. Page 4 – The Butbut Tribe and the last Mambabatok of Kalinga
  5. Page 5 – A New Morning, A New Life

The Butbut Tribe

Buscalan Village has a mountainous topography surrounded with breathtaking views, cool air and green foliage.

Beautiful mountainous topography of Buscalan

The people living in this place are known as the Butbut tribe. These people have the reputation as the strongest in Cordillera. They are feared because of their unwavering skills in headhunting. Leadership is gained through kinship and headhunting. In fact, the word Kalinga came from Gaddang and Ibanag word which means outlaws or headhunters. Their main livelihood is farming and they incorporate traditional dance and music for thanksgiving and cultural preservation.

Highlighting this trip is their unique way of tattooing known as the art of batokScholars believe that this practice has been existent for thousand of years; passed on from one generation to another. Currently, we only have one tattoo artist left, and that is Apo Whang Od.

The art of batok is used as a form of recognition based on the achievement of a certain tribesman. There are tattoo designs which implicates the number of heads taken from enemies. The process itself is also sacred, and this kind of practice is only passed on through kinship. Presently, Apo Whang Od is apprenticing her grand niece, Grace.

Meeting Apo Whang Od and my First Kalinga Tattoo

We had our lunch at Bulut’s abode and stayed there for the rest of the trip. Their huts were made with a mixture of both concrete and wood fortified to withstand the angst of nature.

Our bedroom in Vista Guest house in Buscalan, Kalinga

Our room was located at the second level of their hut which is purely made of wood. It can accommodate up to 2 people, and our bed consisted of a thin yet comfortable mattress, a pair of pillows, and blankets.

Bulut resting in their abode

Resting in Vista resthouse in Buscalan Kalinga

A balcony sits in front which lets you view the beautiful scenery of green rice terraces and mountain range.

Words of gratitude in Vista Resthouse in Buscalan

I observed a number of words and phrases written in their wooden ceiling; expressing gratitude from their past visitors. Bulut’s family is very accommodating, and they kept on offering their signature Kalingan coffee. Savoring that hot brewed coffee while letting your eyes awash with the beautiful view, truly mends our tired body and soul. It was a peaceful moment. No noise coming from vehicles, no pollution, and no stress; just peace.

After our quick lunch and bath, Bulut guided us to Apo Whang Od’s hut. As we arrived in Apo Whang Od’s home, there were a few travelers staying in the place.

Grace giving a tattoo to a traveler
Grace (Apo Whang Od’s grandniece) inking a batok to a traveler.

I saw Grace inking a tattoo to a handsome young man in his left thigh. I observed how tedious their tattoo process is. Grace was holding a piece of bamboo stick with a tree thorn of pomelo attached at the end on one hand, and another piece of stick on the other. The second stick was used for tapping the bamboo with the thorn impaling the skin continuously. They use soot as their ink, and after the tattooing process, they will apply coconut oil in the skin.

Apo Whang Od

Apo Whang Od

The process is painful, and I observed it through the grimaces and facial expressions of the people having this kind of tattoo.

After a few minutes, I heard a voice of an old woman. Suddenly, I saw Apo Whang Od speaking incessantly in Butbut dialect. I stood aghast when I saw her, and I was filled with goosebumps all over. I only saw her in photographs and videos but this time, I saw  her right in front of my eyes. At 100 years old, she’s still full of strength, and she walks easily with no pain.

I learned that Apo Whang Od can only speak Butbut and know a few Tagalog and Ilocano words. That was why, Bulut was there to translate the words we said. When I’m about to receive my tattoo, I greeted her with a simple Ilocano phrase. “Naimbag nga malem apo!” (Good Afternoon Apo!) I said. She looked at me and her lips broke into a smile. I think she understood me, and with that simple gesture, we had a connection.

Traditional Tattoo designs in Kalinga

I told her and the other travelers that I dreamt Apo Whang Od one night, and she gave me the hawk tattoo. One local told me that the hawk symbolizes freedom and as a messenger.

Ang Batok

Steps or Process of Batok in Buscalan Kalinga

Apo Whang Od seated facing my back and prepared her equipment. She started the process by outlining the design on my back with a piece of dried grass soaked with ink. When the outline was done, she began hammering her tool.

Steps or Process of Batok in Buscalan Kalinga

With every tap, I felt the thorn impaling deeply into my skin and it was painful. Thankful I have high tolerance in pain, and I was able to endure it. I also felt my blood dripping on my back during the process.

Apo Whang Od giving batok

There were a number of times she paused and swiped my dripping blood with a piece of wet towelette.

Steps or Process of Batok in Buscalan Kalinga

She hammered silently, and I felt every prick and stick solemnly. I considered this tattooing experience as a reward from the long and arduous ride going to their beautiful village.

Apo Whang Od

Apo Whang Od

Hawk traditional tattoo in Buscalan Kalinga
Newly inked Batok representing a hawk which symbolizes as a messenger.

After half an hour, my tattoo was finished. Bulut helped Apo Whang Od by applying coconut oil on my newly inked tattoo. “Agyamanak, Apo!” (Thank you Apo) I told her, while feeling the pain of my new batok. Again, she smiled subtly and proceeded to do the next traveler.

Newly inked batok in Buscalan Kalinga

Many travelers went towards me to look on my new tattoo. Their eyes grew in wonder and I shared the random feelings I felt during the process. Other travelers also shared their newly inked tattoos from Grace and I was astonished on its meaningful geometric  shapes and figures.

Apo Whang Od giving tattoo

Scorpion traditional tattoo in Buscalan Kalinga

Around 1630H, the wind started to become colder, and Apo Whang Od started to shiver. Randy was the last person to get a tattoo on that day, and he received the scorpion tattoo; which symbolizes strength. After the tattooing session, we went back to our abode and rested.

Next Page: A New Morning, A New Life


16 thoughts on “Meeting Apo Whang Od and My First Kalinga Tattoo

  1. Such an interesting read. Philippines indeed seems to have a lot to offer. I am not into getting tattoos but I have friends who are crazy about it. I think I should pass on this piece of information to them


    1. Yes please! Share this story with them, I know they will like this a lot since it’s an interesting type of tattoo.


  2. Wow!! This is always in my list. Though part of my is hesitant with getting a traditional tattoo…but still looks cool.


    1. I was also hesitant at first but I gave in anyway. 🙂


  3. I’m really interested in meeting Apo Whang Od. She’s been all over the media. Even famous people go there to get a tattoo. I hope that tour guides won’t exploit her. It’s sad when the beautiful culture gets commercialized.


    1. Don’t worry Karla, most of the tour guides originate from Buscalan itself and they are committed in preserving their culture and tradition like what most people in the north do. Go and visit her, you’ll surely have a wonderful adventure in Buscalan 🙂


  4. Quite a read that was. I have been reading some amazing posts about the Philippines. I m not a great fan of tattoos but I definitely love any form of art. So, it was a revelation for me to know about the legendary tattoo artist Apo Whang Od. I would definitely love to visit her once- not to get tattooed ( they are not for me 🙂 ) but to witness her revered art.


    1. Yep, you can visit their village and watch her do the tattoos. It was an interesting watch too, you’ll get to know about their culture and way of life.


  5. Wow this is a really interesting post. I had no idea about these tattoo artists. She seems so fit and can’t believe she’s 100 years old :o. Also that tattoo process looks painful but all worth it. And such a beautiful place too!!


    1. Hey Karie, I was also amazed on their fitness level. I saw one elderly, I think around 80s, she still manages to climb that 1000 flight of stairs going to the village without any effort. They’re all amazing. About the tattoo, yes it is painful! Haha. Good thing my pain tolerance is high, I was able to endure it. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is not just long but a very very long; extensive post. The Philippines is high on my list. Your hike seems quite tough and equally adventurous too. I am glad to know about the living legend Apo Whang Od.


    1. Thanks for patiently reading this travel story, together with your family, I think the best place to visit is El Nido, Palawan where you can find the best islands of the country 🙂


  7. Very elaborate post. I have been reading Philippines has numerous varieties of activities.
    Good to know about the living legend Apo Whang Od


    1. Hey Indrani, Apo Whang Od is considered a living gem in the Philippines because she’s the only person who knows the process of batok. Good thing she already taught 2 apprentices, her grand nieces. If you have time, you can visit this place and it is totally worth it!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is a great, in-depth post. I’ve never been to the Phillipines, but one day hope to. The hike you did especially caught my interest, although it sounded a little dangerous. It’s always good to complete a challenge though when travelling.


    1. Hey Tanya! The Philippines is truly rich in culture specially in the northern part of Luzon islands wherein you’ll meet endless mountain range in the horizon. It’s dangerous yep but sometimes, the best adventures and memories are found on the other side of danger. 🙂


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