The Tattoo Practitioner of Kalinga


In a remote village in Buscalan, Tinglayan Kalinga in northern Luzon, Whang-ud, a 90-year-old tattoo practitioner (manbatok) resides and continues to practice an age-old tradition of tattooing (batok).




In the Butbut village, Whang-ud would sit quietly in her hut and would greet local and foreign visitors entering Buscalan. One could easily recognize Whang-ud with both her arms tattooed and gentle demeanor. Her tattoos are records of her life as a manbatok.  Tattooed at a young age with other young men and women, whose intricate tattoos functioned as painful aesthetics, markers of social status, symbols of their political, social and religious affiliation, ethnic identification, among others.

The tattoos (batok) have become a place-based ritual for this particular group. For Kalinga people, tattoos signify prestige, beauty, and honor. The distinct, symmetrical patterns are derived from their oral tradition such as in epics, cultural practices and the environment that they live in communion with their revered ancestors. A person that is tattooed becomes a full social person in Kalinga society.

Learning How To Tattoo
Tattooing in the past was done by a resident and or a traveling tattoo artist, the latter being able to travel outside the village to tattoo for a fee. This explains why there are similarities of tattoo designs in other Kalinga villages and other communities such as in Bontoc and Ifugao. In Buscalan, in the early 1930’s there was an older tattoo practitioner by the name of Whaggay from Ngibat, a neighboring village from Buscalan, that tattooed Whang-ud soon after her puberty age, when she also learned indirectly how to tattoo from constant observation.

In the past, tattooing was a specialist activity for men in Kalinga society. It was usually the men who tattooed the young men and women in the village, and the female tattoo practitioners were rare due to certain taboos. Furthermore, it was also difficult for young women to learn from male tattoo practitioners. The prominence of Whang-ud as a female tattoo practitioner in Butbut-Kalinga society is extraordinary.

To become a manbatok, one should be able to sustain the practice, as the skill requires depth and knowledge in tattooing. Whang-ud learned the meanings behind the traditional tattoos based on her culture and how these are passed on to her by her predecessors. She also observed the beliefs (paniyaw) and taboos (ngilin) associated with tattoos based on traditional customs.

Tattooing The Skin
Whang-ud is renown because of her stature as the oldest tattoo artist, the rarity of her designs and the traditional technique that she employs in tattooing. She would use the lemon thorn attached to the tip of the stick (gisi) as her main tattoo instrument, with a stick (pat-ik) that taps the gisi and pierces the skin to create the initial tattoo designs. For her ink, she would scrape the soot from an old clay pot or an aluminum pan and mix this with a little amount of water for the right consistency.

In the past, it would take a day to tattoo an arm, and another day for the other arm. Today, it would take an hour to finish a tattoo pattern. Traditionally, the tattoo designs are placed on the face, back of the hands, lower and upper arm, shoulders, back and on the legs. With the visitors coming in to the village, they are tattooed on the different parts of the body, mostly to reveal the tattoos as part of their individual identities.

Popularizing Tattoos
In 2009, the roads leading to Buscalan were widened, thus providing greater access to this once remote village. Soon after, tourists would come into the village to get tattoos from Whang-ud. Tourism has brought new livelihood for residents of Buscalan: opening their homes to lodgings, eateries and souvenir shops to cater to tourists’ needs. More importantly, the tattoos that were once abhorred in the past because of its association to headhunting are now being appropriated by the locals as part of their proud ethnic identity.

With the increased demand for tattooing, Whang-ud trained young women to tattoo. Foremost are Grace Palicas and Elyang Wigan who were the first young women mentored by Whang-ud. Currently, there are ten younger female tattoo artists from the age of 12 to 17 years old who are now tattooing the traditional designs on tourists. At the end of the tattooing session done by the younger apprentices, Whang-ud would tattoo three dots (tuldok) to authenticate the tattoo designs that serve as her “signature.”

The tattoos that were once held sacred by the Butbut have now become mere graphic decorations on the body as part of a personal or individual identity, and no longer place-based. The tattoo designs and motifs can now be tattooed on tourists with their personal meanings.

As Whang-ud remarks, the tattoos are the best remembrance that the people have received from her. In spite of her age, she said that she will continue to tattoo, as long as her eyes can see.

Share Your Thoughts

All comments are moderated

From The Same Issue

The articles and content about this issue

From The Same Issue

The articles and content about this issue

From This Topic

The articles and content about this topic

From This Topic

The articles and content about this topic

Filipino Focus

Common Joy

Explore Other Topics

Browse other coverage

Explore Other Topics

Browse other coverage


Presents, discusses and draws readers to reflect on issues of outmost relevance to the world today.


Very often, mission is carried out in frontier situations around the world. Those who embrace these situations have much to share.


Writer Ilsa Reyes will be exploring the richness of Pope Francis’s latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti with a view of helping our readers to get a grasp of the this beautiful papal document.


Puts to the front committed and inspiring people around the world who embrace humanitarian and religious causes with altruism and passion.


Focus on a given theme of interest touching upon social, economic and religious issues.


As the Philippines prepares to celebrate 500 years of the arrival of Christianity. Fr. James Kroeger leads us in this series into a discovery journey of the landmark events in the history of faith in the Philippine archipelago.


Aims to nurture and inspire our hearts and minds while pondering upon timely themes.


The large archipelago of the Philippines, in its richness of peoples and cultures, offers varied and challenging situations for mission.


Reflections and vocation stories that shape up the lives of young people.


As humor and goodness of heart are qualities of Christian and missionary life, the new column “Mission is fun” will be publishing some anecdotes and stories that have happened in a missionary context to lighten up the spirits and trigger a smile in our faces.


To help readers of World Mission live this year dedicated to Ecumenism, Interreligious Dialogue and Indigenous Peoples, Tita Puangco, writer and lecturer, shares in this section insights on the spirituality of communion.


A historic view of the Catholic movements that emerged from the grassroots as an inspiration by the Holy Spirit.


On the Year of Ecumenism, Interreligious Dialogue and Indigenous Peoples, radio host and communicator Ilsa Reyes, in her monthly column, encourages Christians and people of good will to be one with their fellow people of other sects, religions and tribes.


Questions to a personality of the Church or secular world on matters of interest that touch upon the lives of people.


News from the Church, the missionary world and environment that inform and form the consciences.


A feature on environmental issues that are affecting the whole world with the view of raising awareness and prompting action.


The editor gives his personal take on a given topic related to the life of the Church, the society or the world.


A monthly column on themes touching the lives of young people in the Year of the Youth in the Philippines by radio host and communicator I lsa Reyes.


A missionary living in the Chinese world shares his life-experiences made up of challenges and joyous encounters with common people.


Life stories of people who deserve to be known for who they were, what they did and what they stood for in their journey on earth.


Stories of people whom a missionary met in his life and who were touched by Jesus in mysterious ways.


Critical reflection from a Christian perspective on current issues.


Comboni missionary Fr. Lorenzo Carraro makes a journey through history pinpointing landmark events that changed the course of humanity.


A biographical sketch of a public person, known for his/her influence in the society and in the Church, showing an exemplary commitment to the service of others.


Gives fresh, truthful, and comprehensive information on issues that are of concern to all.


A column aimed at helping the readers live their Christian mission by focusing on what is essential in life and what it entails.


Peoples, events, religion, culture and the society of Asia in focus.


The human heart always searches for greatness in God’s eyes, treading the path to the fullness of life - no matter what it takes.


The subcontinent of India with its richness and variety of cultures and religions is given center stage.


The African continent in focus where Christianity is growing the fastest in the world.


Well-known writer and public speaker, Fr. Jerry Orbos, accompanies our journey of life and faith with moments of wit and inspiration based on the biblical and human wisdom.


On the year dedicated to St. Ignatius of Loyala, Fr. Lorenzo Carraro walks us through the main themes of the Ignatian spirituality.


Fr. John Taneburgo helps us to meditate every month on each of the Seven Last Words that Jesus uttered from the cross.


In this section, Fr. Lorenzo delves into the secrets and depths of the Sacred Scriptures opening for us the treasures of the Sacred Book so that the reader may delight in the knowledge of the Word of God.


Reflections about the synodal journey on a conversational and informal style to trigger reflection and sharing about the synodal path the Church has embarked upon.

Shopping Cart