Rich but vanishing indigenous art

ESSENCE - The Freeman

It was only two years ago that I heard her name. I first encountered her in Kara David's documentary film where the host had her personal experience by being tattooed. Early this year, I met a friend Yumz from Marco Polo Plaza Cebu that she had her wrist tattooed. And from an award-winning Cebuano film director Remton Zuasola when he showed me his arm with the tattoo and the thorn that was used for the tattooing and as if announcing to the whole world that he had accomplished an item from his bucket list. They all have been tattooed by Whang Od. And from then on, my curiosity grew as to how come they considered it as great accomplishment. There must be something different from their experiences.

And just weeks ago, the call was made for Mambabatok Apo Whang Od to be declared as a National Artist. The said call has been brewing over the internet. And to be considered is in itself a rare opportunity for a patroness of the art.

Tattooing at present is highly commercialized and in fact conducted in malls using the latest and more advanced equipment. Though for some it is perceived just for fashion statement or plainly a trend. And sadly for others, this thing is very much associated with those offenders-the prisoners in jails.

But the tattooing in Buscalan, Kalinga Province is merely using a thorn, bamboo stick and soot as tools-and almost a century's worth of experience. The process is a painful ordeal however once it is done everything can be a fulfilling and memorable one.

In essence, specifically getting a batek is a spiritual experience. Thus, those who have experienced it; they savored the moment, no matter how painful or uncomfortable it was.

In ancient times, tattooing used to be a sacred rite and tattoos were given only to the bravest men of the tribe.  Women also received their tattoos as a rite of passage. Tattoos were considered part of their clothing. Men considered women attractive. Men were considered handsome. They were brave warriors.

To them in the past, it is a sacred thing that can be passed on from generation to generation. When they die, they will leave their accessories but never their tattoos. But it is different now because it already with almost no significant meaning or just an ordinary body decoration.

As a tattoo artist, Whang Od is a living treasure, and she and other artisans of the mountain-dwelling civilizations deserve to be inscribed in perpetuity in Philippine history. It is sad that few people could propagate the art like she does. Also sad that few people understand the significance of these tattoo designs.

It is an art form that we can truly claim ours. And for Whang Od this is a legacy that she can leave to this generation and hopefully this generation shall recognize her feat as this brings pride to our unique culture.

The indigenous way has been practiced long, long time ago by our ancestors. But their number is dramatically decreasing and the new generation has not anymore finding it relevant to the present time. Long before when each village had a tattoo artist but now only one artist is left in every tribe.

Whang Od has taught her niece Grace the art of tattooing a few years ago but is unsure of whether Grace will continue the tradition. Training her in the art of tattooing is with the hope that she would really bring this cultural practice to the next generation. Whang Od's time on earth is very limited. She's 95. And she would later see her Master Artist.

Recognizing Whang Od as a patroness of the art is a recognition of the rich culture of this northern part of our country. Through this credit, we have put our history in a position where it should be. A place where we value our own identity.












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