Skin talk in Kalinga - SunStar

Skin talk in Kalinga

Meeting Apo Whang Od, the legendary mambabatok who elevated tattooing as language and craft

Text & Images: Katrina Jaiun Roa


TRAVEL up to the north of Busculan, Kalinga and witness the thousand-year-old traditional art form of batok. Long ago, warriors or headhunters of the Butbut tribe earned their tattoos by killing their enemies and protecting their village. Whang Od has been inking headhunters, women of the tribe, and now tourists for over 80 years. The tattoo ink is charcoal tapped to the skin with a pomelo thorn. The long land travel is exhausting, but getting that ethnic Kalinga tattoo will be worth it!

Whang Od smiling

Why visit Kalinga?

The thrill of riding on top of a jeepney.

The mode of transportation from Bontoc to Kalinga is a jeep. If the space is cramped inside, it is the perfect opportunity to ride on top of the jeep! You will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Cordillera region throughout the three-hour ride. Bask in the green hues of mountains and rice fields down to the clear flowing rivers.

Trek to Busculan

Connect with the Butbut Tribe.

The villagers are friendly and accommodating. They greet you with a smile when you walk around the village. You can learn Butbut phrases from them such as “Whayu hughuicat,” meaning good morning or “Manjaman ah” meaning thank you. Local tour guides are very hospitable, just like Kuya Marcus. If you wish to travel to Busculan, contact him at 09984797760. His homestay costs P250 per night.

Locals of the Butbut tribe

Meeting Other Mambabatoks.

As she is getting older, Whang Od cannot accommodate that much customers as before. She has trained her grandniece Grace Palicas and bloodline success or Ilyang Wigan to continue her work. Both ladies are accommodating and precise to every detail in their works.

Grace Palicas – Whang Od’s grand niece


Getting Your Tattoo


Whang Od and her age-old craft

Choosing your design


From geometric designs to nature symbols, there are many designs to choose from. Each tattoo design has individual meanings like the “crab” that symbolizes a traveler. When choosing a design, choose the one that can perfectly symbolize you.

Charcoal ink and pomelo thorns
A board showcasing different tattoo designs

Enduring the pain

Without a doubt the process is painful. A pomelo thorn will be hammered on your skin that feels like multiple ant bites. For those who have low pain tolerance, take painkillers to ease the pain. You can take home the thorn used for your tattoo as a reward.

Relax after with Kalinga coffee

Kalinga coffee
After getting my tattoo

What better way to get rid of the pain after a tattoo session than by sipping a fresh cup of Kalinga coffee. Head back home and enjoy the cool breeze with a hot cup of unlimited coffee served at your homestay. Coffee beans are locally grown and harvested at their backyards. You can also bring home some Kalinga coffee at an affordable price.

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