My Buscalan agenda had nothing to do with tattoos. All I could think of during the 10-hour bus journey from Manila to the Kalinga province were the rice terraces, the mountains, the nature trail and the fact that I would probably have to crawl on elevated, muddy pathways once again (I’m not a mountaineer and I love challenging/killing myself once in a while).
Getting a traditional tattoo from Whang-Od (pronounced as Whang-Od not Fhang-Od), known as “The Last Mambabatok” or the last surviving traditional tattoo artist who lives in Buscalan village, was purely out of the question for two reasons:
- One of the guests I met at the hostel showed me his 3rd day ankle tattoo from Whang-Od and what I saw was a disfigured outline covered in blood and pus.
- A blog wrote and I quote, “she does not change the cloth she uses to wipe over the skin of those getting their tattoos”
Why would I even put myself at risk? Even with 14 machine-made tattoos, I didn’t feel comfortable with the thought of having something “non-sterilized” enter my body because I might end up with an infection. So I made up my mind to only meet Whang-Od. No tattoos, just rice terraces, mountains, the nature trail and my lunatic attempts to be a mountaineer (on my own terms, that is).
But when I arrived in Tabuk, the capital of Kalinga province, my plan changed. While waiting for the jeepney ride to Tinglayan, a traveler named “J” asked me about the design of my next tattoo.
“No, I’m not getting one,” I said.
She replied, “Why not? You’re already here.”
WHY NOT: the mantra to every bold adventure.
These two powerful words resonated with me as I sat on the driver’s seat of the jeepney to Tinglayan and as I painfully traversed (with the assistance of my tour guide,Charlie, of course) the narrow path that snaked towards the mountain where Whang-od has lived for 98 years.
Yeah, why the hell not? If I wanted to trek, I could’ve gone to Pulag. If I wanted to see rice paddies, I could’ve gone to Batad…again! But Buscalan was about Whang-Od and a thousand-year-old tradition that glorifies Philippine culture before it was colonized. As for the infection, I didn’t shrug it off, but I already had a plan in mind to prevent it.
So when I finally arrived at the village, I decided to give it a go.
I met Whang-Od at the home of her sister’s granddaughter Grace (her protégé). It was almost 4pm, her cutoff time daily for tattoo sessions. She had no appointments that day so I was first in line.
Charlie spoke to her in their dialect, telling her that I was interested in getting a small tattoo. After hearing this, she immediately stood up and got her tools from a small, boxed space above an entrance way. She grabbed two tiny wooden chairs and told me to sit on one in front of her.
I couldn’t keep my mouth shut at first. I was nervous and talking was my way of calming myself down. I may be used to needles but I felt that what she was about to do was something different. So I pulled up my sleeve and made a sign of the cross (yeah, I’m Catholic).
Whang-Od took a thin twig, dipped it in liquid charcoal and drew a line on my bicep. She then took a stick with a thorn on its edge. After wiping the sharp edge, she started hammering away.
The first few strikes felt like ant bites but when she repeatedly hammered on the already pierced skin, I felt an excruciating pain that I have not experienced so far in my tattoo journey.
I couldn’t get myself to see what she was doing to my arm. It was only when she paused to get a line of wet charcoal that I finally made the attempt to look at my wound, which was covered in blood.
From her small plastic container, she took out what seemed to be used wet wipes. I tried to hand her a pack of Kleenex but she disregarded it. As they say, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
After a few minutes, I saw a perfect cross on my arm. I told my guide that I’m done and would like to end the session as I was exhausted but he laughed at my request and told me to trust Whang-Od. Obviously, the artist didn’t stop there. She continued by adding three more lines shaped like a lizard’s feet on each edge. At that point, I was already numb to the pain and I could already see my swollen arm taking each and every pounding.
The sun slowly descended behind the mountain and the breeze was getting cooler. It meant the last few hours before Whang-Od would retire to sleep. As soon as Grace came down to watch, Whang-Od stood up, an indication that she was done. I thanked her for her service and gave her my payment with a box of matches and two chocolate bars. They were enough to make her smile.
Now I have this beautiful tattoo on my arm. No pus or whatever. Why? Because I followed instructions and did my research. But I’m still sharing a few things about tattoo aftercare (please make sure to read the last part!):
- Traditional tattooing is painful but it depends on your tolerance. I know many others who felt nothing during the process. But since my tolerance for pain is low, I screamed like an idiot.
- Whang-od used recycled wet wipes. So my suggestion is, bring your own wet wipes. She will definitely use those but she will not use a dry Kleenex / tissue / toilet paper.
- Here’s a photo of the tattoo aftercare instructions practiced at the village. I know it doesn’t particularly say “apply antibacterial ointment” but I did put antibacterial cream (please ask your doctor about the brand) an hour after the session – most modern tattoo artists, however, apply the ointment right away after the session is over. This practice is highly suggested – already asked a doctor about it. Better safe than sorry. But of course, consult your doctor first, especially if you are prone to allergies or if you’re not fit to get a tattoo at all.
- The emphasis on keeping it dry is important. A tattoo is a wound and you should treat it as one. And because I took good care of it, it didn’t end up looking like shit. Below are a few pictures of my tattoo as the days went by:
- After applying the antibacterial ointment on the first day, I made sure to keep it free from bacteria by washing it carefully with an antibacterial soap (Safeguard – but not too much) on the 2nd day. I kept it dry afterwards and just applied petroleum jelly on a daily basis.
- My tattoo started to itch on the 7th day. This reaction is normal, but make sure to NEVER scratch it. Just leave it alone and continue to apply petroleum jelly.
- My tattoo started to peel on the 9th day. Again, this reaction is normal but don’t attempt to peel it. Leave it alone and continue to apply petroleum jelly.
- Don’t be an idiot by just leaving the tattoo without applying an antibacterial cream/ointment on it after the session. Also, make sure not to wet it completely with water. Don’t expose it to the sun as well. Lastly, as it heals, try not to engage in strenuous activities especially if it’s a leg or an arm tattoo (no basketball, football, and tennis for the time being)
- If you’re concerned about HIV, please read the following links:
The HIV Helpline
Brown University HIV and AIDS Information
If you find the information on the above links incomplete, it is best to consult your doctor as I’m not going to entertain questions about this particular subject matter.
- Know this, the healing process will depend on your body. I cannot guarantee that your tattoo will end up like mine in just a few days. If you are in doubt, it’s always best to consult your doctor before getting a tattoo. We are all different so how it heals will also depend on how we take care of it and how our body reacts to it. Read and do your research!
Support Whang-Od! The living legend! And soon to be (hopefully) National Artist.
How I reached Whang-Od’s village:
1. Kamias-Kamuning Victory Liner bus to Tabuk. Tell driver to drop you off at the Cathedral in Tabuk (700-850PHP)
Additional note if you plan to ride the first class Victory Liner bus: bring a winter jacket or a thick blanket because that thing is not a bus. It’s Alberta Canada disguised as a bus.
2. When you arrive in front of the Cathedral, look for the Mister Donut shop. Across it are parked jeepneys with a signboard that says “Bontoc”. Take that jeepney and ask the driver to drop you off at the landing point in Tinglayan (150 PHP)
3. From there, trek to the village of Buscalan
1. I stayed at 420 Friendly Guesthouse owned by the famous Charlie. No tripadvisor for it but I give it 4/5 for cleanliness and superb hospitality. Contact Charlie at: 0998-1888697. Prices may vary.
Best time to go: Weekdays. Avoid holidays like the plague.