Taking Care of Whang-Od’s Tattoo

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:

  1. 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.
  2. A blog wrote and I quote, “she does not change the cloth she uses to wipe over the skin of those getting their tattoos”

(Source: https://theboringliar.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/what-they-dont-tell-you-about-getting-a-tattoo-from-mambabatok-apo-whang-od/)

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!):

  1. 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.

    kalinga tattoo

    Visual evidence of screaming like an idiot

  2. 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.
  3. 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.

    kalinga whangod

  4. 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:

    Day 2- Swollen and bruised

    Day 5 – Slowly starting to heal
    Day 14 – Looks better!
    whang-od kalinga

  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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)
  9. 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.

  10. 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.

Happy Ink-ing!

The master Whang-Od

The master Whang-Od

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.

39 thoughts on “Taking Care of Whang-Od’s Tattoo

      • Thank you. Just wondering, tinglayan is where Whang Od lives, and tinglayan is a part of buscalan? Sorry, got confused 🙂

      • Hi Rica, Sorry if i have to go to this again. I read some blogs and it said from Bugnay (jmp off point) it’ll take atleast 2 1/2 hours to trekk to Whag-Od’s place.is it the same road? 🙂

      • Hi Jo, the jeepney dropped us right at the area where one can start trekking (rocky / muddy road that snakes around the mountain) and the hikers with me were fast so I had to keep up with their speed. Maybe the rest were dropped of at the jeepney waiting area below the mountain. From there, it will definitely take time to trek to Whang-Od’s place.

      • That I’m not sure since I did not take that route. But I saw a jeepney from Bontoc pass by around 1pm so it probably left Bontoc around 9 or 10am

  1. Hi rica, just got my tattoo 9 days ago, it started peeling yesterday, is it normal that it looks faded? it almost grey-ish.

  2. Just got 2 tattoos 1 from grace and 1 from whang od. If anyone is planning to go, you can also take the jeepney from bontoc to buscalan which only takes 1-1.30 hours. they only have 1 trip per day. The jeep will park on the Bontoc University i think 🙂 at 12PM and leaves at 2PM. I think that is alot nearer than going to tinglayan.

  3. Hi Rica! Booked for the weekend to Buscalan. Yipee! Question though, how do we go back to Manila from Buscalan? Would you know the schedule of the buses going back to Manila?

    • Hi Roche! I left Tabuk around 5pm. I believe that there are 3 trips in the afternoon – the guides in Buscalan know the schedule so just confirm with them. If you are on a tight schedule, book your ticket once you arrive in Tabuk. What I did was, I asked a favor from the daughter of the guesthouse owner to buy the ticket for me because the ticket booths usually open late (and the jeepney to the mountains leave early). The ticket center is just across the jeepney stop in Tabuk. Goodluck!

      • Hi Rica, got a question po regarding sa design of the tattoo.. kc we’re to going whang od this end of april and off
        course getting a tattoo from her. Yun design bang tattoo is ikaw mamimili or si whang od na yun magbibigay nang design
        for you? hindi kc clear from the blogs that i’m reading, pero I want a small one lang…Hope you can help with this one
        Thanks in advance 🙂

  4. Hi Rica, got a question po regarding sa design of the tattoo.. kc we’re to going whang od this end of april and off
    course getting a tattoo from her. Yun design bang tattoo is ikaw mamimili or si whang od na yun magbibigay nang design
    for you? hindi kc clear from the blogs that i’m reading, pero I want a small one lang…Hope you can help with this one
    Thanks in advance 🙂

  5. hello im really worried about the cloth whang od uses in those tattooes, if im going to provide the wet wipes would she use it? planning to get inked next month and im browsing the reviews regarding with infections and stuffs. hehe thank you i’ll take note of these tips

    • Hi Ja, Yes just bring wet wipes and put it beside her. One of the travelers actually gave me the pack of wet wipes when she noticed that Whang-od kept on using the dirty one.

  6. Thank you so much for this very informative blog.. 🙂 I’m quite nervous about getting inked, honestly and I’m not 100% decided yet in whether I should get one.. I suppose I’d know if it feels right when I’m there, right? :p Moe power to your blog and Godbless! 🙂

  7. Hi! I want to know if she uses a new thing twig for person because I have read that she uses the same one and it is dangerous (HIV). I will bring my wet wipes. It will be my first tattoo, so i want to know how I have to treat it and the medicines. Is it possible to go in rainy season (july)? Thank you so much!

    • Hi there! I’m not sure if she uses a new twig. As for HIV, I’m sorry I cannot answer anything about it. If you’re worried, you can ask a medical doctor. After you get your tattoo, you can ask the people in the village for treatment options. In my case, after I got my tattoo, I put an anti bacterial ointment followed by petroleum jelly. This has been working for me but I’m not saying that it’ll work for you because our healing process differs. My suggestion is, talk to professional tattoo artists and medical doctors if you’re unsure so you’d know the best treatment option for you. Remember, a tattoo is a wound. So treat it as one.

      Also July is a rainy month. But it doesn’t rain all the time (unless there’s a storm coming). Just check the weather for updates. All the best!

  8. Nice blog. I hope your proud of your tattoo… Btw, i’m the one who created that tattoo aftercare card…

    More power!

  9. Hey Rica! Very detailed and helpful article, thanks for sharing! How long should you avoid water and sun with the tattoo? I guess it’s longer than with regular tattoos. Since will be travelling in the Philippines, planning a lot of water activities and beach time, so just trying to figure out how to plan my trip there. Thanks a lot!

    • Hi Natalie! Thanks for your comment. According to my tattoo artist, avoid Saltwater and sun for a month. You can double-check this with tattoo artists in your area also if you want. Have a fun time here in the Philippines and safe journey ahead 🙂

  10. Thanks for this. I just had my only tattoo last saturday from the tribe, since it’s my firts I’m not sure how the proper aftercare will be. This is so helpful.

  11. Actuall whang od and fangnod is both correct. As the locals also call her fang od. Nice article. The village is really worth falling in love with. Just hope that travelers realize their responsibilities to reapect amd keep the place sacred still.

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