Sat some ten hours from Manilla in rural wilderness is a tattoo parlour so renowned that hundreds of ‘tattoo tourists’ trek each year to get inked. The draw; a 97-year-old tattoo artist named Whang-od.
The Filipino spinster, who is also known as Maria Oggay, uses an ancient tattoo method called mambabotok that was first used to mark native headhunters and warriors to celebrate killings. While the brutal tribes modernised and the practiced died out, she has carried on the tattoo tradition, using the soot and charcoal from fires used for cooking and mixing it with water to make an thick black ink.
She then dips the thorn from a local pomelo tree into the mixture and hammers it into the skin using another tree branch. The thorn needle is changed for each new customer but she insists on using the same cloth to wipe away blood.
Finished tattoos can take several weeks to heal and often leave large holes in the surface of the skin. Despite the intense pain and risks of infection, the traditional tribal tattoo style has become a hit with thrillseekers looking for authentic designs, and she is now set to receive a National Treasure Award – one of the country’s most prestigious gongs.
She said: ”It is my destiny to live a single and long life.
”I have dedicated myself to the art of tattoos. I use the ancient mambabatok method. If it is too painful for people I stop.
”Many visitors come every day. I now have nieces that I am teaching.”
Whang-od regularly services dozens of tourists a week as well as natives. A minor industry with homestays and tours has even sprung up in Buscalan village catering for travellers and backpackers seeking out the ancient mambabatok style inkings.
Mimi Yako, who had a band tattooed around her forearm, said: ”For me, it was 20 times more painful than machine tattoos, and I’d like to believe I have a strong pain tolerance.
”I managed not to cry or scream though, concentrating on the plants around and savoring the feeling of what the elders in the tribes have felt.”
Whang-od, who also teaches nieces and nephews the family tradition, is now due to receive the country’s prestigious honour from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. The organisation said they believe she is the oldest tattooist in the world but as Whang-od has no birth certificate or official documents it could not be formally verified.
A spokesman said: ”Whang-od is the last traditional mambabatok tattooist from the region.
”We want to mark the achievement so that her achievements last forever. We believe she is the oldest in the world and deserves to be honoured.
”A program will ensure that her skills are passed on for generations to come.
The award is now going through process of validation under the NCCA. Documents will then be submitted to the President for approval.”