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The Last Kalinga Tattoo Artist

The most authentic traditional ‘mambabatok’ artist in the world, a Catherine Lefebvre story

The Last Kalinga Tattoo Artist, The New Traditional published by gestalten, photo by Fred Wissink

Escape visual culture

Whang-od Oggay is the last traditional tattoo artist from the old Kalinga generation. This internationally acclaimed tattooist has single-handedly ensured the survival of her generation’s art for the next.

Whang-od Oggay has seen some changes in her time. The last of the ‘mambabatok’ kind, an elder tattoo generation of the Butbut tribe in the Kalinga region of northern Philippines. Believed to be more than 100 years old (her exact age is unknown, even to her), Oggay first started tattooing when the warriors of her tribe were still at war with neighboring tribes and returning with the heads of opponents they’d killed. Today, she’s one of the most venerated tattoo artists on the planet, and hundreds of people from all over the world swarm to her tiny mountaintop village every day, in the hopes of getting inked by a living legend.


The Last Kalinga Tattoo Artist, The New Traditional published by gestalten, photo by Fred Wissink

Oggay marks out the design for a tattoo using a straw and a mixture of soot and water. (Photo: Fred Wissink, The New Traditional)

Oggay employs a style of tattooing called Batok, or hand tapping. All tattoos hurt, but this is a uniquely painful method. The ink is made from a simple mixture of charcoal and water, which is rubbed onto the tip of a thorn plucked from a pomelo tree (the one behind her house in fact), and then vigorously hammered under one’s skin using two pieces of bamboo. Oggay draws her design onto one’s skin with a piece of straw and then needles it in at a rate of 100 taps per minute. Not everyone can handle it, but those who do are graced with perhaps the most authentic traditional tattoo in the world today.


The Last Kalinga Tattoo Artist, The New Traditional published by gestalten, photo by Fred Wissink

Nothing lavish or romantic, Oggay welcomes visitors into her small village where the tattooing takes place. A simple hand-painted sign informs visitors they have come to the right place. (Photo: Fred Wissink, The New Traditional) 

Oggay herself is a strict traditionalist. Though keen to ensure the survival of her art, she refuses to pass it along to anyone outside her tribe, because she believes that the practitioner must be part of her bloodline. Thus, she has only two pupils, Grace Palicas and Elyang Wigan, both grandnieces of Oggay and both eager to follow in her footsteps. A woman of immense beauty, Oggay’s glittering eyes, confident demeanor, and elegant full-body tattoos convey the strength of her people and the depth of her lived experience.


The Last Kalinga Tattoo Artist, The New Traditional published by gestalten, photo by Fred Wissink

Her success has been fundamental to the village's survival in modern society, the tourism trade allows the community to have a constant source of income while also respecting their centuries-old traditions. Here Oggay plays with local village children. (Photo: Fred Wissink, The New Traditional)

The Kalinga region is a land of thick jungles and layers of rice terraces carved into the mountainsides, but contrary to the natural beauty, the word Kalinga means “outlaw.” It is a testament to the region’s historic reputation as a place of danger and violence for outsiders. Through centuries of occupations of the Philippines, first by Spain, then the US, and then Japan, the region never fell to the control of colonizers. Oggay’s only romantic partner died during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines—since then, she never married or had children, instead of dedicating herself to tattooing.


The Last Kalinga Tattoo Artist, The New Traditional published by gestalten, photo by Fred Wissink

The simple tools of the trade: a tapping stick, a tattooing stick with a pomelo thorn attached, a ceramic bowl for ink, and a plastic washpot. (Photo: Fred Wissink, The New Traditional)

Though she rarely leaves her small, remote village of Buscalan, Oggay’s fame has traveled far and wide. Buscalan received 170,000 visitors in 2016, up from 30,000 in 2010. But the influx of tourists has not always been kind to the village. Litter is a problem, and Oggay doesn’t like people invading her personal space to take photos. However, she recognizes that her popularity has created a new economy for her tribe, and helped to ensure the survival of its traditional artwork, so she accepts the compromise.

Oggay’s fame doesn’t seem to preoccupy her though, nor does she seem to resent the grinding work schedule, tattooing seven days a week from eight in the morning until five at night. Carrying on the tradition is simply too important. “I have a great responsibility. With every tattoo, I am sharing a piece of Kalinga’s history and culture with someone new,” she has said, and she plans to continue until she loses her eyesight. Then, at last, she’ll rest and let others take up the mantle.

Delve into The New Traditional, a world of unique individuals preserving and reinventing traditions, available across Europe from March 17 and the US from May 12.The New Traditional published by gestalten