For long, Kalinga had been largely an afterthought among the heavyweights of the Cordillera – the rice terraces of Banaue, the hippie vibe of Sagada, and even the urban joys of Baguio. However, in recent years, the province has seen a surge both in tourist arrivals as well as international profile, mainly because of its tribal traditions.
Living in a landlocked province surrounded by mountains, the people of Kalinga have managed to retain much of their culture. A strong sense of tribalism still exists here, and members are very devoted to their clans.
Due to its relative isolation from modernity, Kalinga has managed to retain a number of traditional artifacts as well. The most popular is undoubtedly the tattoos, which used to adorn the bodies of the tribes’ warriors and headhunters. Mambabatoks, or traditional tattoo artists, would decorate the men’s skin with art inspired by everyday objects every time they kill an enemy. The more tattoos a Kalinga man has, the more revered he was in society. But as the practice of headhunting died, these tattoos have recently transformed into a popular artwork for tourists, who come in droves to have their skins inked.
And the most popular mambabatok is Apo Whang-od, who at 100, is the oldest living Kalinga tattoo artist. Apo has been tattooing people since she was 15. She has been a prolific tattooist that it’s common to see long lines of customers at any given day in the otherwise quiet village of Buscalan in the municipality of Tinglayan.
Today, Apo Whang-od is training a number of young women to ensure that the art of pagbabatok lives on even after she passes away. Two of the new generation of mambabatok are her grandniece Grace Palicas and Ilyang Wigan.