Getting a Buscalan tattoo from Apo Whang-Od? Here’s what I learned about Kalinga tattoo meanings in this weekend trip from Buscalan to Sagada.
Two things I want to be when I’m older: to be wrinkled and inked.
We never planned on getting a Kalinga tattoo. “Just because we’re going to Buscalan doesn’t mean we have to get tattoos,” we had said weeks ago. But on the very long drive to the home of Apo Whang-Od, we knew we probably won’t come back again soon.
By the end of our Buscalan to Sagada trip, our skins were forever marred by soot and blood from a Kalinga mambabatok (traditional tattoo artist). But there were no regrets. This was a much-awaited trip that gave us more than inks on our skins.
So if you’re wondering what to expect from a Buscalan trip and a getting a Kalinga tattoo like us, read on.
Long Ride for the Buscalan Weather and Coffee
Leaving late at around 10 PM, we traveled from Manila to Buscalan where the traffic delayed in our itinerary for 6 hours. The road to Tinglayan, Buscalan not for the faint-hearted — it involves hours enduring zigzag roads and dangerous mountain-side ravines that require skilled drivers to navigate. There are no shortcuts or direct flights here, so there’s really no other choice.
By sunset, we arrived at the jump-off point and commenced the short but steep climb to the Buscalan Tattoo Village. The path is cemented and staired, but it gave our knees and hearts a challenge. Along the way, we saw water streams, eroded soil, and trees. It was past nightfall once we got to our homestay, after seeing so many black pigs and children along the narrow paths.
Exhausted and hungry from the ride-and-hike, we were greeted by a thermos of Kalinga coffee and the cool Buscalan weather warmed by a bonfire of our homestay. Our home-cooked dinner did not disappoint (somehow, food always tastes better when in the mountains). We bathed in cold water and slept on floor mattresses, a welcome opportunity to rest.
By sunrise, the day for getting a Kalinga tattoo finally came.
My Buscalan Tattoo Experience
We descended into a nipa hut where two lady mambabatoks were at. Their names are Rhenalyn and Rhea. Though not the direct bloodline of tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od, I recommend them for first-timers like me. Their Kalinga tattoo patterns are clean, and their touch is light. Plus they change thorns per person. Sometimes, tourists have their Kalinga tattoos done by another mambabatok and have Apo Whang Od put her signature.
I requested to have my tattoo at my left inner arm. My chosen Kalinga tattoo design was called “prayer”, which looks like a community with a mountain range backdrop. Having had a tattoo before, the pain was more tolerable — but the position of my tattoo is on tender flesh. The “prayer” design wasn’t too intricate so it took me only around 30-minutes to finish. At a certain point, my ears rang from the constant drumming of the torn and almost lulled me to sleep.
After getting my Buscalan tattoo, we descended to the nipa hut of Apo Whang-Od. What greeted us were long lines and people arguing who should go first to take photos with the elder tattoo artist — at PHP 50 per person.
The commercialism was a bit disappointing, but I guess that’s how it goes for popular tourist spots.
Traditional Kalinga Tattoo, Pattern, and Design
Batok is a thousand-year tattooing tradition that is a bit more painful than modern methods. The ink used for Kalinga tattoo is made from indigenous materials. Inside a coconut shell is charcoal mixed with water inside pierced into the skin with a sharp thorn needle from a calamansi tree. The first bamboo stick is used for holding the thorn in place, the other is used to tap the first to pierce the skin.
A mambabatok often displays a wooden plank of Kalinga tattoo designs for visitors to choose from. These are symbolic tribal designs that are taken from nature, such as serpents, eagles, snakes, centipedes, and ferns. Perhaps the most traditional design is the lingling-o, which looks like the omega sign (or headphones, actually), meaning fertility. The fern tattoo is pretty popular with the ladies.
Some Kalinga tattoo meanings are more modern such as symbols for a “traveler”, “compass”, “prayer”, and even the arrow. Rhea and Rhenalyn even offered curved designs of “faith, hope, love” which I think is hardly tribal (it comes with a heart shape!).
Some of these Kalinga tattoo patterns are linear or circular. For linear ones, these are usually placed around the wrists, legs, or arms. Circular ones are commonly placed at the back of the neck or the forearm.
Apo Whang Od’s Signature and Other Buscalan Tattoo Artists
The artist is often as fascinating as the art. Apo Whang-Od is almost synonymous to the traditional Kalinga tattoo art, being considered the last mambabatok. At more than 100 years old, she still wields a strong hand for her craft. She has been tattooing the Butbut people of Kalinga since she was 15.
The mambabatok celebrates the victories of men and beautify women by tattooing, chanting, and fortune-telling. “Fatok” means tattooing women to show beauty and wealth, and the artist is paid with a piglet or harvested rice. “Fi-ing” means tattooing male warriors, as a badge of honor for protecting villages from enemies. Nowadays, there are no more headhunters to be tattooed.
Due to the long lines and the handful of tourists daily, Apo Whang-Od rarely does full-on Kalinga tattoos, let alone chant or do fortune-telling. Instead, she inscribes her signature consisting of three dots — symbolizing herself and her apprentices and grandnieces Grace Palicas and Ilyang Wigan. Though notorious to have lovers, Apo Whang-Od does not have a direct descendant.
Many say that she is the last mambabatok in the Philippines, though there are many tattoo artists not from her bloodline that are emerging. Perhaps it’s a form of tokenism or commercialism, but Apo Whang-Od’s choice to continue tattooing has helped preserve the thousand-years-old art. Millennials and foreigners alike remain mystified about it.
Kalinga Tattoo Meanings
When it comes to deciphering Kalinga tattoo meanings, it can be quite confusing as the tattoo artists themselves have adopted English and easily understandable names for each design. One has to do deeper research to truly understand what each symbol meant. It is recommended to read the book “Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern” by Lane Wilcken.
The following illustrations are from the Headhuntr page. Check out their merchandise:
Preparing for your Tinglayan, Buscalan tour
- How to commute from Manila to Buscalan. There are many bus operators from Manila that goes to Kalinga. You can board a Victory Liner or Florida buses bound for Bontoc, Mountain Province or straight to Tabuk, Kalinga then ride a jeep (located past St. William’s Cathedral) going to Buscalan. The roadtrip to Tabuk from Manila takes 10-11 hours and the fare is around PHP 700. From the jeep get off at Bugnay, which takes 3 hours with the fare at PHP 150. For convenience, you can book a reasonably-priced group tour.
- Recommended tour organizer. If you want to know the cheap budget tour organizer for Buscalan, send me a message.
- Kalinga Tattoo price. For linear tattoos, it’s PHP 100 per unit (mine is at PHP 400). Small, circular tattoos or stand-alone symbols are at PHP 500. Bigger and more complex tattoos are PHP 1,000. You can have many tattoos at one turn. Minimum creation time per tattoo is 30 minutes.
- Buscalan homestays. All accommodation in Buscalan Tattoo Village is via homestay. Hosts let you borrow their kitchen for cooking, a mattress on the floor with pillows and blankets (it can get cold), and showers. Message me via Facebook page to get updated private contacts of Buscalan homestays.
- Where to eat. You can cook food at the homestay, which means you may do your grocery shopping at Bontoc, Mountain Province before the assault to Kalinga. Water is also to bring essential even though you’re at a homestay, so that you don’t deprive the host of their own water supply.
- Best time to visit. Check the Buscalan weather before your Kalinga trip. Heavy rains can be dangerous due to slippery roads and landslides. Parts of the road already have loose rocks and other debris. If the Buscalan weather is bad, the steep trek to the village will be tougher and you may lose the mountain views.
- What to bring. Bring enough cash since you will be spending some getting a Kalinga tattoo. There are showers and electricity here, so just bring toiletries. However, cellular signals are zero, so save on battery and charge your powerbank.
- What to wear. Sun-proof yourself with sunblock, caps or hats, sunnies, and scarves (like mine from HeadWare). The weather is also colder than most, so put on sweaters, beanies, and boots — just not the urban fashion kind, as this is a remote village. Simple and functional clothing is best.
North Luzon Attractions
If you have any questions, send me a PM on Facebook. I answer everything!