Apo Whang-Od: Not Your Typical Vogue Cover Model

photo by Artu Nepomuceno

Apo Whang-Od is an internationally successful tattoo artist who uses the traditional tools of her culture’s trade. She is also 106 years old. She is also Vogue‘s most recent cover model. All of these things are surprising … and gratifying.

Audrey Carpio’s profile of Whang-Od for Vogue gives us a lot of background on the artist, her tattoo practice, and her impact on the survival of her art form. Whang-Od lives in Tinglayan, Kalinga, a small remote town in the Philippines, 12 hours of mountainous drive from Manila.

Whang- Od was 16 when she began her career as a tattooist under her father’s mentorship. The first and only female mambabatok of her time, Whang-Od would travel to far and neighboring villages, summoned by host communities to imprint the sacred symbols of their ancestors on individuals who have crossed or about to cross a threshold in their lives. 

For men, this meant being minted as a headhunting warrior. A bikking, a chest tattoo with patterns that crawled up the shoulders and down the arms, could take days to finish and would cost a large pig or several kilos of rice. Women were tattooed for different reasons, primarily for fertility and beautification. The tattooed elder women of Kalinga often say that when they die, they can’t take their beads and gold with them to the afterlife. They only have the markings on their body. 

Headhunting was banned by the American occupation of the Philippines in the early 1990s, and Carpio is careful to explain that it was a much more complex and nuanced practice than the word implies. She also relates the conflict between the local belief that tattooing was essential to a woman’s beauty and the American Catholic missionary attempt to both forbid the practice and make tattooed women cover their arms.

In the mid 2010s, however, Whang-Od, then in her 90s, picked the craft back up.

Mambabatok can only pass on their craft within their bloodlines, and Whang-Od never had any children of her own. Grace Palicas, her 10-year-old grandniece, was chosen to be her apprentice, though initially a reluctant one.

“I was the first child to learn how to tattoo. I just observed what she did,” Grace, now 26, tells us. “When I left for college in 2015, Elyang was next to learn so that she could help Apo when so many tourists were coming.”

We are at Grace’s house, where she and her 23-year-old cousin Elyang Wigan have been tapping ink into the limbs of a handful of visitors who arrived in Buscalan that morning. Afterward, the newly inked will walk a few houses down to where Whang-Od holds court to get her signature three-dot signoff, the only tattoo she does nowadays.

While Vogue traditionally features conventionally beautiful women, shown amidst an array of fashion and beauty tips and tricks, in this case they chose to showcase Whang-Od, not only because she is beautiful herself, but because she is a purveyor of a beauty art which has attracted both a significant base of customers willing to undertake difficult travel, and a revival of a traditional skill which could have been totally lost.

Grace and Elyang were the beginning of a strong resurgence of tattoo art, a generation of new mambabatok.

Like Grace and Elyang, [Emily Oggay] is part of the new generation of mambabatok—and there are surprisingly many, mostly girls and women. I counted at least 18 Gen Zers who had picked up the craft through observation and practicing on themselves and each other. Many of them started in 2018 after seeing the tourism boom and the long lines of travelers waiting all day for a session with Apo. At its peak, Buscalan hosted over 400 visitors a day.

Whang-Od herself clearly believes in spreading the art around the world: “When visitors come from far away,” Whang Od says in the Butbut language, “I will give them the tatak Buscalan, tatak Kalinga for as long as my eyes can see.”

In her closing, Carpio sums up her view of the experience, including her own tattoo and the photographer’s.

Culture survives through representation, not appropriation. The crab on my leg, like the freshly pricked trifecta of tattoos by the OG and her two main disciples on photographer Artu Nepomuceno’s arm, may not be the inheritance from our own blood ancestors. But we are now indelibly inked and linked to the last Philippine tribe that has managed to hold on to its tattooing heritage amid colonial erasure in the rest of the archipelago. And we carry these markings with us forward into the world…

And just so you know it’s truly Vogue, the article has two mentions of what Whang-Od was wearing, naming “her usual ‘accidental hipster grandma’ style.”

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Thanks, as so often, to Feminist Giant and their global roundup curator Inaara Merani for the pointer.

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