Tag Archives: cultural appropriation

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.”


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

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Miley Cyrus: Dropping Your Baggage When It Gets in the Way


Miley Cyrus with rainbow dreads

Debbie says:

I don’t know as much about hip-hop as I should (and Laurie, who does, isn’t available). And I’m by no means a spokesperson for most issues of cultural appropriation. In other words, the blind spots, flaws, and misapprehensions in this article are all mine.

That being said, I was struck by Jagger Blaec’s recounting and analysis of Miley Cyrus’ recent style changes, published at The Establishment.

I remember (who doesn’t?) when Cyrus threw herself into being the (next) white girl who got Black music.

In 2013, also in Billboard, Cyrus appeared to have reinvented herself with a hip-hop persona almost overnight. Earlier that year, she uploaded a video of herself twerking to a dirty south rapper J.Dash’s song, “Wop.” This was our first official introduction to the new “ratchet” Miley, and with this transformation, she was convinced that she had abandoned her pop-star image, enough so that she started being referred to in mainstream media as as “The White Nicki Minaj.”

When Minaj called out MTV for rewarding Cyrus for appropriating black culture and mocking the bodies of black women everywhere, rather than nominating Minaj, a black woman, Cyrus took an #allbodiesmatter stance. “There’s girls everywhere with this body type,” Cyrus told the New York Times, right before calling Nicki’s grievance just another “catfight.” It was Cyrus’s frightened response to the “angry black girl” trope, which included Minaj’s now-infamous question [“Miley, what’s good?“] that some believe put an end to Miley’s “thug life.”

Hmmm. Nicky Minaj or Miley Cyrus? Never seemed like a difficult question to me.

Nicki Minaj

Jagger Blaec is less interested in Cyrus’s hip-hop star days than in her new identity reboot.

Miley Cyrus today

Cyrus is really trying to put that image to bed — but she comes off as the typical colorblind white woman who still doesn’t seem to get how she’s been appropriating black culture over the last several years. She calls the fact that she was called out for using black women’s bodies as props “mind-boggling” and denies any wrongdoing in “taking advantage of black culture.” …

Her comments reek of respectability politics and seem heavily coded in racism, with her cherry-picking negative stereotypes from the genre she poached the first time she felt it was time to re-create herself.

Throughout the entire article, she goes to great lengths to disassociate herself from behaviors that can be coded as “urban,” and her repeated usage of the word “roots” seems synonymous with “white.” She even boasts about how she was inspired to reach beyond what she calls “outspoken liberals” to “cultivate country fans and red staters” (a phrase that could also be read to mean Trump supporters).

You think? You think the country’s (basically mythical) turn to the right and emboldened re-embracing of racism might have something to do with Cyrus’s makeover? Cynic!

Blaec clarified for me an aspect of cultural appropriation that’s rarely identified, and even more rarely examined. What’s more, this actually works as a reasonably accurate litmus test, though of course there are exceptions:

Can you give it up?

We call our histories “baggage” because we’re stuck with them, for worse and for better. Entertainment history is full of stories of artists who have worked like demons to disguise something about their history: their skin tone, their gender, their speech patterns. Some have certainly succeeded, so we usually don’t know who they are or what they paid for hiding their history. Many have failed, and we know something about the pain of their attempts to hide themselves and the danger of being discovered.

If you can change your mind, move in another direction, leave a specific set of cultural tropes and identification behind, you’re probably engaging in cultural appropriation. If you can’t give it up, if it will travel with you wherever you go, if your choice is to embrace it or deny/sidestep/downplay it, but you don’t get to discard it, that’s your culture. In some cases, it’s a culture that you don’t own but the world will thrust upon you; in other cases, it’s the life of your heart.

Stuff you can drop when it’s inconvenient is not “baggage,” it’s luxury goods. Miley Cyrus, and all cultural appropriators would be well advised to pay attention to the difference between what’s ours and what we borrow at whim … and who suffers as we impulsively pick up and put down our toys.