Vogue Philippines launched its beauty issue for April featuring on its cover page the famed Maria Fang-od, more commonly known as Apo Whang-Od – the celebrated last mambabatok of her generation. Also called Maria Oggay, she is believed to be the magazine’s oldest front-page model at the age of 106, and is one of the few Vogue lead covers to come from an indigenous group.

This elder of the Butbut tribe of Buscalan, Kalinga has been perfecting the art of hand-tapping tattoos on the skin since her teens, under the guidance of her father. She uses a stick with a calamansi thorn placed on the end as the needle, soot mixed with water and sweet potatoes mashed as the ink, a blade of grass to sketch the design on the skin, and another stick to tap the needle.

As mentioned in the Vogue Philippines cover story, the spirited centenarian was also hailed as the first and only-female mambabatok of her time; traveling to other neighboring villages, to mark on those who have traversed a turning point in their lives the sacred emblems of their forefathers. May it be to model man as a headhunting warrior, or to adorn women’s skin as a symbol of allure and fertility. The tattoos on their body are revered as a sign of integrity, prosperity, and beauty. The tattooed older ladies of Kalinga frequently declare that they will not be able to carry their jewelry and beads along to the afterworld when they pass away, only the imprints on their bodies.

The elder never bore any children of her own, and Mambabatok may only pass on their craft to those of their descent. Two of her grandnieces, Grace Palicas and Elyang Wigan, are among her proteges.

Whang-Od charges in varied amounts, from paying through basic necessities like sugar, matches, and medication, to cash - she might even insist on tattooing for free! Regardless of the cost, Whang-Od's talent and charisma have boosted Buscalan's economy. Unfortunately, the practice’s commercialization has its own drawbacks. This has raised concerns regarding the commodification of indigenous cultures – forsaking ceremonial customs in lieu of a revenue source, exploitation of Whang-Od, tourists’ cultural appropriation, and the ignorance of the political marginalization that continues to adversely impact indigenous people.

Still, Whang-Od, in her enthusiasm to share a piece of her tradition to others, insists that she will continue to give visitors the Buscalan mark for as long as her eyes can see. In an effort to liberate ourselves from colonial aesthetics, regain our identity, and reconnect with our ancestral origins and real selves, more Filipinos are getting culturally significant indigenous tattoos nowadays. They continue to trek high up on the mountains, braving the fatigue and cold weather, in their desire to imbue into their skin a sliver of her culture.

Whang-Od is a surviving testament to the tribe’s thousand-year-old batok culture and is one of the significant figures who continue to keep the ancient Filipino tattooing tradition alive. Her aged face, gleaming eyes, and heavily-inked arms standing out on the cover of the highly-acclaimed Vogue Magazine is not only significant in reviving this nearly-extinct thousand-year-old practice and preserving a big part of the Philippine culture and arts but also in celebrating the beauty of Filipino culture and identity. 

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