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Mambabatok: Reviving Tribal Tattoo Traditions of Kalinga

The traditional hand tapped tattoo of Kalinga

Apo Whang-Od by Lee via Wikimedia cc

Apo Whang-Od: Keeping an Ancient Tattoo Tradition Alive in Kalinga

Kalinga is a province that is part of the Cordillera Administrative Region in the Philippines. It’s in the central area of the region, bordering Mountain province to the south, Abra to the west, Apayao to the north, Cagayan to the northeast, and Isabela to the east. It comprises seven municipalities, with its capital city being Tabuk. The province has gained popularity over the years with the growing interest in its 1,000-year-old tradition of “pambabatok,” a traditional way of tattooing using inked thorns.

Tribal Tattoo Traditions of Kalinga by Lee via Wikimedia cc
Tribal Tattoo Traditions of Kalinga By Lee, CC BY 2.0, cc

Tattoo Traditions in Kalinga

Butbut Old Lady of Buscalan by Ranieljosecastaneda via Wikipedia cc
Butbut Old Lady of Buscalan By Ranieljosecastaneda – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, cc

Centuries ago in the Philippines’ indigenous communities, tattoos or batok (also called batek)  were sacred and a symbol of power, courage, and dominance. Kalinga men, composed of warriors and headhunters, earned their body art which represented the battles they won. On the other hand, tattoos were a mark of beauty. The more tribal tattoos a Kalinga woman had, the more beautiful she was. These tattoos are specially made by a mambabatok.

The art of pambabatok

The pambabatok is a tattoo tradition of Kalinga. Decades ago, these were only previously practiced within the indigenous tribes of Kalinga. Batok was perceived as a social representation, rather than art. Batok translated to “tap” or “hit, which is the action performed by mambabatoks to etch these traditional designs into the body. Pambabatok uses tree thorns, a string as a stencil, and ink made of coal and water. The batok tattooing is permanent and hurts more than the regular tattoos you could get anywhere else.

Apo Whang Od, the “Last” Mambabatok

Apo Whang-Od by Lee via Wikimedia cc
Apo Whang-Od By Lee -, CC BY 2.0, cc

Whang-Od Oggay, the most prominent figure in Kalinga province, is known to be the oldest and last living mambabatok. Apo Whang-od started tattooing Butbut warriors as early as 15 years old. Though the warriors have already ceased existence, Whang-od still performs the tradition to the interested tourists who come all the way from Manila as far as the United States.

With her experience and efforts in preserving this traditional culture, Apo Whang-od was nominated for a National Living Treasures Award, an award given to people or artists with significant contributions to intangible cultural heritage in the Philippines.

Whang-od is recognized as the last mambabatok because, in the past, mambabatoks can only train within their bloodline. But through the years, she has been teaching her grandniece Grace Palicas to learn the pambabatok craft and become a new-generation mambabatok.

The Tattoo Process

Kalinga Tattoo Art by Lee via Wikipedia cc
Kalinga Tattoo Art By Lee , CC BY 2.0, cc

It is a long and arduous journey to be able to get a tattoo from Apo Whang-Od. From Manila alone, it’ll take roughly 15 hours and that includes land travel and a bit of hiking. First things first, you have to book a tour guide who will serve as an interpreter and guide in Buscalan, where Whang-od lives. Without a guide, you won’t be able to get a tattoo. Tour guides usually charge a fee of P1,000 per 5 pax.  After getting a tour guide (tip: it’s best to get guides from referrals), you need to sign up in their registration area and pay an environmental fee of P75. On a piece of paper, they’ll write your group name, date, and time of arrival as your queue number to get a tattoo.

It’s also worth mentioning that you’ll need to live with the locals for at least three days by staying in their homes as there are no hotels or accommodations in the area. The cost of stay is P250 per head. This means you have to bring your essential things like food and medicines. Note that Buscalan is a remote village thus having little to no network connectivity.

Upon arriving in Buscalan, you’ll still have to queue as there are many tourists who want to get a tattoo from Whang-od. It would be better for you to choose from their available designs as she does not accommodate customized ones. You may ask Grace for this, but they rarely do this.

How much to get a Tattoo in Kalinga?

The cost of a tattoo usually ranges from P300-P1,000. We also recommend giving a tip or bringing gifts to Apo Whang-od and the locals, especially the children.

How to get there

Option 1 via Tabuk

From Manila, take a bus bound for Tabuk. These are available in Cubao bus stations. Travel time takes 11 hours. From Tabuk, ride a jeep going to Tinglayan and get off at the Buscalan jump-off point.

Option 2 via Bontoc

From Manila, take the bus going to Bontoc. Travel time is around 11 hours. From Bontoc, ride a jeep bound for Tabuk and ask to drop off at the Buscalan jump-off point. To reach the village you’ll need to trek for up to one hour.

The trip to Buscalan and having Apo Whang-od to tattoo you is such a surreal experience. It tells you a lot about this preserved tradition, the indigenous people’s way of living, and lets you explore the beauty of Kalinga. As tourists, you have to be responsible and leave no trace behind. Be courteous and do as the locals do. Kalinga locals are very friendly, so in return, make sure you respect their home and beliefs. Take time to appreciate Kalinga and thank the locals for letting you experience their tradition.

Note: Prices may change without prior notice

Have you tried getting a tattoo from Apo Whang-od herself? How was your experience? Let us know in the comment section below!

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Written by Melo Villareal

Melo Villareal is the Online Publisher of He is an Accountant by profession who left the corporate world at the age of 23 to explore his beautiful country and the rest of the world. Today, Melo works as a part-time Social Media Manager for local and international clients. His full-time work focuses on discovering interesting culture, explore different cuisines and take memorable photos from local and international destinations he's visiting.

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