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Why some Kalinga men don’t want a tattoo

/ 05:24 AM October 26, 2017

When I visited Kalinga last year, my primary goal was to climb Mount Patukan, one of the province’s prominent mountains. But I also considered having a tattoo by Whang-Od. Like many Filipinos, I regarded a tattoo by the country’s famous  mambabatok not just a traveler’s sought-after credential but also a personal tribute to an art that’s part of our national heritage. Moreover, with Whang-Od’s fading health and dimming eyesight, visiting her had gained a measure of urgency.

But when I arrived in Tabuk and spoke of my interest in Whang-Od, I received mixed reactions. To be sure, the people respect Whang-Od herself: the woman that has stood as the very symbol of their own culture. But one of my hosts echoed the sentiments of some of the men I had spoken with when he said: “I will never think of having a tattoo from her.”

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To understand his pronouncement, one must look at the history of Kalinga and the significance of tattooing not just in their culture but across the Philippines. Scott (1994) writes that for some ancient Filipino societies, tattoos were an integral part of their identity, and they viewed the Spanish invaders not so much as maputi (white) as mapuraw (without tattoos).

In Kalinga itself — as the works of Dozier (1966)and Salvador-Amores (2002) show — the significance of tattooing (batok) varies by gender and geography (the province itself has a diversity of cultures). Some tattoos are decorative, others therapeutic. Among men, certain tattoos can only be earned by accomplishing certain deeds, such as participating in one’s first headhunt and distinguishing one’s self in battle.

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This brings us to the Kalinga men’s reluctance: They consider themselves not worthy of having a tattoo because they don’t think they’ve earned it. For them, having an undeserved tattoo would dishonor their illustrious forebears.

Still, they acknowledge the good Whang-Od has brought. “When I went to Manila to study, my classmates asked if I was a headhunter,” a man from Tinglayan told me. “Today, people ask about our tattoos.”

But a lot has changed in Kalinga beyond outsiders’ perceptions, and this is especially true for Whang-Od’s home village of Buscalan. Many have lamented its transformation: guides fighting for tourists, tourists fighting over who gets a tattoo, kids asking for money, money itself becoming more accessible and coveted.

As for Whang-Od herself, she has emerged as one of the most celebrated icons of Philippine culture. And with apprentices now learning her craft, batok looks set to survive, even if it has evolved into a different art for a different purpose.

All of these tensions resurfaced when Whang-Od recently came to Manila to be feted in a trade show. Invoking a photo of her dozing off and citing those who flocked in the hopes of having a tattoo by her, some have decried the “commodification” both of Whang-Od and the culture she represents.

Others, on the other hand, invoke the quasi-centenarian’s own sense of agency—her own desire to go to Manila and meet her idol Coco Martin. Why not, they ask, if she herself wanted it? It is the naysayers, they say, who misappropriate Whang-Od by claiming to speak on her behalf.

As with any complex issue, these two sides can oppose without negating each other. Surely, Whang-Od is entitled to benefit from her art and fame, and go to Manila on an exhibit, but her doing so does not nullify the conditions of possibility that gave rise to such an exhibit in the first place.

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Meanwhile, as we marvel at the fascinating junctures that coincide in the life of an extraordinary woman, it is also important to reflect more broadly on the paradoxes created by the ecotourism that centers on her craft: In the process of becoming an icon of Philippine culture, Whang-Od has ushered her village into a commercialization that has led to a reconfiguration of values, and to a transformation of a people’s livelihood from agriculture to tourism.

And while many travelers seek to embody our country’s rich and diverse heritage by having a tattoo by Whang-Od, some Kalinga men choose to honor their ancestors by not having one.

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TAGS: Gideon Lasco, mambabatok, Second Opinion, tattooing Whang-Od, tattoos
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