In April 2023, Whang-od Oggay became the oldest person to ever grace the cover of Vogue. The 106-year-old Filipina artist is known as the “last” traditional Kalinga tattooist (or mambabatok). But she also has a heart-wrenching backstory.
At the age of 15, Whang-od broke tradition in a startling way. Her father, the region’s master tattooist, taught her the ancient technique of batok—hand-tapping tattooing—despite the fact that only men were allowed to learn it. Whang-od was the exception due to her stunning talent and potential. But down the road, she flipped the script, choosing only women as her apprentices. However, this isn’t the only shocking decision she’s made.
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In her youth, Whang-od’s heart belonged to a warrior named Ang-Batang. But they were doomed to be star-crossed lovers. Sadly, the elders didn’t approve of her relationship with Ang-Batang because they doubted the purity of his bloodline. And so in a tragic twist of fate, Whang-od watched in despair as her great love ended up in an arranged marriage with her own best friend. But that wasn’t the most heartbreaking part.
When Whang-od was 25 years old, Ang-Batang died in a horrific logging accident. Afterward, she vowed never to marry. Though she entertained romances with other warriors, she never went back on her promise and also never had any children. At first, this posed a big problem.
Tradition demands that Whang-od’s tattooing skills can only be handed down to those in her bloodline. She believes that if any outsider learns her methods, the resulting tattoos will fester with infection. Luckily, Whang-od has chosen her grand-niece and another relation as apprentices.
Since 2017, Whang-od’s signature tattoo now expresses her dedication to passing down her skills to the next generation: three dots that represent herself and her two apprentices.
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