Apo Whang Od Tattoo: A Time-honored Tradition

Love for Arts

It was Sunday. Early morning of the 26th of July year 2015, in the vast mountains of Buscalan in Kalinga, Philippines, history was made. Only a portion of my flesh has been marked, but it was the entirety of my body that felt the blessing. One that will last for all eternity. One that will reverberate through all the dimensions of life.

Under a wooden shelter, almost hanging by a cliff, blindly trusting its engineered “sturdy” design, people patiently lined up for their well-anticipated mark.

The line was long. But the line was not visible. It was not a line at all. People were scattered. Some moving from point to point while watching other people being tapped, some standing by a post while randomly over-looking everything, some sitting while picking their designs, some chitchatting while waiting for their turn, some gritting their teeth while savoring the moment of being tattooed.

Not a very typical green-green-grass-of-home atmosphere. A one of a kind. I remember the locals greeting us with a grass coffee on their hands. Serving us their own grown delicacy. Definitely a one of a kind. Especially after seeing their pig pets running and wandering like good old dogs. They are literally everywhere.

Here is one that posed for a shot.


(he is slaying it. he deserves to be featured as the first photo in this post)

(the only pig photo I have though)


The travel was far more worth it than I expected because of the amazing people I met. For instance, I traveled with 11 others (Pom not in the picture) to reach the the outskirts of Tinglayan. Drove to Kalinga for roughly 11 hours, trekked the mountains for an hour or so.



Reminiscing the hanging wooden shelter and my KALINGAling Troop.

I am dreaming of going on another trip to this place. Sit on the same spot. Tattooed by the same Artist.

I dream to be held again by this Kalinga Traditional Artist. To be touched again in a different, special way.

To be carved again with her blessing.


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This is her, preparing her medium. Powdered charcoal as ink, a bit of water to wet it, a wooden handle for tapping, a thorn for embedding the design to flesh. Apo Whang Od, a 98-year old Legend, is the only remaining living traditional tattoo artist of Kalinga. She is Kalinga’s last mambabatok  and the Philippines’ oldest tattooist. For 80 years, she tattooed headhunters and indigenous women of Kalinga for protecting their village and for killing enemies.

She is the last of her kind. She bore no children as her husband passed away when she was 25, and that she never remarried. It is believed that only people from her lineage can continue the tradition. That if someone outside the bloodline starts using the same method of tattooing, the tattoos will be infected. In other words, its essence will be gone.

As Legendary as she is, she is trying to outlive life and pass on her blessing for the next decade, next century, next generation. She is training her grandniece, Grace (20), and Ilyang (14), another bloodline successor.

I am an impatient person. But that day,

waiting was not a challenge. It was a wait worth doing.

I felt like, it was the other way around. I did not wait.

I am made for this and She waited for me to come.

Finally, it was my turn. The moment of truth.

Will I push through? Scared as hell, but did not have second thoughts.

Will it be painful? I know it will be, but it will surely pass.

Will I regret it? Absolutely not.



This is me pretending nothing painful is going to happen.



Apo Whang Od halfway done with my tattoo.

And I can still smile. What a Great Pretender.



Close up shot. The Artist taps it until it bleeds.

(actually making sure that it does bleed).

It is a way of cleansing the soul.



First look of my finished and cleansed Pinulikawkaw Tattoo.



This is my thorn.



Of all the fragments of memories I can remember that day,

this is my favorite. Priceless, just priceless.

It was hardly a conversation. Me: Selfie!! (then she saw herself in the phone screen)

Surprised by her own beauty, she laughed hard.

And I managed to calm myself down from the unexpected moment arising from a simple desire to capture a selfie with her. Instinctively, I tried to take the perfect shot. Another wonder of the world documented. And this one, not easy to find.

You might be wondering, how I chose this design, why I chose it, what it means, and how I decided where to place it. There is a book where you can browse and choose a design. These are traditional designs with meanings pertaining mostly to fertility, protection, bravery, courage, strength. The one I chose is what I believe, the strangest of them all. It is the simplest design, and people seem to be surprised with my choice. But it is the only design that I felt a connection with. I cannot lie. I cannot deny my soul what it seeks. I can see myself on it and I can see it on myself. I read what it meant, and I knew we are one.

Through keen observation, it was not a very popular design, I have to say. As I said, it is very simple. And mostly went for the glamorous and more complex ones (or perhaps they felt the connection too. Who am I conclude that it is the former, right?).

What does it mean? Always a question.

Short story, I summarized it as: Road less traveled

Long story, from the old book itself (non-verbatim): The Hunters who chase the Warrior who wears the Pinulikawkaw will lose her. The Warrior, as she draws the Hunters to the depths of the forest and to the complicated random paths it has, chooses to take the Road Less Traveled. Making the Hunters lose her, for they do not expect her choices. For she chooses the path less taken. And the only people who can follow her are the worthy ones.

And right there and then, I saw myself.

I considered three locations for the placement of the tattoo, but since the design I chose is very simple, I chose a place where it hurts the most and where I see it fit. Where it can blend perfectly. Where I can hide it when I want to. Or show it to the World when I want to. I chose my collarbone. And it was liberating.

As  to the other designs, I cannot show them all here. But I can show some of it. The ones my friends chose.

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The Lightning and The Eagle.

This couple, Jean and Tantan are the bomb. They use machine and hand-tapping in tattooing other people, too.

It wasn’t their first time to meet Apo Whang Od. I admire their thirst for Arts.


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The Scorpion and The Lightning.

My girls, Reina and Lovey, were not first-timers when it comes to tattoos. They experienced getting inked before.

For one, they, along with another close friend of mine, have the “Three Mountains” tattooed on their wrist, representing three sisters. So much love.


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The Centipede.

Their bodies are a work of art, Elwel and Jeff. Both having a leg tattoo.

Now, both having The Centipede on their arms.


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The Serpent Eagle and The Star.

These two, Trish and Julio, are perfect strangers to me, but soon I figured that they were cool and awesome humans!

(The Star though is not one of the traditional designs)

In a more personal note, I have to acknowledge that I feel so blessed to have lived in this period of time. If I lived 50 or 70 years earlier than today, I may not have appreciated this kind of Art (or I may have, in a different sense. I cannot say for sure) nor have the energy to chase it to the mountain tops (but who knows? maybe if I did live 50 or 70 years earlier, I may have lived with them in Tinglayan and join the bandwagon).

The point is, if I lived my life earlier than now, this hand-tapping tattoo in Kalinga may not have been called a Tradition, yet. It needed time to ripe into a pleasurable fruit.

It is like wine, the longer it is being kept in a cellar, the more pleasing it is to the taster. I call it, a Time-honored Tradition. And having experienced its pains and pleasures in the right time is such a privilege. It was a passing of hand-to-wood, wood-to-wood, wood-to-thorn, thorn-to-skin, skin-to-soul carving.

Just recently, I told a (“cool” French) friend, these traditional tattoos are becoming more and more precious as time passes by. As its age becomes older, as its rareness becomes rarer.

So I thank the Universe for letting me live today, and giving me the opportunity not to miss this type of liberation.

If you ever feel your spirit needs some tapping, you may connect with me at katreena.pillejera@yahoo.com.ph and maybe we can go together, as I plan to go back one of the coming days. You may also contact feelgoodtraveler for more inquiries. If you do not want to travel that far though and you are looking for talented people to carve your skin and soul, here is Jean and Tan of Katribu Tatu. I will be there soon, too!




P.S. My Mom almost disowned (big word) me for doing this. She knows I’m going to Kalinga, but she did not know I’m getting a tattoo (if she knew, she won’t allow it and I wouldn’t be writing this). To her, it was an act of rebellion. But to me, not at all. Not at all. It was an Act of Love. Love for Life. Love for Arts. A way to express, a way to connect more to the roots.

Her anger was serious that time. But now, we just laugh at it and she teases me with the “ugliness” of my worm. To all the parents out there, I want to say.. I know it is not always easy to let your children do the things they want to do. Especially when it is not “academic” related or when you haven’t tried it on your own before. But, let them anyway.

Let us. Let us explore. Let us make mistakes. Let us make it right. Let us make choices on our own. Let us know ourselves more deeply. Let us.

To my mom, I love you. Always. <3

6 thoughts on “Apo Whang Od Tattoo: A Time-honored Tradition

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    • katreenapillejera Post authorReply

      Hahahaha. Mahal talaga ko ng nanay ko. Di nya tinuloy pagtatakwil. Hahahahaha

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