Apo Whang-Od: The Oldest Tattoo Artist in the World

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Tattoo Artist

Art is ageless. It varies from generation to generation which makes it advance and relatable to everyone. Tattoo is an ancient form of art, still recognized by many, even by the millennials.

Maria Whang Od Oggay, popularly known as Apo Whang Od is a living testimony showcasing the art of tattooing. She is the oldest tattoo artist from the Northern Mountain in the Philippines, Kalinga, in a small village called Buscalan. Apo Whang Od is not only the oldest tattoo artist in the world. She was also the first woman to become a tattoo artist in her tribe known as But-but Tribe. She is 103 years old now, still leaving an ink legacy in the skin of many locals and tourists. She started tattooing when she was 15 years old. During that time, tattoos were given to men in the village for good luck in their battles and marriage and for fertility for the women. But as time went by, some trekkers would come across Buscalan village and saw the tattoos of the villagers. Tourists started coming in 2009 after a documentary about Apo Whang Od, “Tattoo Hunter” by an American anthropologist, Lars Krutak, was filmed. She appears to change the future of this small village in Kalinga from then on.Apo Whang Od has her unique way of marking tattoos. She doesn’t let you use your own design. She has 20 designs tourists can choose from. Each design has a meaning… for protection, for direction and for long life. She doesn’t use a tattoo machine. She makes her own ink from charcoal and water. Her needles are made from dried thorns from the trees, fastened to a bamboo stick. Her own way of drawing on skin is by tapping the needle in a fast proper way, putting right pressure so blood will not burst. At 103, her hands are still very firm, steady and strong and she can tap 100 taps in one minute. As it sounds, perhaps a test of your pain tolerance.

Tourists who have visited her and got tattooed by Whang Od all say, it was worth the long hours of travel from Manila to Kalinga + additional hours of trekking to But-but Tribe, Buscalan Village. You get to enjoy the beauty of nature as much as an experience of lung capacity to reach the house of Apo Whang Od. Many locals and tourists up to this time are still trusting her skills and creativity.
Indeed, before the pandemic, she usually finished 14 tattoos before lunch and accepted 20-30 visitors per day. Everyone is expected to wait for their turn as a respect to those who came early. It is strictly a 1st come, 1st serve policy. Nobody gets to request to go first. You better plan your trip early or get ready to wait for your turn. All these unforgettable experiences for just a tattoo price of US $ 20. Tourists from all around the Philippines and across the globe visit Apo Whang Od. Her message for those who have visited her is to keep coming back for more tattoos on their skin as this is her way of keeping her legacy in this world.
She is the only tattoo artist in their village alive and she is passing this Filipino culture to her two nieces, Elayang and Grace. They both sit beside Apo Whang-Od from sunrise to sunset, imitating Apo’s technique and drawing those Apo doesn’t have time to see. It is important for Whang Od that they continue her work and continue making Buscalan successful. Elayang and Grace spend every second they have with Apo. They listen to everything she says and learn every single day they get to spend with Whang Od.

Apo Whang Od is a Filipino pride, a legend we respect and an epic practice of ageless Art. Let us all speak long life to this creative woman empowering the beauty of ink in the human body.

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