The Last Mambabatok

As a centenarian, Apo Whang-Od is considered the oldest tattoo artist in the world and holds the title of mambabatok (traditional tattooist) in her village where she is part of the Butbut people. Since the age of 15 she has been tattooing the women of the tribe as well as the Butbut warriors who had to earn the right to be tattooed by protecting villages or killing enemies (the tribe were known headhunters up until as recently as the 1960s). She has since passed down her skills to the younger generation of the women who will continue to preserve the art of this living legend. At her age she mostly only tattoos her three-dot signature while the larger tattoos are done by one of her protégés.

Getting to her village high up in the mountains was quite the experience, an 11-hour drive from Manila followed immediately by almost an hour hike in the rain. Once you are in the village it’s a matter of whether Whang-Od feels up to tattooing that day, absolutely understandable at her age. The trip was facilitated by Lagaw’Ta Escapades and I would highly recommend their services.

It was an honour and a privilege to be tattooed by Apo Whang-Od and despite her age she is still very friendly and accommodating. Below her signature is a traditional python which was done by one of her apprentices. The tattoo is applied using a thorn from a lemon tree and the ink is made of water and charcoal.