She is a woman who lives in a village located on a mountaintop. She is a living frontier that is setting a border of distinction between two different dimensions of culture - of the past and of the present. She's a legend, an artist, and an empowered woman. She's an icon, an international personality and a celebrity on her own way. She is Fang-Od and her name itself is an authority; serving as the only hope of saving an endangered tradition on the path to extinction.
Piercing the flesh of a tradition
My first ever portrait of Fang-Od
This lady from Benguet is getting inked by the legend.
You know, seeing her (even her back alone) was a soulful experience that I have to consider her sacred that time. I can't find any word to describe that feeling. I stopped from where I was standing. It was still fresh in my memory that she was at the right side of me few meters way. I finally found her after all I have been through!
Someone approached me and I was sure he already knew the reason why I am here. He let me get close to the house of Fang-Od (or Whang-Od). I placed my backpack on the ground and the man asked me if I am getting a tattoo. That time, I wasn't still sure what to answer.
When Fang-Od has finished the tattooing session, she paused for a break and then came to me and welcomed me with a cup of brewed Kalinga coffee.
Kalinga Brewed Coffee
An embrace and a cup of coffee | I met her face to face. I can notice in her that she is tired, but enthusiastic. You know, she usually starts the tattooing early in the morning until late in the afternoon. She is around 93 years old now as of this writing. She doesn't use eyeglasses. She has that eye of a tiger. Those who wanted to be inked by her should wait for their turn. It is a first come first serve basis. The waiting could be up to 1-3 days. If you are lucky and it so happened that you are the only visitor during your visit, then you could get a tattoo within the day, depending on the circumstances.
I have to embrace her the moment I had the chance to meet her face to face. I wasn't even sure how they treat an embrace in their culture but my mind was already clouded with the desire to touch and feel the presence of an icon that appears like a saint in my perspective.
I followed her to the kitchen. She grabbed the vacuum flask, opened it and poured out an aromatic brewed coffee into a cup. I watched her every movement. I was like a paparazzo. She gave me the cup of coffee and that was a momentous event in my life. It was an honor that a person I extremely admire is offering me something. That was the best coffee I have ever tasted!
The face of a legend
Who is Fang-Od? | Ok, I have written a lot of my experiences with her above and I think I have to introduce her this time for those who do not know her yet.
Fang-Od is a tribal tattoo artist living in a once-sleepy-mountaintop-village of Buscalan under the jurisdiction of the town of #TINGLAYAN
#TINGLAYANFAST FACTS: This town located at the southern part of Kalinga province gained attention upon the rediscovery of the last authentic "mambabatok" (traditional tattoo artist) whose works are linked to headhunting and beauty based on the perspective of their culture.
Photo: Bugnay Village in Tinglayan in the province of KALINGA
KALINGAFAST FACTS: Kalinga is believed to be the home of the last headhunters of the Cordilleras.
Photo: Bugnay Village @ Tinglayan, Kalinga. She is considered to be the last tribal tattoo artist of the Philippine Cordilleras, a region occupied by different tribes with substantially similar culture and traditions although they are divided into subgroups based on their dialects, distinct beliefs and location.
Fang-Od rose to fame due to her appearance on national television, magazines, blogs, video documentaries and other types of medium both locally and internationally. In fact, she is a tourist attraction herself and has brought that huge number of visitors to their village that has influenced and changed the way of living of the community she represents. Some people have become self-employed because of her. Some ordinary houses have become accommodations for tourists and backpackers.
That is, being the last living authentic tribal tattoo artist of the region, it caught the attention of backpackers, travelers and even ordinary people fascinated with this kind of story. She is the last saving grace for the tattooing culture of their tribe to still exist. After she dies, the tradition of tattooing will be extinguished.
Interested parties got crazy to get a tattoo from her bringing a huge number of visitors to their remote village. Some foreign nationals even fly to the Philippines only just to get a tattoo from her.
The method of tattooing is called by them as "batok" and she is also referred to as the "Last Mambabatok." Batok is the root word, it could either be a verb (to put a tattoo) or a noun (the art itself as a product of tattooing). Mambabatok can be translated as "the person who performs the art of batok."
Because of this very unique story (of being the last), she has been featured by Kara David of i-Witness, a documentary show in the Philippines, by the Discover Channel, the National Geographic and to numerous print media all over the world.
The method of tattooing | The method employed by Fang-Od is still the original method practiced by her ancestors centuries ago.
She uses the traditional materials: a piece of stick used to attach the thorn of a citrus plant (the thorn serves as a needle), another piece of stick, this time is bulkier, used to cause the other stick with thorn to pierce the skin and a charcoal or the black carbon deposits accumulated on her cooking pot as a result of burning firewood to cook.
Fang-Od's ink is a mixture of water and carbon by-product of combustion
Fang-Od, about to draw the outline
From those materials, she starts by drawing an outline to the skin that serves as her guide in consummating a more detailed and intricate design.
Nowadays, extensive tattoos for women look untidy, in a sense, and employers mainly look for applicants who look clean. This is just one of the reasons why the younger generations no longer want to conform with the old tradition; they want to get a job, hence, Fang-Od is setting the borderline of two different dimensions of culture. She is unwittingly ending a tradition she is not supposed to end. She's ending the tradition not by her choice but by the call of our ever changing society.
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Transferring the skill | Fang-Od, however, has trained her niece, Grace (update: actually, Grace is her grandniece, the daughter of one of her nieces). She has no child because she never married. Although her grand niece is interested in that art, her reason is actually to earn money from tattooing like her grandaunt. Her grandaunt Fang-Od has turned to be the wealthiest woman in her village because of the influx of tourists that pay her at least 500 up to 3000 pesos (or more) per tattoo, depending upon the size of the tattoo, on a daily basis. Apparently, foreigners pay a higher amount compared to Filipino tourists.
If the skill transfer to her grandniece is to be considered a way to preserve the tradition, I would say it does not really preserve the tradition because the reason why her grandniece is doing the art is not to conform with the mandates of their culture, but to harness the lucrative market of tourists that visit their village to get a tribal tattoo. The motivation is basically not emanating from their cultural heritage and practices but by extrinsic factors not related to their culture at all. So I disagree with some claims that her grandniece is going to preserve the substantial principles of the tradition of tattooing. Fang-Od is definitely the last 'authentic' tribal tattoo artist and the last living person in this region to have really done a tattoo by reason of their culture (although she is doing it now for tourists).
By the way, this village speaks their own dialect and the people here call themselves the Butbut Tribe.
How to Visit Fang-Od? | 1. The first step in reaching Fang-Od is to reach #BONTOC
#BONTOCFAST FACTS: The capital town of Mountain Province, #Bontoc hosts majestic ancestral rice terraces, a prehistoric village, burial caves and the melting pot of culture in the province. / Photo: Palali Rice Terraces @ Alab Oriente, Bontoc first. Below are some ways on how to reach Bontoc from different locations.
(a) FROM METRO MANILA: Ride on Cable Tours (Bus) which has a terminal along E. Rodriquez Avenue in Quezon City near St. Luke's Hospital. They have daily trips to Bontoc at around 12 noon.
(b) FROM BAGUIO CITY: Go to Dangwa Terminal and ride to any vehicle of your preference that goes to Bontoc, be sure to be there early because trips to Bontoc usually start very early.
(c) FROM ILOCOS (LAOAG/VIGAN) or LA UNION via CERVANTES: Drop off at Bitalag Junction in TAGUDIN. Be sure to be in Bitalag Junction on or before 7 AM. If you are from Laoag, ride to a Manila-bound bus and be sure to get a ride from there as early as 3 am. You will reach Bitalag by 7 am. If you are from Vigan, you must already be on a bus by 5 AM, or earlier so that you can catch the earliest trip to Cervantes by 7 AM.
Once in Bitalag Junction, ride on a van bound to Cervantes. Once in Cervantes, ride on a van bound to Abatan, Bauko (mention Bauko because there is another Abatan in Buguias). From Abatan, ride on a van to Bontoc. You'll be there by lunchtime. If you don't know the location of van terminals, just ask the locals.
2. After reaching Bontoc, you have to stay there overnight. Wake up early the next day and go to the terminal of mini-buses bound for Kalinga. You can ask the locals for that. It is near the Mt. Province State College. Be sure to be there by 5 am. Tell the driver to drop you to BUGNAY
[TINGLAYAN] Bugnay Rice Terraces and that Lucky Village in Kalinga
TEASER: "The Kalinga prima facie evidence in terms of beauty should not be a subject for debate because if I were to be the judge, the evidence is too strong to put the case to rest.".
3. From Bugnay, you can ask the locals there where to get a motorbike ride. Some motorbikes can be hired to get you to the jump-off point for Buscalan (road dead end). From the dead end, hike to Buscalan.
If there is no motorbike available, just ask the locals of BUGNAY where is the trail going to Buscalan. There is only 1 distinct trail there. Follow the distinct trail and the terminus of this trail is the Buscalan Village. You might have to hike for 2-4 hours depending on you pace. Enjoy and Good Luck!
With Fang-Od and my sun-burned face
More than Fang-Od | When I learned that she is already very old at 94-95 years old (that time, April 2013), I worried that she may be gone too soon so I rushed to plan this trip with the determination that I will still see her alive.
When I met her, she was as healthy as a young lady. She has no complain of joint pain. She has this good eyesight and can still hike around the village (her village is naturally a hiking ground due to its physical terrain). So I surmise, she can still live long. Long life is very common in this village engaged in organic farming.
But it doesn't stop there, there are more stories to share in this village. Buscalan is a cultural package and Fang-Od is just a part of this package. There are other things we need to know more about Buscalan. I have more experiences here, more than Fang-Od. /to be continued...
*BUSCALAN SOLO INVASION SUB-SERIES | 1
[TINGLAYAN] The Day I Hike Solo to Buscalan, Kalinga - Part 1/2TEASER: "I am soliloquizing under the scorching strike of the sun that is adding more agony to my weary self. I hope I am not yet lost. But if ever I'm lost, at least I'm lost in a paradise." | 2
[TINGLAYAN] The Day I Hiked Solo to Buscalan, Kalinga - Part 2/2
TEASER: "So I thought the hike is over, but as I took a turn on that road, I saw the other side of the mountain and it doesn't look like I am getting any closer. It goes farther, and farther..." | 3 | 4
[TINGLAYAN] 17 Great Memories + First Time Encounters in Buscalan, Kalinga
TEASER: "Buscalan rose to fame because of Fang-od. But Buscalan is more than Fang-od. It is more than the tribal tattoo." | 5
[TINGLAYAN] Chewed, Swallowed Frogs in Buscalan, KalingaTEASER: "We talked with joy behind the darkness. That dinner unleashed the real us. The candlelight was a silent witness of our fears, happiness and life's perspectives." | 6
[TINGLAYAN] There was No Sunrise in Buscalan, KalingaTEASER: "So the sun didn't shine that morning. However, I was able to understand the other side of the story."
[TINGLAYAN] Buscalan Rice Terraces Kissed the CloudsTEASER: "This is my story about the Buscalan Rice Terraces. At first there is a foreplay with the clouds but it always ends up with a satisfactory finish."