Once the sole preserve of tribal groups, the first known tattoos were an important source of information: They showed which tribe you belonged to and designated your place within it. Having the right tattoo could sometimes literally mean life or death.
Fast forward a few millennia, and a tattoo can mean little more than “I got drunk in Malaga and woke up with this Chinese menu on my arm”. But it’s still possible to get a backpacking tattoo with meaning, one that tells a story about your travels. Here’s how to get a tribal tattoo from the legendary Whang Od, a Kalinga tattoo artist living deep in the Filipino jungle.
Rumours of the Philippine’s tribal tattoo master
I first heard whispered murmurings of a legendary tattoo master living deep in the jungles of the Philippines almost a decade ago, but dismissed it as an urban myth. However the idea stayed with me and I just could not quite put the notion out of my mind. I mean, just imagine if it was true…?
Fast forward nearly a decade and I’m on my way to the Philippines. I just knew that I had to try to track down this legendary Kalinga tattoo artist, Whang Od. I’ve always been interested in tribal cultures and customs and the chance to meet with a living legend such as her was too good an opportunity to miss. I made determined enquiries reaching out to the few people I knew in the country and leaving no stone unturned. They asked friends who asked friends of friends and eventually, just as hope was beginning to fade, I had a lead!
In Search of Whang Od, the last of the Butbut tribal tattooists
Whang Od comes from the Butbut tribe, a legendary group of tribal warriors once renowned for their headhunting wars and their ferocious bravery against any invaders who tried to move into their lands. The Japanese had tried to set up camp nearby during World War 2 and had retreated from the jungles licking their wounds, in a nutshell; the Butbut are not to be fucked with.
The main difficulty with reaching Whang Od is knowing how to find her, until recently there was very little information available online and tracking her down could prove treacherous as one wandered along jungle paths in search of ‘The Village Atop the Hill’.
My friend Pot Pot, a renowned journalist from Manila, offered to act as my guide and take me into the jungles as he spoke a little Kalinga so would be able to introduce me to Whang Od. For a day and a night we rode in rickety buses and crowded jeepney’s, sitting atop the roof beneath the blaring sun, my pack separating me from the scalding metal. Finally, after endless mountain switchbacks passing emerald green paddy fields, churning rivers and friendly locals, we arrived safely… in the middle of nowhere.
Shouldering my pack, I followed Pot Pot into the jungle and into the unknown…
The Village Atop A Hill, deep in the Filipino jungle
Just as night was breaking we arrived at Buscalan village. I passed a group of tribal teenagers, one sporting a faded Guns and Roses T-shirt, and made my way to the shaman’s hut, a place adorned with animal skulls.
Pot Pot set about making introductions, and I set about smiling like a loon and shaking hands with all who approached. The once fearsome warriors turned out to be incredibly hospitable if somewhat bemused to learn that a pale skinned foreigner had journeyed so far, all in the name of ink.
“Do they not have tattoos in England?” one villager asked.
“Yes, but we don’t have many tattoo masters” I replied.
I was shown to a local’s wooden hut and fed with rice and chicken, boar and beans. Tired from a long days travelling, I slept upon the floor, the moon shining in through the open window.
Meeting the legendary tribal tattoo artist Whang Od
The next morning I awoke to the sounds of a cockerel and looked out through the window. It was barely 6:30 but already the village was alive as people attended to their daily chores. I had no phone signal and the “real world” felt like a distant world away; it felt utterly liberating.
After breakfast, I was taken to meet the legendary Whang Od herself. Hidden within the realms of a jet black hoodie, her arms revealing twisting, blue and black tattoos curling across every inch of skin, she looked at me with jet black eyes that betrayed a humorous spirit within her aged frame. Whang Od is ninety nine years old and the last living Mambabatok, tribal tattoo master. She is funny, quick, and surprisingly nimble and, if she doesn’t like you, she will make you bleed.
In Kalinga tradition, the Mambabatok chooses the design of the tattoo. In keeping with this tradition, I simply motioned that I would prefer the design to go upon my arm rather than, for example, my forehead and she set to work.
She said something in Kalinga and Pot Pot laughed, motioning for me to sit down. I crouched upon a tiny wooden stool and she began, selecting a sharp lemon tree thorn, inserting it into a stick, dipping it into a mixture of water, charcoal and magic and placing it over my arm.
She looked at me for half a second, smiled and began to tap with a small bamboo hammer. I watched, intrigued, as my arm was punctured with numerous holes filled with ink. Slowly but surely the design became apparent. It was a fern; a symbol of coming of age and, erm, fertility…
Traditional hammer tattoos are surprisingly painless
There was no pain at all. The process was actually far less intrusive than the modern tattoo guns and the patter of the wooden mallet made for a more re-assuring soundtrack than the infernal buzzing of a tattoo gun set to heavy metal music. After an hour, Whang Od had finished. She wiped the blood and excess ink away and we were done; no cling film, no Dettol, no $1000 bill.
I turned, smiling at her and thanking her profusely. She smiled back and then waved me away, she was a busy women and had things to do; after all, she was nearly a hundred.
I made a small donation of salt, eggs and eight dollars and was then on my way, joining the men of the village for a cheeky smoke and to practice my Kalinga. I lingered here for a little while, attempting to make a smoking pipe from bamboo (every Kalinga man can do this and they are all beautiful) and failing miserably.
My tattoo healed fast and, after only a few days, I realised that the fern kind of resembled a ganja leaf… I returned to civilization, sent my mum a photo, smiling wickedly and continued with my Philippines adventures.
The Philippines is an amazing place and, if you are in search of a real adventure and a genuine cultural experience, then a trip to visit Whang Od should be high upon your list. Shout out to Pot Pot, my friend and guide; Charlie, my host in Buscalan; the many kind people I met there; and of course, to Whang Od, a huge thank you for your hospitality, warmth and humour.
About the author
Will Hatton is currently on a 3 year adventure travelling from the UK to Papua New Guinea. Follow along at The Broke Backpacker.
Got an amazing travel tattoo story you want to share? Tell us about it in the comments below 👇👇👇
What to read next?
- 9 of the best small cities in Europe for your alternative interrailing adventure
- Your guide to the best New Year’s Eve parties in Europe
- 9 reasons why we’re obsessed with Rotterdam right now
- Places to stay in Iceland on a backpacker’s budget