Vogue Philippines is breaking a difficult taboo: the protagonist of the April 2023 cover is a beautiful 106-year-old tattoo artist, the oldest person ever to appear in the prestigious fashion magazine. Apo Whang-Od, the perennial, also known as Maria Oggay, practices the ancient art of batuque in the remote village of Buscalan. Where, though it takes 12 hours from Manila, they travel the winding roads of the Kalinga Mountains, past landslide debris and trucks rolled out of the fog, Thousands of visitors come from all over the world in search of his distinctive engineering designsthe.
In photos published by Vogue magazine, Maria Ojai, The Last Mambaboklooking slim and elegant, with an amber tiara and lipstick, arms and chest covered in Kalinga symbols.
Whang-Od hand tattoos, with bamboo stick, pomelo fork, water and charcoal, were once the preserve of indigenous Butbut warriors. She, the last Mambabok, learned the technique from her father at the age of 15 and over time perfected the ancient practice of hand-tattooing “the imprint of Kalinga tribal symbols—meaning strength, courage and beauty—on the skin of thousands of people on pilgrimage to Buskalan,” she writes. Vogue Philippines in a social media post.
Now the art of batuk lives on, in the Philippines and around the world, thanks to the descendants of Apo Whang-Od who were trained and inspired.
Traditionally the Kalinga are a people of fierce warriors, with a culture that has its roots in animism, and where the tattoo (batok) has always represented a way of communicating and spreading values within a community: it was one of the most important rites of passage, a symbol of growth, evidence of the work of spirits on the body of the recipient. For women in particular, the tattoo was a transition to maturity, but it was also a way to enhance fertility, as well as a source of pride and decoration.
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