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Mambabatok: Kalinga’s last traditional tattoo artist

Text and photos by Aileen Camille Dimatatac, VERA Files

In the small village of Buscalan in Kalinga province, 92-year-old Maria "Pangud" Oggay has been practicing the traditional art of tattooing for almost 77 years now. She is the province’s only living traditional tattoo artist or mambabatok.

Pangud learned the craft from the male mambabatoks by watching them. She uses pine soot for ink, pomelo torn for a needle, a bamboo stick to hold the needle and a hammering stick.

At first, Pangud prepares the ink by scraping the soot from under the pot and mixing it with a little water. Then she readies the bamboo stick in which she will insert the pomelo thorn or gisi (kisi).

Before she starts puncturing the skin, she first puts a stencil of the design which usually starts with two lines to indicate the length and position of the tattoo. Now she is ready to do her masterpiece.

After dipping the needle into the ink, Pangud holds the stick with the needle on one hand so that when the hammer strikes, the needle would be driven into the epidermis and then spring back to its position above the skin. The tapping sound is called tek-tek, which means to hit slowly, hence forming the word batek.

After she finishes one part she rubs the wound with the ink. The amount of time Pangud takes to finish the work depends on the size of the tattoo, but on the average it takes about one-and-a-half hours.

Why do people choose to suffer the pain and possible illness from this kind of art? What do they gain from this? During the early times, the people of Kalinga considered tattoo a form of beauty for women and a sign of courage for men. They started tattooing themselves at puberty, and for them tattoos are an essential form of art that reflects their roles in the society, status in life, tribal identity, eligibility for marriage and, of course, beauty. For women, the absence of a tattoo meant they would be less attractive to men. For men, a tattoo is a symbol they have entered manhood, and for warriors it serves as a trophy after a successful hunt or fight.

The usual intricate designs of Kalinga tattoos are centipede (ginay-gayaman), python (chila or urog) and honeycomb (ufog), which can mean either fertility, long life, protection, and a relationship to their ancestors and spiritual world.

Pangud lives a very ordinary life. Whenever she is not busy tattooing, she attends to her wild pigs and ricefield. But as the only remaining living mambabatok, she is proud of her choosen profession. Although she has been suffering headaches and fatigue, she still plans to continue this unique art and lifestyle that has been passed down to her in order for their culture to remain alive not only for the people of Kalinga but mostly for those whom she marks.

(VERA Files is put out by senior journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for true.)

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