I have been tattooed twice, say, the usual-machine-way and I’m not sure when I started the decision to have a traditional tattoo at least once. It appealed to me so much because it was raw and real. Then some friends went up the mountains to have their tattoos done manually, known as pagbabatok, by famous Whang Od (if you don’t know yet, it’s pronounced as Fang-Od). So I researched more about the traditional art, Whang-Od, and how to get there, through blogs and friends. So if you’ve read the title, I’m not really getting into those details. You can find tons of info in any search engine so go ahead and do that.
I told my family and friends about my plans to go and they were all like, am I sure, can I handle the pain, it’s too risky and dangerous, blah blah.
Days before our trip to Kalinga, we visited a friend who’s had his “batok” last year and has visited Buscalan many times already. Aside from the usual warnings of the dangerous road and rough trek, he mentioned, “Pero eto ang pinakamadumi na tato ah. Hanggang ngayon pag pinipisil ko yung tato ko, may lumalabas eh.” (“This is the dirtiest tattoo. Even now, when I pinch it, something comes out.”) I asked him if he ever had it checked by a doctor, he said no, simply because it will defeat the purpose of having it done traditionally. Also he was a friend of the group Tado was with on the way there, so he knew the people who died to take this journey, may they rest in peace, that’s why he asked me if I still wanted to go. You can also discover in blogs that though Whang Od changes the pine needle to use per person, she does not change the cloth she uses to wipe over the skin of those getting their tattoos. Even if you give her a new one to use, she won’t allow it. The ink to be used is the soot from her cooking-ware mixed with water.
Honestly, knowing all these didn’t even shake my desire to go there. I have decided before I knew.
I was ready to go alone, but my friend Keisha wanted to go too, so we went together. We also happen to meet Kuya Paolo along the way who’s heading to Buscalan. You can read about our trip here.
So, yes, you already (hopefully) know the process is cringe-worthy. They don’t give you anesthesia. For me, it was 20 times more painful than machine tattoos, and I’d like to believe I have a strong pain tolerance. I managed not to cry or scream though, concentrating on the plants around and savoring the feeling of what the elders in the tribes have felt. Kuya Francis Pa-in, our guide, also told us stories. The pain was too much to bear for some that there were cases when the person peed, fainted, and yes, even pooped. In these instances, Whang Od won’t continue with the tattoo even if you insist, she can always tell if the person can or can’t bear it. Also for women on their dreaded time of the month, it is not advisable since it can be more painful or for whatever reason I don’t know. Ask your doctor. Don’t worry too much though, Keisha was on hers when she got tattooed and she’s fine. Her tattoo just bled profusely more than mine though I’m not sure if it’s the position or her condition that time. I earnestly hope what I’m saying doesn’t discourage you if you happen to plan to go.
After we’ve been permanently branded a traditional Buscalan art, I was more than overwhelmed. I was exhilarated. I have never felt more alive and proud. The throbbing wasn’t so unbearable after. They just put coconut oil on it and said we didn’t have to put anything after. It looked like pointillism and it was swelling more than my previous tattoos after an hour. We were allowed to take a bath that afternoon, but getting it wet a day after wasn’t advisable since it might affect the natural scattering of the ink. The following day, about four inches of my arm was swelling in length, and an inch more in terms of width.
I could not lower my hand because the blood flows down and it throbs like hell so I held it up all the time. This wasn’t the case for Keisha though, again, it might vary by the tattoo’s position. That’s when I understood what Kuya Francis said about tattoos on the legs and feet are so painful after because the blood flows down and you can’t really put them up unless you’re lying down. My wrist kept throbbing when my hand was down for at least a week.
The soot ink started to form solid lines. I also observed that it looked and peeled like a normal wound, except the dried skin was black. Well, it’s really a wound after all. It was my personal choice not to put antibiotic or anything on it because I wanted it to be as genuine as the tradition.
When my tattoo started to look out of hand though, I was slightly worried since nobody said that it would look so scathed after a week. People would stare at it with judging looks, like they were telling me I made a very unwise decision getting it. I didn’t really care. And those who inquired were taken aback upon hearing the story behind it. Although I admit, it gets pretty tiring to explain yourself to everyone.
Thankfully, Keisha’s tattoo looked the same. So we tried to find out more about the healing process of this kind of tattoo and nothing in the internet mentioned it. So we just resorted to letting it heal naturally.
On the third week I decided it was safe to put moisturizer on it since the wound was closed and was just repairing the skin, which was really, really itchy by the way. I applied RestoraDerm, since I use it when my skin gets too dry. It works wonders and it did work its wonder on my healing tattoo.
The skin didn’t look too dry and it peeled faster, leaving a grey tint, like ash. It was still embossed though. I thought this was finally how the color was going to look like since the ink used was really soot. I consistently put the lotion every morning after bathing and before I go to sleep at night. Keisha told me she put on a regular lotion so I made her try RestoraDerm as well. She said it works better and the itching lessened, but a normal lotion will do.
My tattoo still peeled and it looked like it had blackheads on the fourth week. I admit I always picked on it. I completely don’t recommend doing this though. When the excess skin came off, there were visible holes on my arm where the needle went through. It started to flatten as well but the skin was still unsmooth because of the irregularity the holes bring. Still, it looks healed now. My own eyes tell me that it’s infection free.
Now the lines are obviously not perfectly straight, but that’s the beauty of it. It wasn’t made by a machine. It is purely done by the hands of a 95-year old Kalinga tattoo artist, with pine needle and soot as her tools, and almost a century’s worth of experience. I carry this art, traditionally only for the most brave and beautiful.
All details mentioned were my own experiences and choices. I decided to share them since I found no other blog saying what happens AFTER you get your batok.
So for those of you who are attempting to get your tattoos from Whang Od and are wondering about the risks and joys, you’re welcome. Though I earnestly discourage you to go there if you just want to look cool. Revere the art, the artist and the culture.
Feel free to share how you managed your batok or if you have any questions on the comments below. 🙂