Travel Date:

Buscalan 1.0: 30 November – 2 December, 2015

Buscalan 2.0: 9-11 February 2016

Date Published: March 31 – April 6, 2016, Issue 364


The art of batok is an age-old custom of tattooing done by the Butbut tribe Kalinga. Tattoos are a symbol of bravery and are traditionally only given to a Butbut warrior who comes back with a head of an opponent. The more tattoos a warrior has, the higher his stature os in the tribe. When the tribal wars ended, the batok tradition became more of a power symbol for the elders of the tribe.

In modern times, and before the popularity of Whang – Od, any foreigner who wants to get a tattoo from a mambabatok (batok artist) must go through a ritual to determine if s/he is worthy of a tattoo. Today, the batok can be done on anyone who is willing to do the pilgrimage of traveling nearly 14 hours. Even so, some travelers back out after seeing somebody else bleeding and cursing throughout the process. (You will have doubts, trust me).


Only women can become a mambabatok (Edit: Some locals say this is not true, that men of the tribe used to perform the tradition as well. However, all practicing mambabatok of the tribe are women)Whang – Od is the last traditionally – bestowed mambabatok of her tribe. At 97 years old, the graceful lola is still strong and is even charmingly vain, stopping to wipe her face and fix her hair every time someone asks for a photo.

Grace, 19 years old, is the first “modern” Butbut to become a full-pledged mambabatok. She was initially a reluctant protégé – doing it only for the love of her Apo (Elder) Whang – Od. But after realizing the value of batok to her people and their culture, Grace finally embraced the duty as successor of the dying art.

Elyang is the youngest mambabatok. I have never seen her at work though. The first time I saw her; she had just undergone an underarm operation – related to too much tattooing.

Because of the popularity of the batok, many children are now encouraged to train and become a bonafide mambabatok. I chanced upon Shesi, 11 years old and a mambabatok-in-training while practicing batok on her aunt.

Shesi and her weapon of choice.


The day after we arrive, we got down to the hut near Whang – Od’s home, where the batok takes place. The venue has an overlooking view of the mountains, providing us a very calming view. The steady tak-tak-tak of the on-going batok is the only sound playing in the background, a great contrast to the dug-dug-dug of my heart. I was nervous, but I was determined to get a tattoo from Whang – Od.

The hut where the magic happens. Photo by Stefan Becker.

I have chosen my design the night before from a book Charlie lent us. The book was about traditional tattoo practices in the Philippines and other Asian tribes, written by an American author (the name escapes me). There is also a wooden flat board with tattoo designs drawn on it where visitors can choose. Tourists can ask their guides for the name and meaning of each. The guide also doubles as translator for Whang-Od. Both Grace and Elyang speak fluent Tagalog and English.

The first tattoo I got from Whang – Od on my first climb was a bird, which symbolizes the spirit of departed loved ones. After finding out the size I wanted for my tattoo, Whang – Od laughed – hard. “Why would you go so far and climb so high to meet me, only to get a small one?” she asks me in her dialect. I told her I was scared and that I want the tattoo to be cute, like her. She laughed again.

She started to draw a stencil of the design using a thin stick and ink. The ink is made from soot and mixed with water to create a black paste.

Apro Whang-Od “stenciling”. Photo by Stefan Becker.

After stenciling, Whang – Od took a pomelo thorn and places it at the end of a bamboo stick. She covers the thorn with the black paste and takes a second bamboo stick for “tapping”. She then proceeds to tap along the stencil line. The tapping makes the inked thorn go deep into the epidermis, similar to how needles from a tattoo machine works, analogue style.

For my first Whang – Od tattoo, the tapping process was relaxing and painless. I felt more pain with my machine-made tattoo. That is why on my second climb up last February 2016, I decided to get a bigger one, a lawin or hawk – meaning “open communication with God” – placed at the center of my back.

But unlike my first experience, this was extremely painful! The second the thorn hit my skin, I was regretting underestimating it.

The thorn goes down deep and hits what I believe are my muscles, the sensation reaching down to my spine. Since the inking is done in singular taps, Whang-Od goes over the same spot several times to ensure the lines are inked properly, and the ink seeped through the epidermis. This causes the throbbing and the bleeding of the tattoo. A batok is literally a wound tattoo.

Apo Whang-Od working on my second tattoo. Also in photo, my first bird tattoo. Photo by Stefan Becker.

While the throbbing feeling might feel unbearable at times, it also felt very spiritual and elating. Everytime Whang-Od takes a break, I find myself wanting to feel the thorn digging deep into my skin again. It’s like hiking up a treacherous mountain, with every step taking every ounce of  energy in your body – and you promise yourself not to do it ever again.  And yet, once you reach the summit, you can’t wait for your next climb. That or I might just be a bit of a masochist.

It was addicting. It was stirring. It was surreal. It was magical.

The bird and the bleeding hawk. Photo by Stefan Becker.

Once the tattoo is done, Whang-od spreads some sort of cream or ointment over the wound/tattoo. I was advised not to get it wet for at least a week, to avoid infections.

They say batok is probably the most unsanitary way to get a tattoo. My first tattoo still gets infected, four months after getting it; while my second tattoo is still healing, and still itchy after a month.

But would I go back and do it all over again? Absolutely yes!

I would go back to Buscalan not because Whang-od is a legend and getting a tattoo from her gives me social media bragging rights – although getting two tattoos from her is an honor I will cherish for the rest of my life.

I will go back because of the people, the place and the affinity I have created with both. If Buscalan was a person, he would have a warm, gentle nature, an adventurous spirit and a beauty that runs deeper than what you see. I’ve always heard from other travelers that you can fall in love with a place the same way you can fall in love with a person – fast, hard and when you least expect it. I’ve never believed  in that. Not until I’ve found Buscalan.

Know a place I should discover? Or want to travel together? Email me at  





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