Maria Oggay, also known as Apo Whang-Od, a traditional tattoo artist or mambabatok, and the last of her generation, has been officially nominated for the 2020 Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA) or the National Living Treasures Award by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).
In Resolution No. 2021-061 passed during a regular session of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan of Tabuk City, Kalinga, the oldest living traditional tattoo practitioner was respectfully nominated under the Social Practices, Rituals, and Festive Events -Traditional Tattooing category for her invaluable contribution to the country’s heritage.
The resolution described Apo Whang-Od’s incredible journey in keeping Kalinga’s thousand-old art form alive. For more than seventy (70) years, Apo Whang-Od has been tattooing Kalinga warriors and women going through the rites of passage: childbirth, adulthood, marriage, and death. She is considered the last tattoo artist of her generation, using a mixed pigment of soot and water, a coconut bowl, an orange/calamansi thorn attached to the end of a small bamboo stick, another stick as a tapper, and a long piece of dried bamboo grass as tattoo template.
As a spiritual practice, Mambabatoks can only impart the art form to their bloodline, and since Apo Whang-Od didn’t have children, it was feared that there will be no more Mambabatoks who will carry on the tradition for the next generations to come. However, a decade ago, Apo Whang-Od has trained her great-nieces as apprentices, intensively teaching them the archive of ancient designs, finesse and coordination involving the art.
Whang-Od also paved a way for Kalinga to become a haven for Philippine indigenous art form, with a lot of travelers from within and outside of the country, going on a pilgrimage to the high mountains of Buscalan, Tinglayan to pay homage and be tattooed by Apo Whang-Od.
For the “batok” to survive until the next generations, it is no longer earned as a rite of passage and has evolved into an art form as its salvation from becoming extinct. Thanks to Apo Whang-Od’s contribution in the evolution and development of the cultural practice, she will no longer be the last mambabatok in Kalinga. Instead, she will live as the mother of Kalinga’s new generation of tattooists.
The “Manlilikha ng Bayan” award is given to citizen engaged in any traditional art uniquely Filipino whose distinctive skills have reached such a high level of technical and artistic excellence and have been passed on to and widely practiced by the present generation in his/her community with the same degree of technical and artistic competence.