106-year-old Philippine tattoo artist is Vogue’s oldest ever cover model

Apo Whang-Od is the last “mambabatok”, which describes the 1,000-year-old technique used for tattooing. PHOTO: ARTU NEPOMUCENO/VOGUE PHILIPPINES

Vogue Philippines has put 106-year-old Apo Whang-Od on the cover of its April issue, making the revered tattoo artist the oldest person to ever appear on the front page of Vogue – still the world’s pre-eminent fashion magazine.

The cover has Whang-Od – also known as Maria Oggay – staring straight into the camera, her lips slightly parted, as if she is about to smile but then had second thoughts about it. Her left arm crosses the width of her tiny body, revealing the geometric, tribal tattoos that have made her so iconic.

Whang-Od, who has lived all her life in the tiny, remote village of Buscalan, in Kalinga province in the Philippines’ far north, is the last “mambabatok” from an ancient age when tribes known for collecting the shrunken heads of their enemies as war trophies populated the thick, merciless jungles of northern Philippines.

“Mambabatok” means “one who pounces”. It describes the 1,000-year-old technique she uses when putting ink on skin. She tattoos by tapping into the skin – using a 30cm-long bamboo stick – a thorn from a pomelo or lime tree that is dipped in charcoal soot and water.

Her tribal tattoos are not as intricate or detailed by the standards of today’s inkers, with their fancy ink and tattooing accoutrements.

But it is what she represents that draws people to her.

Whang-Od comes from the But-but tribe in Kalinga. She became a mambabatok after receiving instructions from her father when she was just 16.

In those days, she would ink only the fiercest warriors and the fairest women of her tribe. The tattoos were a status symbol.

“Men could only have a tattoo if they killed someone,” she said in a 2018 documentary.

When the United States occupied the Philippines in the early 1900s and began spreading the Christian faith to the pagan tribes of Kalinga, mambabatoks like Whang-Od were pushed to the fringes of community life.

Tattoos – long a symbol of bravery, beauty and fertility – were derided as marks of savagery, ignorance and malfeasance.

But Whang-Od kept on tattooing anyone who came to her, mostly women of her tribe.

Then in 2007, anthropologist Lark Krutak came upon Whang-Od, already pushing 90, in Buscalan as he was filming the Philippine segment of his Discovery Channel series Tattoo Hunter.

That set Whang-Od off on a path of late-age stardom.

Now, thousands of tattoo enthusiasts – many of them from abroad – make the pilgrimage to her village, 12 hours from Manila.

It is not an easy trip to make. The last leg is a 1km hike through a narrow, winding mountain trail. But people still come to Buscalan, if only to see her in person, and Whang-Od tries to reward them with a tattoo, when she can.

“When visitors come from far away,” she told Vogue Philippines, “I will give them the tatak (stamp of) Buscalan, tatak Kalinga for as long as my eyes can see.”

Because of her age, though, Whang-Od can no longer ink the intricate patterns she used to imprint on the skin of the warriors of her tribe. Those who insist on having her tattoo them would have to be happy with just three dots.

But Whang-Od is passing on everything she knows, including the ancient chants that go with the tattooing process, to her grandnieces, Ms Grace Palicas, 26, and Ms Elyang Wigan, 23.

Vogue Philippines editor-in-chief Bea Valdes told CNN that the magazine decided to put Whang-Od on its cover because “we felt she represented our ideals of what is beautiful about our Filipino culture”.

“We believe that the concept of beauty needs to evolve, and include diverse and inclusive faces and forms. What we hope to speak about is the beauty of humanity,” said Ms Valdes.

Before Whang-Od, actress Judi Dench, who appeared on the cover of British Vogue in 2020, had been the oldest Vogue cover model. She was 85 then.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.