May 27, 2017 03:00 AM PST
SINCE 2007

Surmounting Bgy Buscalan & braving the batok Part 2

By Lovel Aniag

Part 2: The Art of Batok
The art of batok is an age-old custom of tattooing by the Butbut tribe who are known for their fierce headhunting warriors. Tattoos are a symbol of bravery and are traditionally only given to a Butbut warrior who comes back with

the head of an opponent. The more tattoos a warrior has, the higher his stature 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 booming popularity of Whang–Od, any foreigner who wants to get a tattoo from a mambabatok (batok artist) must pass a ritual to determine if he is worthy of a tattoo. Today, batok can be done to anyone who is willing to do the pilgrimage – and still brave enough to push through getting one – because you will have doubts, trust me.

Whang-Od and her Proteges
Only women can become a mambabatok. Whang–Od is the last traditionally –bestowed mambabatok. 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 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 as a result of 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 at home while practicing batok on her aunt.

Tattoo process
The batok happens in a hut near Whang–Od’s home, overlooking the mountains. The view is calming. 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, the first time I set foot in the hut. I was nervous, but I was determined to get a tattoo from Whang–Od.

I have chosen my design the night before from a book Charlie lent us. The book was about traditional tattoo practices in the Philippines, written by an American author (the name escapes me). There is also a wooden flat board with tattoo designs drawn on it. 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 telling Whang–Od the size I wanted for my tattoo, Whang–Od laughed at me, 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 language. 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 ash from wood used for cooking fire. The ash is then mixed with water, creating a black paste.

After stenciling, Whang–Od took a second bamboo for “tapping”. The tapping makes the inked thorn go deep into the epidermis, similar to how needles from a tattoo machine work, analogue style.

For my first Whang–Od tattoo, the tapping process was relaxing and painless. My machine–made tattoo was even more painful. 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. The second the thorn hit my skin, I was regretting underestimating it. It was extremely painful – more painful than if it came from a machine!
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.

While the throbbing feeling might feel unbearable while it happens, it also felt very spiritual and elating. It’s like reaching the summit of a mountain after hiking up a treacherous trail without water or finally finding your great love after so many painful heartbreaks and fails.

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

After finishing the tattoo, 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 sometimes, four months after getting it. 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. 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 is 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 that. Not until I found Buscalan.