You’ve probably heard about Apo Whang-Od from posts and pictures on social media. She’s a tattoo artist hailing from Buscalan, Tinglayan, Kalinga, and hailed as the last “mambabatok”, or the last traditional Kalinga tattooist from the Butbut Tribe in Kalinga. She was born in 1918, so she’s most probably 98 or 99 years old now, and she also takes the title of being the oldest tattoo artist in the Philippines. Interested yet?
Well, Jake Versoza, a Manila-based freelance fashion and commercial photographer, spent three years creating a black and white photobook depicting tattoos on aged skin of the women of Kalinga. He created the photobook with the intention of preserving the memory of these tattooed women, who remain to embody the beauty of the past through their symbolic and meaningful tattoos.
The “pagbabatok” or the art of tapping the tattoo ink mixture of charcoal and water into the skin with the use of the thorn end of a calamansi or pomelo is a rite of passage for the men and women of Kalinga.
The tattoos that adorn the skin of the men and women of Kalinga aren’t just mere accessories. They symbolize beauty, wealth and prosperity, and honor. However, the passage of time and the proliferation of western influence have skewed the perception of these tattoos as ancient and barbaric to the point that the number of people who still practice this tradition has significantly dwindled.
Versoza’s photobook received international acclaim when it was included as one of the eight highly-esteemed works in the Steidl Book Award Asia. It was picked as part of the top eight submissions from Asia by Gerhard Steidl, a renowned photobook publisher.
Versoza’s photobook has been exhibited in six countries, namely: Denmark, France, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands and Singapore. It has also earned praises from Suzy Menkes, editor of Vogue International.
Photo Credits: Jake Versoza