MANILA – 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 extends across her small body to reveal the tribal, geometric tattoos that made her so famous.
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 refers to the 1000-year-old technique she uses to apply ink to 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 accouterments.
It is her image that attracts people to her.
Whang-Od is from Kalinga’s But-but tribe. After receiving instructions from her father, Whang-Od became a mambobatok at the age of 16.
In those days she inked only the most powerful warriors and fairest members of her tribe. Tattoos were considered status symbols.
“Men could only have a tattoo if they killed someone,” she said in a 2018 documentary.
Whang-Od was one of the many mambabatoks who were marginalized by community life after the United States occupied the Philippines in the early 1900s.
Tattoos – long a symbol of bravery, beauty, and fertility – were derided as marks of savagery, ignorance, and malfeasance.
Whang-Od continued to tattoo anyone she met, main women from her tribe.
Lark Krutak was filming the Philippine segment for his Discovery Channel series Tattoo Hunter when anthropologist Whang-Od was in Buscalan.
Whang-Od was then able to achieve stardom at a late age.
Now, thousands of tattoo enthusiasts – many of them from abroad – make the pilgrimage to her village, 12 hours from Manila.
It’s not an easy trip. The final leg involves a 1km hike along a narrow mountain trail. Buscalan is still visited by people, even if they are only there to see her in person. Whang Od attempts to give them a tattoo when she can.
“When visitors come from far away,” she told Vogue Philippines, “I will give them the task (stamp of) Buscalan, tatak Kalinga for as long as my eyes can see.”
Whang-Od is no longer able to ink the intricate designs she used to leave on the skins of the tribe’s warriors due to her age. They would be satisfied with three dots if she inks the intricate patterns they used to imprint on their skin.
Whang-Od will pass on all she knows 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.
Judi Dench was the oldest Vogue cover model before Whang-Od. She was 85 years old at the time.
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