That’s what the “controversy” surrounding the alleged exploitation of Whang-ud, the Kalinga tattoo artist whom many consider a living cultural treasure, is turning out to be.
The whole exercise is a lesson in what can happen when people get their news from social media, where “viral” doesn’t necessarily mean “verifiable.”
Much of the outrage stemmed from a photograph of the centenarian dozing off during a forum. Commenters assumed that the old girl must have been exhausted from so much tattooing, hence the cries of “exploitation.”
Later, family members with her said she was just bored, not being able to understand Filipino or English. Spokespeople for the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions (Citem), the event organizers, explained that Whang-ud herself tattooed only a handful of selected clients. Most of the tattooing was done by her two apprentices, with Whang-ud adding only her signature three dots later.
By then, the proverbial toothpaste was out of the tube, and government—in the form of a party-list group representing senior citizens and the Department of Tourism—had joined the fray.
In what has become typical of online discourse, the more thoughtful, reasonable voices were drowned out by louder, hyperventilating ones.
After several days, the emerging consensus is that everybody should stop wringing their hands: 1. Citem did not exploit Whang-ud, who is said to be a hundred years old, by making her tattoo too many clients; 2. Whang-ud and her family were fully aware of what was expected of them and did receive fair compensation (up to P800,000 for the three-day event, and face time with Coco Martin, according to reports); 3. the circus atmosphere of the Manila Fame trade show might not have been the most respectful venue for batok, the Kalinga term for her age-old art, and Citem could have put in more due diligence before putting on the show, but Whang-ud herself welcomed it as another opportunity to keep the tradition alive.
“Did we ever ask Apo Whang-ud directly if she was indeed ‘exploited?’” asks Analyn Salvador-Amores, a professor of anthropology at the Cordillera Studies Center of the University of the Philippines Baguio in a Facebook post.
“What did she think of the event? I have asked Apo Whang-ud many times in my research and many visits to the village, if she likes what she is doing, most especially with the influx of tourists coming in to get tattoos. I usually get a reply that ‘she loves what she is doing, and she will tattoo as much as she can, as long as her eyes can see…
“…Apo Whang-ud is also a human being, already a cultural icon, some would see her as a goddess on a pedestal, but like any other person, she also has her own agency. It is ‘us’ (our outsider’s view, our “othering,” our etic [from the outside] perspective) that gives this ideological interpretation that it was unfair, unjust and exploitative in nature, but did we ask her?”
An Oxford-educated cultural anthropologist, Salvador-Amores wrote a definitive study of batok, “Tapping Ink, Tattooing Identities: Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Kalinga Society” (UP Press, 2013), the product of several months’ immersion in Tinglayan, Kalinga, during which she met Whang-ud and received a tattoo from her.
In it she noted that although the practice of batok was on the decline in Kalinga, there has been an unprecedented revival in the remote village of Buscalan, thanks to the global interest in skin art and the growing international celebrity of its most famous resident.
Whang-ud seems to have single-handedly placed Kalinga on the world map.
It began 10 years ago when she was featured on the Discovery Channel’s documentary series “Tattoo Hunter.”
Today there is a regular stream of local and foreign tourists making the arduous trek to Whang-ud’s studio to receive a prized tattoo from her, including celebrities such as actress Rhian Ramos. The effects, as noted in “Tapping Ink,” have been significant and far-reaching.
P1,000-P2,000 for tourists
According to Salvador-Amores, Whang-ud has adjusted her rates to accommodate increasing demand. Traditionally, Kalinga tattooists were paid with pigs, rice, labor or even land. Whang-ud has adjusted her rates to between P1,000 to P2,000 for tourists, with a special rate for locals.
Some netizens objecting to Whang-ud’s so-called exploitation also decried what they called the “commodification of culture.”
In the past, Kalinga warriors received tattoos to mark their exploits (including heads taken), while women were tattooed for adornment. Today, all comers can get a tattoo for a fee.
In “Tapping Ink,” Salvador-Amores also says the Kalinga have always distinguished between tattooing as a tribal rite, and tattooing for adornment.
“When I asked the Butbut (the ethnic group to which Whang-ud belongs) why the practice of tattooing outsiders was allowed… most simply answered that the context of tattooing has now changed,” she writes. “The Butbut understand that tattooing is a source of identity or individuality and that tattoos satisfy deeply personal and private reasons. Such acts are seen to both validate tradition and address contemporary needs.”
More significantly, the anthropologist also noted that while older Kalingas considered tattooing a sign of backwardness, younger Kalingas are again embracing traditional tattoos, both as a symbol of pride in their cultural heritage and, ironically, as a sign of modernity and being “cool.”
Getting inked has provided them a way out of that age-old dilemma of whether to stay true to their roots or blend in with modern urban culture: now they can do both.
Often billed as “the last Kalinga manwhatok (tattoo artist),” Whang-ud no longer has to fear that the knowledge will die with her. A number of her younger family members are set to continue her work.
Whang-ud’s popularity has also had a ripple effect far beyond Buscalan, or even Kalinga. Tattoo artists of Igorot descent, not necessarily Kalinga, are using their own traditional designs and motifs as springboard for a new kind of tribal tattooing.
Many lowland Filipino tattoo artists have also included traditional designs and motifs in their repertoire. Although most of them use a modern electric tattoo needle, a few have gone as far as to adopt the traditional batok technique, which uses a pomelo thorn as needle and carbon black and water as pigment, as additional measure of “authenticity.”
The sheer number of people that Whang-ud has tattooed also serve as living catalog of the designs, patterns and motifs that were once only in her head.
In her post, Salvador-Amores cautions purists against the simplistic view of seeing this as somehow a corruption of “authentic” Kalinga culture.
“We should not be a ‘romantic anthropologist’ when we view culture as something that is ‘pure,’ ‘traditional’ or ‘pristine’; Kalinga tattoos also evolve, are never static and always dynamic! It also goes with the flow of modernity. Like the people, the tattoos also go through the process of inevitable change. But what I implore is to have this cultural sensibility and sensitivity to culture, and to respect the practitioners of the tradition, whether Apo Whang-ud in Buscalan or elsewhere. Respect is of utmost importance here.
Something is lost
That being said, many people also feel that something is being lost as batok spreads far beyond the borders of Kalinga.
“Many of those getting tattooed by Whang-ud are not aware of the spiritual side of tattooing,” says photographer Tommy Hafalla. “There are corresponding rituals that go with being tattooed.”
Hafalla, who has been documenting the lifeways of the people of the Cordillera for more than 30 years now in striking, usually black-and-white images, received a chest tattoo from Whang-ud some years ago.
It was Whang-ud who decided that he should be tattooed by her, recalls Hafalla. She also chose an animal to be slaughtered for the feast, and afterward a ritual was performed to declare to the community at large the purpose and significance of his tattoo.
Whang-ud may be the best known tattoo artist from Kalinga, but Hafalla says she is far from being the last one, as she has been branded in the media. There are at least five other tattoo artists in Tinglayan alone, he says, and many others elsewhere in Kalinga.
(On a side note, Hafalla also takes issue with how the tattoo artist’s name is spelled. In Buscalan’s dialect, he says, it is spelled Bang-od and pronounced Fang-od. In fact, “Fang-od” is tattooed on Whang-ud’s hand, he says, and the same spelling is used on her signboard in her home.)
The silver lining in the whole affair is that it has increased awareness of such issues as cultural appropriation and cultural sensitivity.
“I don’t see such controversies as negative, because it triggers people to think, to go beyond the box, beyond stereotypes and look at deeper issues, such as the question of who decides how to express the culture of our indigenous people,” says Dr. Nestor Castro, a professor of anthropology at the University of the Philippines in Diliman and currently its vice chancellor for community affairs.
“There is still a great need for cultural sensitivity, which is still very weak in the Philippines, among different groups: the organizers of events such as FAME, from government, from media and even from the indigenous people themselves, because I see cultural sensitivity as two-way.”
This applies not only to Whang-ud’s case but to all interactions between the country’s cultural communities and the world at large: how should these distinct and sometimes fragile cultures be presented in a way that is properly respectful and nonpatronizing?
Castro also says there is a gray area between legitimate cultural expression and cultural appropriation that indigenous communities should learn to navigate, perhaps with the help of “gatekeepers” such as the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples to facilitate an open discourse. That way they can decide on how best to present their culture, fully aware and informed of the implications this might have on their way of life.