Vogue Philippines' oldest cover star is tattoo artist Whang-Od, aged 106

The celebrated artist has been hailed for keeping the traditional hand-tapping technique alive

Whang-Od is a mambabatok, or master tattoo artist. Photo: Vogue Philippines / Instagram
Powered by automated translation

Celebrated Filipina tattoo artist Whang-Od is the cover star of Vogue Philippines' April issue. And at a sprightly 106 years, she's also the oldest person to receive the honour.

Known for her hand-tapping traditional tattoo technique, which traces its roots back thousands of years, Whang-Od, who is also known as Maria Oggay, has recently seen her popularity rise thanks to social media.

"Maria 'Whang-Od' Oggay symbolises the strength and beauty of the Filipino spirit," Vogue Philippines said. "Heralded as the last mambabatok of her generation, she has imprinted the symbols of the Kalinga tribe — signifying strength bravery, and beauty — on the skin of thousands of people who have made the pilgrimage to Buscalan."

Hailing from the Kalinga province in the mountainous region of northern Philippines, Whang-Od is a member of the indigenous Butbut tribe. At 15, she broke tradition by becoming the first woman to practice batok, or hand-tapping tattoo art, which was earlier only exclusively passed on to male members of the tribe.

In its profile of her, Vogue Philippines praised Whang-Od for keeping the tradition alive, which faced near extinction following years of colonisation.

"In those days, unmarked women were considered imperfect, undesirable," it writes. "When the American Catholic missionaries came and built schools in Kalinga, village girls were made to cover their arms with long sleeves. Being tattooed became a point of shame when women ventured to the city, and eventually fewer girls from the succeeding generation continued the tradition as Western concepts of beauty and respectability began to permeate the culture."

As a mambabatok, or master tattoo artist, Whang-Od can only pass on her craft within her bloodlines. And because she doesn't have children of her own, her grandniece Grace Palicas was chosen to be her apprentice. Today, Palicas and her cousin Elyang continue the tradition, tending to hundreds of tourists that make the trek to their village every day.

Whang-Od no longer does intricate tattoos, only signing off with three dots after the chosen artwork is done by her apprentices.

"The 106-year-old's signature three dots representing herself, Grace and Elyang are also ellipses, signifying an open-endedness and a continuation that extends beyond its origins," Vogue Philippines writes.

Updated: March 31, 2023, 10:53 AM