When I was a kid, I would usually go into a crazy panic at the sight of any part of me bleeding, but I sure as hell wasn’t panicking now. I looked at Fang-Od and the focus on her eyes. Left hand on a piece of bamboo with a thorn on the end, dipped in ink that was created from soot. Right hand on a long black stick she uses to tap the bamboo stick and the thorn. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap until the ink becomes part of the skin. Her pace is steady. Her movements instinctively measured. I looked at my arm and saw blood flowing from the small punctures she had made. Red mixed with black. I wondered how she could accurately dot everything to the pattern she had drawn with so much blood on the skin. Fang-Od tsk-tsked and wiped my arm with a rag. I’m a bleeder. It hurt, but I didn’t flinch. I don’t say that to sound brave. Not at all. It’s just I’ve somehow removed myself from the scene. The few times I actually wrinkled my nose was when the thorn snagged on my skin kinda like fabric snagging on an un-smooth needle. Now, that hurt. Everything else. All the other punctures, they were ok.
Let’s rewind to me meeting Fang Od the day before. I sat across Fang Od in this dark living room, totally star-struck. She’s famous after all, at least to a tattoo enthusiast like me. At 93, she is the oldest practitioner of the traditional art of Kalinga tattooing called batok. There are murmurs that she may be the last. The tradition now rests on her niece’s shoulders. Her name was Grace. I didn’t get to see her when we were there, but I heard that she tattoos, too. When she is home from school, that is. She is currently attending college, studying to be a teacher. Nothing is decided.
Fang-Od, as it is pronounced (should be spelled Whang-Od, but her sign spells it with an F, so let me stick with that), is a small woman. Her face lined with age, but beautiful. She has aged gracefully. I loved her eyes, which were small and dark but also somehow light. Her lips were pursed, but hinted a smile. She didn’t talk much the first time we met her. She must get these kinds of visits a lot, but she answered our questions, anyway—questions that have probably been asked before. Our guide translated between us.
Now fast forward to that morning on the first of July. I planned the date, really. July is meaningful to me. My birth month. I always get a little sad around July. I’ve been on a roll with bad birthdays since I was sixteen. I think this is a way of me making up for it—scheduling big activities around my month. I digress. So yes, first of July. I woke up early again. I blame it on my body not adjusting to the daytime. I think it thinks that I’m late for work and wakes me up at odd hours. That day, I woke up at 3. It wasn’t until a few hours later that everyone else woke up. Our hosts brewed coffee for us again. I am thankful for these cups of coffee. They seem to never run out of it and they offer it to us a lot. I’d get another cup later while I get tattooed by Fang-Od.
The two girls who I met in Tabuk were up first. They needed to get back to Manila and wanted to make sure not to miss the jeep to Bontoc, which by our guide’s estimate should pass around noon. So, it started. I observed and took a lot of pictures. The two girls had been friends for a long time. They have these pet names for each other: one was called kambing (goat), the other daga (mouse). It’s because they used to be party animals, they said. I suppose those are their animal counterparts. They had the similar idea I had, both had a body part they want tattooed, but wanted Fang-Od to decide what she would tattoo on them.
You get your own needle by the way, or thorn as it is. I’ve been asked that. Hygiene, a prerequisite to tattooing these days. But it doesn’t get any more sanitary than that. The rag Fang-Od uses to wipe the skin clean of blood looks like it’s been blackened by ink, but the water she dips it in is clear. There is no alcohol or antiseptic used. Pigs and chicken walked around the vicinity. There is no wrapping the tattoo after it is done. This is the rawest form of tattooing.
I watched Fang-Od study her canvas, one of the girls’ back, and then start drawing the pattern. She uses a sort of thin flexible stem. Once she’s happy with the pattern, she starts the tapping. The girl’s skin wasn’t very susceptible to the ink, Fang-Od had to redo the line three times before she was happy with it. This is a real thing, actually, a tattoo artist I’ve worked with before once said that my skin was great for tattooing because it takes the ink really well. The girl was a trooper. I could see her back tense up. She would ask Fang-Od to stop every once in a while because it hurt too much. I wasn’t certain if Fang-Od understood or not. Perhaps she did, but thought it better to keep at it anyway. She’d stop once in a while after the girl would let out this sort of yelp from the pain and a smile would play around her mouth and her eyes.
After she finished tattooing the first girl, she went on to the next one. Looked at her canvas, this time the feet, started marking and again, as soon as she was satisfied with the pattern, went on to tattooing. I empathized with the girl. Even if I’ve never been tattooed on the foot—wrist, yes; back, yes; ribs and hip area, yes—it looked like it would hurt a lot because of the thin skin and the veins. Eventually, the girl would ask for water, her face looked pallid. Our guide and the other locals, who seemed to have gathered around us, loved telling stories of the other people who were being tattooed that passed out from the pain. Then Fang-Od was done. Each of the girl’s tattoos took about an hour to do. I looked at their tattoos longingly. My pent-up excitement, which had been overshadowed by fear earlier in the day, had bubbled back up to the surface.
Our guide told us that we will have breakfast first, and then the girls can do any last minute packing before he guides them down the mountain while I get my tattoo done. So we ate, the girls packed, I prepared my camera and the borrowed tripod. When the girls were ready, my guide led the way downhill, back to Fang-Od’s place, where we found her feeding her pigs. Our guide explained what I wanted done. A tattoo on my right wrist that was about the size of the one on the left. She can choose the design for me. Then goodbyes were said and I watched their heads disappear on the trail down the mountain and out of sight. I waited for Fang-Od to be ready for me.
When she was ready, Fang-Od signaled for me to head back to the spot where she tattooed the two girls. We did it this way. Fang-Od did not speak Tagalog. I did not speak their dialect. We talked to each other with our hands, pointing, waving, gesturing. She gestured me to sit and she prepped her tools: the bamboo stick and thorn, her tapping stick, a small tub of water with a rag in it, and the ink, that she had mixed. I set up the tripod and the camera to record the session. She showed me her arm and pointed to a pattern on it. I assume that is to say that is what she will tattoo on me. I nodded.
Just as she did on the two other girls, she started drawing the pattern on me with a thin, flexible stem, dipped in ink. Fang-Od didn’t draw the whole pattern on. She started with a base, and after she was done tattooing that, she would draw the other parts of it and tattoo again.
I watched her at work on my skin. There is something incredibly fascinating about it and about her. Sometimes, a local would ask me questions, or make jokes about me possibly marrying someone from their tribe. I welcomed the little distractions. They made me coffee, which I didn’t get a chance to drink until the session was done. My right arm was being tattooed. I am right-handed. A Brazilian student, who had been living with the tribe for weeks for his paper, came over and asked some questions, too. It’s amazing to me how these foreigners hear about Fang-Od, when some Filipinos don’t even know she exists.
After about an hour of incessant tapping, it was over. I studied my arm and saw how even with the tiny pools of blood that hovered over the black ink, I could see the tiny dots that formed the pattern on my skin. One of the locals, named Simon, translated for Fang-Od. Apparently, the tattoo is a snake—a python, he said— a form of protection. My new built-in talisman. I thanked Fang-Od, asked if I could give her a hug. She obliged. I couldn’t believe it was over.
I believe that you have to earn your tattoos. That’s why you have to go through a bit of pain to get them. In this case, I had to go through more than the usual pain. There was the journey to the place, the sweat and the blood—I don’t remember any of my other tattoos bleeding when I got them. This has got to be my most memorable tattoo yet.
This post is part of a series I wrote about a recent trip to Kalinga– to the village of Buscalan to meet the famed Kalinga Tattooist, Fang-Od. Check out the other posts by clicking on the links below:
- Travelogue Kalinga: July First Twenty-thirteen
- The Long Road to Buscalan
- A Night in Buscalan and How We Crashed a Birthday Party
- On Meeting and Getting Tattooed by Fang-Od
- Layover Banaue: The Road Home and People I Met Along the Way