By Christian Bulos 

Wow, this was a pilgrimage and above all, it was a once and a lifetime opportunity. 

She is the main reason for giving our heritage a direction in which to find our identity again, the true Filipino identity (pre-colonisation and outside influences) through our rites and rituals via the most scared of ways, through tattooing. 

This was a trek that took us (my family and I, with my boys 6 and 8 years of age) from Berwick/Melbourne, Australia to Buscalan, Philippines. It wasn’t just the eight-hour plane trip to another country, nor the several hours drive from Manila to Baguio and to Buscalan, but also the hike through the mountain tops to go to her village. It was a journey that I could not have imagined that I would make myself alone but having my family make it through was just purely amazing. 

It was wet from the afternoon rain on the day, there was debris from the cliff top of the edge of where the concrete stopped being the end road. We were in full gear ready to go on foot. Our local Kalinga guide Uma met us at the edge of the hill. She greeted us with a smile and handed guide sticks for the journey; my boys more excited than I am as I had some fear as what was to come with landslides in mind.

Kalinga guide Uma with Christian Bulos' family
Kalinga guide Uma with Christian Bulos’ family
Kalinga trek
Kalinga trek
Christian Bulos and family
Christian Bulos and family

She grabbed my wife’s bag and our groceries as we would stay the night at the village and we both wondered how she would carry them, with the bag on her back and groceries on top of her head and a pair slippers. We started our descent. Met with lush green environment and steps (if you can call them that) paved the way to our hike, down and up the hill while seeing waterfalls and narrow bridges and slippery paths, it took us at least under an hour to reach the village. 

Free range wild pigs and chickens roam the village with people and smiles to go along with more rain, we made it. We got there! I was just so proud of my family, my wife and kids to making the trek.

We got settled into Kuya Charlie’s kubo adorned with animal skulls decorating the whole place with a simple mattress to rest on. We had a traditional Dagum coffee and discussed if I would be able to receive a tattoo from Apo Whang Od. (Apo Whang Od is the oldest and last mambabatok, a traditional Kalinga tattoo artist)

Apo Whang Od house wall
Apo Whang Od’s wall

The news was there was a wedding ongoing and majority of the people were there and we were welcome to come, but as it was about to finish we decided to stay put. I had also said to our guide that it was my and my wife’s 10 year anniversary and was coincidentally pleased about the celebration. 

Apo Whang Od was apparently on her way back, but they said she may be tired to do a tattoo and it may happen tomorrow instead. I was just too overwhelmed already, having made it to her village and was very happy even contemplating receiving a tattoo from her.

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So we rested in the kubo, while my eldest son was drawing and copying Kalinga tattoo designs. I had noticed a pattern that resonated with me and had decided if I was able to get a tattoo done by Apo Whang Od, it would be that one with an expanded version. 

Looking at a book, handed to me filled with tattoos done by Whang Od and pictures of people wearing tattoos that adorned their bodies, it dawned on me more and more that this art should be researched, preserved and continued, as it is our art, our way, our identity. 

Book of tattoos
A book with tattoos done by Whang Od

After a little while we got a knock from our guide Uma asking us to follow her, to see Apo Whang Od. I was puzzled but somewhat excited at the same time. When we got to her house, again with a knock from Uma, she comes out and then wow, I was speechless. She is small in stature but I was awed by her great presence. 

How do you greet a national treasure, a person that you look up to and that you have so much respect for continuous inspiration? I’ve met some inspirational people and of power, but this was another level that I think cannot be met again. 

Christian Bulos and family with Apo Whang Od
Christian Bulos and family with Apo Whang Od
Christian Bulos with Apo Whang Od
Christian Bulos with Apo Whang Od

Uma introduced my family and I to her and greated us all with a smile and a nod, as we did her. Uma from her gestures, I gathered, had conveyed my interest in receiving a tattoo from her. Then she proceeded to grab her tools and pointed to us to go toward across another kubo. At this time, I was told that usually she would not entertain people late in the afternoon to settle in and rest, and that majority of the time she would only do her three dotted signature tattoo. 

We proceeded to go to a seat next to another kubo, and she had pointed at which I was interested in getting tattooed. I pointed at the patterns and she immediately said family and unity and took a glance at my family and instantaneously understood why I would get it. 

Drawing in the shapes of the patterns with a little stencil stick no bigger than a tooth pick she was able to apply in the design in preparation for the tat tat tat noise of two sticks hitting one another, with one having the tip of the calamansi thorn penetrating the skin and the abo mixed with water being the substance that marks the skin. (Note also that the word tattoo derived from the tat tat tat noise. Started in Tahiti/Polynesia, hence when people say “inked”, it’s actually the wrong term and most people in the tattoo industry dislike to hear, as you don’t get inked, you get tattooed.)

Tat tat tat, with her steady hands she proceeded to tattoo, my wife asked if it hurts. I take a good look around; everything was still though the noise was there—the surrounding was green hills and awash with raindrops, my wife and kids watching on along with a group of local villagers. I said to her I think it does hurt physically, but I’m too busy relishing the moment to worry if it did or not… tat tat tat it continued and a trickle of blood dripping, I watched and learned.

I was proud and I knew that this moment is very special, a rite of passage. It stamped centuries or thousands of years of cultural roots embedded in blood and body. The patterns represented unity, my family, our trek, my pride, a reminder of our trip here in the Philippines where I was born, embracing my culture, my passion as an artist, my kids to remember this moment, and to my wife our 10 years of being married together. All of this represented in the most ancient of procedures, tat tat tat, with her signature three dots added like an artist signing a canvas. It was done. My tattoo was complete. 

Apo Whang Od
Apo Whang Od
Apo Whang Od at work as tattoo artist
Apo Whang Od at work as tattoo artist

But she continued, after having handed her funds for the tattoo. She said she had no change but I did not want any as she has given more to me than I could ever expect. 

She continued, looked at my wife and asked  her if she would like to get one done. 

To explain my wife does not have one tattoo on her, even after being married all this time to a tattoo artist, she has always been appreciative and respectful of all art and tattoos but had never indicated nor implied that she would ever get one. 

Then back to the question at hand, swaying back and forth and the many ummms, she decided to say yes! Whang Od and I had a laugh, as we both know and have seen that reaction from multitude of people. As tattoo artists, what a kindred spirit moment! 

Tat tat tat, she tattooed my wife her signature three dots. My wife bruised, bloodied and tattooed, says ohh that wasn’t too bad. The bravest of women— Uma, Whang Od and my wife, I saw all strong, steady, inspirational and unquivering. Again I was proud and for my sons to see and experience all this with us is as priceless as time. 

My wife and I also intended to renew our vows. Ideas of Tagaytay overlooking Taal Volcano and the Provincial Church at Laur Nueva Ecija had come into mind. This we had not foreseen, but it was the perfect way tattoos that would last for a lifetime and beyond by someone who we both adore and have much respect for witnessed by our kids and a small group of villagers in the most serene setting in the world. Wow, how can one explain that!

READ: A tattoo of the artist as Christian Bulos

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