Blurred Lines: The Mambabatok of Kalinga
The trip to Barangay Buscalan in the municipality of Tinglayan, Kalinga province wasn’t easy — ten hours on a bus from Manila to Banaue on a winding road heading north. To sleep, you had your knees up almost against the headrest of the person in front of you, your feet stowed in the pocket of that same seat where you would later mix with candy wrappers after one, two, three stopovers. You would want to recline your seat, but wouldn’t, for the sole reason that the person in front of you did not. Three rows away, there was a lady who sat through the whole night on a monobloc chair.
Before we headed to the province of Kalinga, residents of Mountain Province warned us about the place because of its history. American anthropologist Roy Barton lived there for 10 years to study the Kalinga tradition of headhunting. In his 1960 book, The Half-way Sun: Life Among the Headhunters of the Philippines he debunked the widely believed reason for headhunting: as something done against rival tribes. He found out that the Kalinga practiced headhunting to relieve anger or frustration, and that anyone could have had their head chopped off if found at the wrong place at the wrong time. It was a practice that even the police didn’t stop because it was a tradition. Luckily for us, the last known acts of headhunting occurred in the 1960s—these days, the people of Buscalan are known to be the friendliest of the Kalinga.
On the jeep to Buscalan, every corner was stuffed with sacks of goods to be delivered to the barangays of Tinglayan. The front bumper was crammed with live chickens. Carabao meat was packed in the railing at the back. The roof was loaded with sacks of rice and most of our bags. And because the jeep was already full inside, we sat on the roof.
It’s common practice to topload in the Cordilleras; even jeepney stops have two floors to easily load both cargo and people on top. You had to find a comfortable position between the sacks, iron railings, and bags. You get to Buscalan from Bontoc via a two-lane highway that hugs the mountain sides tightly above the Chico River. The key to toploading is to hold on to something stable, because the road makes many sharp turns. At times, you find yourself leaning on the edge of the jeep, looking down the bottom of a ravine.
The rain started to pour, so we had to hold a large, opaque plastic sheet above our heads. One of us found comfort in this (he was afraid of heights) but it was a different case for most of us. We couldn’t see where the jeep was on the road; we could have been on the edge of a cliff, for all we knew. When the rain stopped, we took down the sheet, revealing a panoramic view of the Cordillera landscape — a sight that would have been framed by the cramped windows of the jeep if we chose to ride inside.
Buscalan is not along the main road. When we reached Barangay Bugnay, the jeepney dropped off some goods and then made a turn into a dirt road that headed up to Buscalan.
When the road got too narrow for the jeep, we all got off and went on foot. The path to Buscalan is a series of paved walkways, steps, and bridges. The view on the way was no different from atop the jeepney. But unlike the postcard destinations of Batad and Banaue, the terraces in Tinglayan, though limited by the steeper terrain, were more intimate patches that grew with the communities they surround. Houses in Buscalan used to be made of cogon grass until a fire forced the residents to rebuild their home with more fire-resistant materials. After about an hour of walking, we reached the Buscalan Elementary School, and right next to it was Apo Fang-od’s house.
Apo Fang-od is one of the last traditional tattoo artists of the Philippines. These tattoo artists are known as the mambabatok, from the word batok (to hit). They apply tattoos by driving a stick with an inked thorn into the skin, making small pigments until it forms a design. The “ink” is a mixture of water and soot from the charred bottoms of pots that the Kalinga use for cooking.
Inside a room in Apo Fang-Od’s house sit dozens of photos given to her by visitors, both Filipino and foreign. Rob, a visitor from New York, was sitting uneasily under her porch when we got there late in the afternoon. It turns out that Rob, who had arrived the day before, just got a tattoo on his thigh. He laughed as he told us that he was in pain and that he couldn’t move. Squatting on the steps right next to him was Fang-od herself. She was smiling when we first saw her. For someone who is world-renowned, Fang-od carries herself quietly.
The practice of Kalinga tattooing is taught from generation to generation. The 93-year-old has been tattooing since her father made her tattoos and taught her how to make them at age 25. She is now the mentor of her grandniece, Grace. Fang-od and Grace sometimes take turns working on a single tattoo. They can each work on two to three people in a day, but they were already done when we got there. The tattooing had to continue on the next day.
After breakfast the next day, we found Fang-od sitting with other village elders in front of her house. She understands Filipino, but only speaks Ilocano. Luckily, someone in our group knows Ilocano and served as our translator. We asked about her tattoos and what they meant. She had long python scale patterns along both arms as well as patterns of mountains, turtles, and rice fields.
She told us that when we arrived, she guessed who the partners of the women in our group were, and even matched some of us. Fang-od then told us about a tattoo on her wrist with a name. She told us that the wrist is reserved for the name of one’s partner. When we asked where her partner was, she answered that he left a long time ago and that she never looked for someone else.
Four people in our group were going to get tattoos that day. A book on the mambabatok of Kalinga by tattoo anthropologist Larz Krutak, who lived in Buscalan for a year, served as a catalog of designs. They chose simple and small designs for their backs and calves. Grace and Fang-od split the work, and for the entire afternoon you’d only hear the rhythmic tapping of their bamboo sticks. Each tattoo took about two hours to finish, including breaks. Fang-od spent her break time by chatting with friends and feeding her livestock.
For many people, tattoos are usually given much thought. It’s a permanent mark, and people want to be sure about it, but there are others who would rather decide on the spot and just accept whatever happens. Someone from our group decided to get a tattoo right then and there.
He had a sketch made on his back, trusting Grace’s word that it was a good design. He changed his mind at the last minute, opting to copy the python pattern on Grace’s back instead.
Most tattoos seen today can be described as clean. They are made using instruments capable of making precise illustrations. We find a sense of beauty in something that is precise. We get exactly what we want.
Tattoos made using traditional methods, like that of the mambabatok, do not come with this guarantee. These tattoos are made by hand and are prone to errors. Patterns might not be perfectly aligned. Lines aren’t that defined. Perhaps, this is what is alluring to the more daring: accepting uncertainty and the possibility of something else — and allowing it to surprise you. We can learn a thing or two by letting go of our constraints.
The next morning, we woke up early to leave on the first jeep back to Bontoc. It was the first day of the new school year for the kids so everybody was rushing out of Buscalan. We said goodbye to our hosts and Fang-od and started the walk back to the jump-off point.
The jeepney ride back to Bontoc was different. Unlike the day we came, where the sun gave way to rain and we were left wondering if the next turn would already be our destination or a drop to our deaths – we felt more at home on our way back. The rooftop was still a bit cramped, but the sun was high and we were one with the clear sky and the Cordilleras.
We didn’t even notice the time.
Photos by Sarah Aquino, Joseph Angan, Tata Yap, and Ryan Racca.
Sarah Aquino graduated from Ateneo de Manila University with degrees in Management, Philosophy, and Literature. She also writes and loves to take photos. She now works for Teach for the Philippines, an NGO that helps find teachers for public schools.
Joseph Angan is Kamusta Magazine’s Photography Editor. Joseph also studied Physics, Materials Science Engineering, and Philosophy in Ateneo de Manila University, where he also learned photography. He now works at the Munden Project, a consultancy that handles projects on land use and renewable energy.