The Spanish conquistadors who landed in 1521 dubbed the Philippines the Islands of the Painted Ones after the heavily tattooed locals. Nearly 500 years on, tribal tattooing is almost extinct. Aya Lowe met the islands’ last practitioner and those trying to keep the tradition alive.
For more than eight decades, Whang-Od has been inking the headhunting warriors and women of her Kalinga tribe.
Using the traditional "tapping" style, dating back a thousand years, she hammers ink into the skin using the spike of a calmansi (lime) tree attached to a bamboo stick that has been dipped in wet charcoal.
The simple designs are evocative of the nature around her in the mountainous region of the Cordilleras – outlines of centipedes, trees and snakes or basic geometric patterns such as diamonds and squares. These, she says, are "earthly messengers from the gods [that] protect you from enemies or bad spirits".
Not for the light-hearted, this slow, primitive method is extremely painful and would have been endured for short periods only. Large tattoos might take several months to complete.
However, at 94, Whang-Od – whose own skin is etched with a variety of designs – is likely to be the last of her kind.
Tradition dictates that skills can only be passed down family lines. Having lost the love of her life at the age of 25 in a logging accident, Whang-Od did not marry again and bore no children."It can’t be passed on to anyone else," she insists. "It has to be within the same family […]