Fang-Od, a Tattoo Celebrity in Buscalan

As I mentioned in my previous post, after spending some time in Lubuagan, a town in the Cordillera, we continued to a small Kalinga village called Buscalan.  No small feat to get there, as we had to ride a bus for 3 hours (with me sitting on top of it, allegedly for a better view), a motorcycle on a dirt road for 20 minutes, and finally, a rigorous hike of 2 hours (at my pace at least).  It is a long journey but a very scenic one, navigating peaks and gorges and surrounded by magnificent emerald-rice terraces.  Buscalan is a small village of 800 inhabitants and one celebrity, Ms. Fang-Od (Whang-Od) a tattoo artist.

Tattooing is an art form closely linked to the Kalinga culture.  In the old days, both men and women used to get extensive tattoos; men would get tattooed to convey their prowess as headhunters whereas women would beautify themselves with refined tattoos looking almost like delicate laces.  Today, men have abandoned the practice (let’s hope they abandoned head hunting, too), and now it is mostly older women who still sport the traditional Kalinga tattoo.  In Buscalan, Fang-Od, an incredibly energetic, beautiful, and spirited 93-year-old tries to keep the art form alive. She acquired real notoriety in the tattooing world when she was featured in 2010 in the “Tattoo Hunter” show on Discovery Channel.  Since then Fang-Od gets many visitors ready to make a long journey to get her very special brand of tattooing.

So we visited with Fang-Od for a few days hoping she would get a customer (I was eager to see Fang-Od practicing her craft but not eager enough to volunteer).  We also visited with women in the village adorned by Fang-Od.  When she is not busy tattooing, Fang-Od goes about her life much like the other people in the village, cooking, cleaning, and feeding the animals.  Finally, a young Filipino arrived, after a 17-hour journey from Manila and Fang-Od got her tools ready.  As a needle, she uses a thorn from a local citrus tree that she attaches to a narrow piece of bamboo which she then strikes with a mallet.  Her “ink” is also homemade, as she uses the soot collected from her cooking pans.  After some discussion (the young man already had a tattoo on his leg and wanted Fang-Od to do hers right next to the existing one, an idea that Fang-Od resisted as she tried to be respectful of the tattoo already there), Fang-Od got to work. For a couple of hours, we watched and listened to the repetitive sound of her methodically hitting the bamboo. The steadiness of her hands and the sharpness of her vision are remarkable for someone of that age (or any age for that matter).  One wonders what her secret is.  Another mystery is that she never married and did not have children, a rarity in the Kalinga tribe.

As for the rest of the visit, we spent time with the villagers, who were all remarkably friendly to visitors, kindly offering sweet Kalinga coffee, a popular drink consumed all day long.  During our visit, a house was being built, and everybody in the village seems to lend a helping hand. As the home was nearly completed, a pig and a chicken were sacrificed (and eaten) to bring good luck to the new property.

Lots of time was also spent in the rice fields, where things were relatively quiet at the time of the year we were visiting.  Only a few workers, including older women, were getting the fields ready for planting and seeding.  Still, it was hard not to be amazed by the sheer beauty of the surroundings.

Farewell Fang-Od, farewell Buscalan, farewell the Philippines.




18 Responses

  1. Loved your shallow depth of field in the photo where Fang Od is ready to strike the thorn into the leg.
    Also like the totally black background with her tattooed flesh in the dim light as her face is in profile. Wonderful image.
    Will you be photographing any human sacrifices in the near future?

    1. Thanks Julie. I couldn’t volunteer and photograph. This is the only reason why I did not volunteer, nothing to do with being a wimp!

    1. Jacob!!! This is a public commitment you are making. Is this a dare? How big would the tattoo be? I can go sometimes next year 😉

  2. The prospect of being married to Fang- Od might come with the fear of finding unexpected tattoos upon awakening . Fantastic design on her body did you ask who did hers and when?
    Beautiful photos of their well organized rice fields.

    1. Emilie,
      Glad you like the images. I don’t think you can get tattoed in your sleep. It would wake you up rather quickly 😉 I think Fang-Od is a feisty independent woman who did not think she needed a husband or maybe there is a love story that she does not want to share. Her tattoos were mostly done by her master (teacher) when she was a young woman and a few things were added later. For the Kalingas, tattoos all have meanings and functions. Apparently some of them are even done for “medical” reasons. Clearly a whole different approach to the art and practice of tattoing.
      All the best, France

  3. I’ve never been very fond of tattoos, but as always your photos make everything seem beautiful and special. And the lacey designs were quite ladylike! I’m so glad to meet all these unique cultures through this blog. Thank you!

    1. Truth be told, I am not a fan of tattoos either but I am a fan of Fang-Od. And I am impressed by the dexterity required to do the work. I really liked her work. It looks so elegant to me, so different than the tattoos I had seen before. I am glad you visit the blog. Thank you!

  4. As usual you have taken me somewhere I have not been ,the pictures are great or otherwise.Cant wait for your next travel and am really glad you are not going to photograph a sacrifice —human or any other!

    1. Serena, thanks for visiting. No worries, I have no plans for human sacrifice, seeing the tattooing was challenging enough. All the best, France

    1. Thank you Rebecca. So glad you like the images. The ebullient Fang-Od was an inspiration. Thanks for visiting. All the best, France

  5. Great pics! I was there in Nov. 2013. Had coffee with Fang-Od at dawn and got a tattoo from her as the sun came up.

    1. Wonderful!!! Fang-Od is an incredible force of nature, isn’t she? She likes to perform her “tattoo art” very early in the morning which I guess is a good thing. I hope you got a chance to rest a little before the trek down. Send a picture of your tattoo if you can. I would love to see it.

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