Thanks to the work of Fang-od Oggay, the Filipino custom of traditional tribal tattooing is being kept alive. At the age of 101, she still manages to ply her craft in her mountainous home which attracts both head-hunters and tourists alike.
If you ask people in the Philippines about her, they'll usually say 'bad-ass', especially when it's a female talking. Her outlaw persona has extended from the style of tattooing she does and the area she lives - Kalinga which translates literally as 'outlaw'. Her role as the elder of this tradition, someone who refuses to allow their craft to become diluted by modernity, has earned her the unerring respect of the island's inhabitants.
In her small village, swamped by greenery and submerged in a sticky and oppressive heat, she emanates a sense of equanimity that comes with her advanced years and through her experiences with such a variety of people. In her homeland's tumultuous past, both in urban and rural areas, her work has managed to stand the test-of-time and tell stories through the primitive line-based work that decorates so many limbs.
The tools of her trade have hardly changed since she began working on skin over 80 years ago. She was the first female tattooist in Kalinga and, what was a dying art, has recently been taken up by more young women looking to keep this tradition alive.
Oggay is the embodiment of independence, which perhaps goes some way in explaining her appeal to the young women that idolise her unquenchable spirit. A local celebrity that attracts flocks of foreign visitors, she barely bats an eyelid at their affections - she'd rather work on her tattoos or help around her village pounding rice and feeding animals.
She says that the proudest moment of her life came from beginning to tattoo, and it's understandable when her motives come to the surface. She was once in love, in her youth, until her husband was killed during the Japanese occupation. Instead of marrying someone else, she dedicated her life to her craft and has since been able to provide for herself and fellow villagers. It's a simple way of life that operates in deep harmony with the flora and fauna that surrounds her home.
It is with thorn and bamboo reed that she is able to administer the homemade ink (a charcoal mixture) to her client. The tattoos traditionally symbolise strength and wealth in men, with the village warriors receiving tattoos to reflect their number of kills in war. For women it was to symbolise beauty or as Oggay still thinks of it - "sex appeal".
The batok or hand-tapped tattoos are famously associated with the Kalinga tribe of headhunters called the Butbut. Her role is a sacred one. As a Mambabatok, the traditional tattooist of the tribe, she has helped to define their aesthetic, a huge part of the culture of tribal self-expression. Given the history and story behind her people and work, there was backlash when she recently travelled to Manila to showcase her style of tattooing at a convention.
Some of her fellow Filipinos felt that the honour of her work should only come after being 'earned' ie making the trip to see her. Naturally, none of the anger was shared by Oggay - she insisted it was an honour to be invited. It is a reflection of how revered she is in her homeland though.
Often people will bring gifts, with a pig being common to allow the villagers to have a feast. Regardless, of the gifts or money, Oggay still works on her tattoos seven days a week, gifting people with a piece of her tribes legacy. Her work-ethic has always been this way though, she points out that, "Women are hardworking and strong, we can carry heavy loads and do labor work … if a man can, why not a woman? We want to support our families and village, it is the Kalinga way.”
Her selflessness is apparent in everything she does. Despite her village having changed due to the influx of tourists looking to wear her work, she acknowledges that without the income from this, her tribe would likely fade away completely. Oggay is happy that the art of Kalinga tattooing is being continued by a younger generation of female artists. Believing that apprenticeships aren't the way to pass on the knowledge, rather that it runs in the blood, her grandnieces have carried the torch through careful observation.
Nothing remains untouched and stays pure, but this tradition is doing all the right things to remain so. What's more important is that it isn't only her fellow village-people that desire this, it's also the general public. After the Manila incident, it's clear that people are seeking to preserve the time-honoured craft.
Recently she was nominated to be a National Living Treasure which is the highest honour for folk-artists to receive and it "recognizes the beauty and grace of the ancient art of tattooing and ensures that such Filipino heritage will survive and continue to exist," What's more, she does it all with an infectious smile and an attitude of self-respect and self-sufficiency.
Is she a 'bad-ass' like she's often referred to as? Absolutely. She may be one of the nicest ones around, but that doesn't take away anything from her pursuit to hone her craft over the best part of a century. She's been telling the stories of a tribe that has lived through bloodshed for over 400 without ever succumbing to foreign rule and she is as much a part of that history as anything else.
At 101 she's pledged to tattoo for as long as she's able to see. It's clear - the end is nowhere near in sight. It never has been, that's why she's become a legend in her own lifetime. Her dedication to her art has taken her through life day-by-day and so it shall continue to.
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