The traditional process of batok being done to a tourist. Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

“Reject modernity, embrace tradition” is a notion popular among the young—so much so that it has become a meme. Saturated with the speed and convenience of technology, many younger folk tend to glamorize the old ways and eras they have not lived.

Perhaps that could explain traditional Filipino culture being in vogue today, from narra and rattan  furniture, to mythology being mined for entertainment in komiks, film, and streaming, to fashion  statements like modernized batik, terno, jewelry, and of course, tattoos, especially that of the batok tradition of Kalinga province.

Akin to updated kimono being worn as streetwear in Japan, these articles are legit fashion  statements not just worn for elementary school culture week.

And just as kimono has Japan’s history and culture woven into its threads, so does batok, arguably one of the most recognizable traditional Philippine exports in the  21st century.

But this is where the meme stops being funny and starts becoming a heated and, at times, ugly debate. 

Appreciation or appropriation?

Local legend Apo Whang-Od. Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

With a practice spanning decades, the mamabatok of Barangay Buscalan in the municipality of Tinglayan in Kalinga—perhaps the country’s foremost batok master— has since revived interest in the craft of batok,  once considered a dying intangible heritage.

Millennial Emily Oggay, one of Whang-od’s nieces has been tattooing for eight years as of press time. She started by simply watching her aunt work on tourists. She notes that with regard to designs, some clients “gusto may pagka-modern, (iba naman) may pagka-traditional, kaya pina customize nila. May sarili silang design, pinaghalo (ang traditional at modern). [Some clients like more modern designs, others lean toward traditional patterns. Others like a mix of modern and traditional. A lot of customization occurs in terms of design].”

Batok is an ancient tradition, and was originally applied to Kalinga warriors (see also:  headhunters) for feats in battle. But as headhunting had died down, batok ran the risk of dying  with it. 

A proud warrior race 

Tribal Official of Kalinga. Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism – CAR.

Batok is not just confined to Buscalan, but has roots throughout the Kalinga province. The barangay of Lubo in the municipality of Tanudan is technically just a few kilometers from Buscalan proper, but the treacherous terrain forces travelers coming from the latter to take a circuitous route, a drive taking about four hours through craggy terrain. That is, if the road permits. Otherwise, it’s a one-day trek.

Lubo has had one mambabatok, Banawa, who has since retired. For a time, Daniel Pasado was  his sole successor. The 37-year-old now has three apprentices. When not tattooing, the Kalinga  stalwart makes a living through the rice terraces, hunting, and carpentry. 

He describes the process of preparing batok ink: First, pine wood is burned, the soot is then  captured in a clay container until there is enough to mix with sugarcane. Narra sap follows as a  disinfectant. 

Pasado first practiced tattooing on his own skin before taking on clients. In Buscalan, apprentices  also practice among themselves, and the marks of drafts can be seen on their skin, pastiches of former and newer tattoos blending. 

Interestingly, Pasado and his apprentices once worked on 12 tourists, even if the three were just  learning. Before that, no one there was interested to learn batok and Banawa struggled to find a  successor, and passing tourists never realized batok was also present here. 

Pasado and his team hope to change this, noting their craft can serve as a gateway to the  community: “Pag may bisita, bibili sila sa mga store dito, at makikita nila rice terraces ng Lubo.  Tsaka para sa mga bata, makatulong para makita nila yung halaga ng pambabatok [When there are visitors, other shops here will benefit, the visitors will also get to see Lubo’s rice terraces. Finally, our youth will see the importance of batok].”

Kalinga officials . Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism – CAR.

The warriors of Kalinga now face new challenges from within and without: There is the loss of  local interest in their heritage exacerbated by its appropriation for foreign profit-driven motives. 

These are valid concerns on the conduct of tourism and its impact not just on local values and priorities but also its impact on the natural environment. But if these questions are fully addressed,  especially through community-led tourism efforts, the benefits cannot be overlooked. 

The craft is no longer dying 

Green Pastures of Kalinga. Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism – CAR.

In The Philippines is Not a Small Country, Gideon Lasco’s 2020 collection of essays, the  anthropologist-cum-mountaineer mentions the impact of Whang-od’s popularization of batok in  the essay “Why some Kalinga men don’t want a tattoo:” 

With apprentices now learning her craft, batok looks set to survive, even if it has evolved  into a different art for a different purpose. 

Lasco reveals that older Kalinga men are hesitant to get batok if it feels unearned, all while they  acknowledge the good Whang-od has brought. Batok was once a dying craft, and the next generation of Kalinga youth were about to abandon it for good in favor of other pursuits and practices, such as looking for work in the lowlands. Apo Whang-Od’s popularity and her openness to recontextualizing batok has ensured that the craft—and Kalinga identity—persist. With this popularity, a greater respect for other facets of indigenous life, such as their strong community bonds, respect for nature, and more, may just influence modern life as well.

Chedi, another mambabatok from Buscalan who has been practicing since 2018 confesses that  they tried their hand at the craft as a child, but backed out. Their (re)start in 2018 was influenced  in large part by Whang-od’s traction, sharing the sentiment shared by other apprentices that  “nakikita namin yung sarili namin as Whang Od, kasi habang tumatagal, nahahasa ang batok [We see ourselves in Whang Od, especially with the passage of time and our maturing batok skills].”

Despite the trappings of modernity, the temptations of city life, the examples above illustrate that the next generation of Kalinga are discovering a new pride-of-place. 

Oggay puts it best, firmly stating that “’yung pinag-aralan mo, pera mo, mawawala ‘yan, pero  batok, kahit mamatay ka dala-dala mo pa rin hanggang hukay [What you learned in school, the money you earn, may get lost, but batok, you’ll bring to your grave].”

Travel safely! 

All tourist destinations in Kalinga have health and safety protocols in place to protect locals and visitors alike. Kalinga’s official Facebook page maintains up-to-date travel advice that travelers may access, or contact Kalinga tourism office at [email protected]

Visit www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app on app.philippines.travel or on Google Playstore for the most up-to-date information about re-opened local destinations as well as the safety protocols and requirements needed for each location.