Enigmatic Geometric Tattoos of the Butbut of Kalinga, Philippines

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There is an outpouring of local and foreign tourists flocking to the remote village of Buscalan in Tinglayan, Southern Kalinga, a mountainous region of the Cordillera located in Northern Luzon, Philippines. The main purpose of their visit is to get bato´k—traditional tattoos, which are permanent inscriptions embedded in the skin—from Whang-ud Oggay, the ninety-year-old tattoo practitioner whose story has left a mark on everyone who has heard it. To reach the village of Whang-ud, you will have to undertake an arduous journey: ten hours from Metro Manila (capital region of the Philippines) to Bontoc, three hours from Bontoc to Kalinga, one hour by motorbike, and another hour of trekking to reach the village of Buscalan, where the Butbut community reside (see Figure 1 for a map). But visitors find it worth the trip: the tattooing of small designs on their legs, backs, arms, and wrists is done in less than an hour, and they bring the tattoos back to the cities as souvenirs of another culture, as representations of themselves. The bato´k of the Butbut are known for their elaborate symmetric designs, which include geometric patterns and friezes. In the village of Buscalan and in other Butbut communities in Tinglayan such as Bugnay, Butbut proper, Lokkong, and Ngibat, you may find elders who are tattooed with traditional designs. Tattooing thrives only in the village of Buscalan, however, where younger apprentices are mentored by Whang-ud. It is an unforgettable experience to witness the tattooing process and catch a glimpse of the bato´k on the bodies of the Butbut, which serve as a living testament to one of the oldest cultural tattooing practices in the world.