106-year-old Kalinga tattooist becomes Vogue's oldest cover star

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By Phoebe Egoroff

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A 106-year-old tattoo artist from the Philippines has stunned on the front of Vogue as the magazine's oldest cover star.

Apo Whang-Od has been credited with keeping the ancient artform of batok - a practice that involves tapping a tattoo into the skin by hand using a thorn attached to bamboo that is dipped in soot and natural dyes.

Known as mambabatok, a traditional tattooist who performs the practice, Whang-Od comes from a remote village in Northern Philippine's Kalinga region.

"Heralded as the last mambabatok of her generation, she has imprinted the symbols of the Kalinga tribe - signifying strength, bravery and beauty - on the skin of thousands of people who have made the pilgrimage to Buscalan," Vogue Philippines tweeted.

According to the magazine's CEO Bea Valdes, having Whang-Od on the cover was completely a no-brainer. "We felt she represented our ideals of what is beautiful about our Filipino culture. We believe that the concept of beauty needs to evolve, and include diverse and inclusive faces and forms. What we hope to speak about is the beauty of humanity," Valdes stated, via The Guardian.

Batok tattoos are traditionally worn by men to demonstrate bravery, and by women to represent beauty. "For men, [batok] meant being minted as a headhunting warrior. A bikking, a chest tattoo with patterns that crawled up the shoulders and down the arms, could take days to finish and would cost a large pig or several kilos of rice. Women were tattooed for different reasons, primarily for fertility and beautification," Vogue detailed.

"The tattooed elder women of Kalinga often say that when they die, they can't take their beads and gold with them to the afterlife. They only have the markings on their body," the outlet continued.

As per tradition, mambabatok are only able to pass on their craft within their bloodlines, and since Whang-Od has never had her own children she has chosen to teach her grandniece Grace Palicas. Initially 10 years old when she began training, Grace told Vogue that she had been reluctant to learn from her aunt.

"I was the first child to learn how to tattoo. I just observed what she did. When I left for college in 2015, Elyang [Grace's 23-year-old cousin] was next to learn so that she could help Apo when so many tourists were coming," Grace, who is now 26, revealed.

In 2017, Whang-Od told CNN: "[My friends who gave tattoos] have all passed away. I'm the only one left alive that's still giving tattoos. But I'm not afraid that the tradition will end because [I'm training] the next tattoo masters. The tradition will continue as long as people keep coming to get tattoos. As long as I can see well, I will keep giving tattoos. I'll stop once my vision gets blurry."

Before Whang-Od - who is one of the only Indigenous people to grace the cover of Vogue - the oldest cover star for the global fashion magazine was Dame Judi Dench, who was 85-years-old when she appeared on the front in 2020.

Featured image credit: Quality Stock / Alamy

106-year-old Kalinga tattooist becomes Vogue's oldest cover star

vt-author-image

By Phoebe Egoroff

Article saved!Article saved!

A 106-year-old tattoo artist from the Philippines has stunned on the front of Vogue as the magazine's oldest cover star.

Apo Whang-Od has been credited with keeping the ancient artform of batok - a practice that involves tapping a tattoo into the skin by hand using a thorn attached to bamboo that is dipped in soot and natural dyes.

Known as mambabatok, a traditional tattooist who performs the practice, Whang-Od comes from a remote village in Northern Philippine's Kalinga region.

"Heralded as the last mambabatok of her generation, she has imprinted the symbols of the Kalinga tribe - signifying strength, bravery and beauty - on the skin of thousands of people who have made the pilgrimage to Buscalan," Vogue Philippines tweeted.

According to the magazine's CEO Bea Valdes, having Whang-Od on the cover was completely a no-brainer. "We felt she represented our ideals of what is beautiful about our Filipino culture. We believe that the concept of beauty needs to evolve, and include diverse and inclusive faces and forms. What we hope to speak about is the beauty of humanity," Valdes stated, via The Guardian.

Batok tattoos are traditionally worn by men to demonstrate bravery, and by women to represent beauty. "For men, [batok] meant being minted as a headhunting warrior. A bikking, a chest tattoo with patterns that crawled up the shoulders and down the arms, could take days to finish and would cost a large pig or several kilos of rice. Women were tattooed for different reasons, primarily for fertility and beautification," Vogue detailed.

"The tattooed elder women of Kalinga often say that when they die, they can't take their beads and gold with them to the afterlife. They only have the markings on their body," the outlet continued.

As per tradition, mambabatok are only able to pass on their craft within their bloodlines, and since Whang-Od has never had her own children she has chosen to teach her grandniece Grace Palicas. Initially 10 years old when she began training, Grace told Vogue that she had been reluctant to learn from her aunt.

"I was the first child to learn how to tattoo. I just observed what she did. When I left for college in 2015, Elyang [Grace's 23-year-old cousin] was next to learn so that she could help Apo when so many tourists were coming," Grace, who is now 26, revealed.

In 2017, Whang-Od told CNN: "[My friends who gave tattoos] have all passed away. I'm the only one left alive that's still giving tattoos. But I'm not afraid that the tradition will end because [I'm training] the next tattoo masters. The tradition will continue as long as people keep coming to get tattoos. As long as I can see well, I will keep giving tattoos. I'll stop once my vision gets blurry."

Before Whang-Od - who is one of the only Indigenous people to grace the cover of Vogue - the oldest cover star for the global fashion magazine was Dame Judi Dench, who was 85-years-old when she appeared on the front in 2020.

Featured image credit: Quality Stock / Alamy