A 106-year-old Indigenous Filipino tattoo artist becomes Vogue's oldest ever cover model

106-year-old Indigenous Filipino tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od becomes Vogue's oldest ever cover model
106-year-old Indigenous Filipino tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od becomes Vogue's oldest ever cover model   -  Copyright  Vogue Philippines
By David Mouriquand

A 106-year-old Indigenous Filipino tattoo artist becomes Vogue's oldest ever cover model - here's her story.

Have you picked up the latest issue of Vogue? Vogue Philippines, to be precise?

Well, their April issue is out now and the magazine has revealed that their cover star is Apo Whang-Od, 106-year-old tattoo artist from the Philippines, who now has the distinction of being the oldest person ever to appear on the front of Vogue.

Whang-Od - also known as Maria Oggay - is known as the Philippines’ oldest mambabatok, or traditional Kalinga tattooist.

She began tattooing at the age of 16 under the tutelage of her father, and is credited with helping to keep alive batok, which is the art of hand-tapping tattoos with the use of a bamboo stick with a thorn dipped in coal and natural dye.

Scott L. Sorensen - CC BY 2.0
Apo Whang-Od practicing the art of batok tattooingScott L. Sorensen - CC BY 2.0

The tattoos represent bravery for male warriors and beauty for women. The inking of designs was a symbol not only of identity and kinship, but also has a spiritual dimension, as the tattoos offer protection from angry spirits and a way to access to the afterlife.

This tattooing tradition was mostly lost as Filipinos were converted to Christianity during the Spanish colonial era. It only survived in more remote areas of the Philippines, but also fell out of practice due to modernization and western influence. Today, it is a highly endangered tradition.

"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 said in a post on social media.

Indeed, thousands have come from far and wide to visit the remote mountain village of Buscalan where Whang-Od lives, located north of Manila in Kalinga province, seeking her signature geometric designs. Her work has inspired a new generation of batok artists in the Philippines and United States, the magazine reported.

Traditionally, the art can only be passed down to blood relatives, so Whang Od has been training her grand-nieces Elyang Wigan and Grace Palicas for several years in order to keep the practice alive. However, she plans to continue tattooing for as long as her sight allows.

“When visitors come from far away,” Whang-Od told Vogue in the Butbut language. “I’ll only stop when I can no longer see, so I can continue to give people the mark of Buscalan, the mark of Kalinga.”

Vogue Philippines editor-in-chief Bea Valdes said staff decided unanimously that Whang-Od should go on the cover.

"We felt she represented our ideals of what is beautiful about our Filipino culture,” said Valdes. "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.”

Vogue Philippines
Apo Whang-Od on the April issue of Vogue PhilippinesVogue Philippines

Prior to Whang-Od's appearance in Vogue Philippines, the record for oldest Vogue cover model was held by actress Judi Dench, who appeared on the front of British Vogue in 2020, at the age of 85.

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