100 Years of Batok: a Photo Essay

100 years of Batok is a two-part documentary film about the life & works of Apo Whang Od, Kalinga’s last mambabatok, and her influence.

Apo Whang Od is the oldest mambabatok (traditional tattoo artist) from Buscalan, Tinglayan, Kalinga, Philippines, a member of the Butbut people. Since she was a teenager, she has been tattooing the Butbut people but the traditional warriors who used to get tattoos from protecting their village from enemies are long gone, leaving Apo Whang Od to tattoo tourists and curious visitors instead. 

When I first met Apo Whang Od in March 2014, I was just accompanying a friend to get her own batok. I was amazed and curious about the culture and history behind the ancient art of batok. Apo Whang Od turned a hundred years old last year, and that was where my idea was born.

What if we invited a hundred people who’d gotten batok to talk about their experiences? We would then correlate their stories to how Apo Whang Od’s works progressed through the years, and tell the story of one of the Philippines’ greatest artists.

I also have a batok by Apo Whang Od, and in 2017, I heard that she wasn’t as healthy as she used to be. Of course, I wanted to see if she was doing okay (fortunately, it was just flu), so we went up to Kalinga again to ask permission to do a documentary. Her niece gave us her approval, and so we began our research.

This photo essay documents our 2015 and 2017 trips to Kalinga.

Note from the editors: Cess will continue to provide progress updates on her documentary through photos and videos on The Unpublishables. We hope you will help support her project through donations when she begins her fundraising drive.


In 2015, there were only narrow walkways and very few people on the way to Kalinga.

Visitors were surrounded by the Cordillera mountaintops and terraced rice paddies.

There was no phone reception, but visitors were welcomed with Kalinga coffee and the warmth and hospitality of the locals.

At the time Apo Whang Od didn’t have a lot of grey hair and had only one apprentice, Grace.


In 2017, we saw a road-widening project at the beginning of the hike, but but most of the walkways afterwards were still quite narrow. 

Although there was still no phone reception, there was already an influx of tourism. 

Apo Whang Od had gained another apprentice, Elyang, as well as more grey hair.

There’s a souvenir shop now, but you’ll still be welcomed with the same Kalinga coffee and warmth and hospitality. 

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