Baxter's Blog


Posted in Human Interest, Letters, Road Trip Stuff by misterroadtripper on July 29, 2010


I just received a letter from my dear, dear friend Keone Nunes. As you will remember, Keone is the Hawai’ian master tattoo artist (tofuga) who, along with the late Paulo Sulu’ape, has done more to perpetuate the art of  hand-tap tattooing than practically anyone in the modern era. Here is the story of Keone’s amazing adventure. It is an important read for anyone who has never experienced the true essence and importance of tattooing among other, indigenous cultures. Spending time with Keone in Samoa and Hawai’i changed my life. Perhaps his story will change yours.

Keone and Whang Od.

Aloha Bob,

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to catch up with you. I have been very busy tapping away.

I recently read an article about Whang Od, a traditional tattooist who lives in the mountainous region of the Philippines. In this article, I sensed a feeling of sadness on her part. She is old (anywhere from ninety to ninety-six), and teaches her grand niece how to tattoo. But the niece is uncertain that she will have enough time to adequatly learn what needs to be taught. When I read this, it reminded me of many conversations I had with Hawaiian kupuna (elders) who were resigned to die with their knowledge, since no one was interested in learning the traditions and practices they possessed. I remembered seeing the sadness in their eyes and the burden that they felt because of this.

The rice terraces of Buscalan.

I was determined to visit her, not to get anything per se, but just to work in front of her, so she could see that there are other cultures that practice tattooing in the same way she does. I reached out to several friends who I felt would know how to go about seeing her: Virgil Apostol, Lane Wilckens and Lars Krutack. Virgil has a book coming out later this year on traditional Filipino healers and Lane has been working on a book also coming out later this year on traditional Filipino tattooing. Lane put me in touch with Ikin Salvador, who is currently in a doctoral program in Oxford. Ikin has written several articles on traditional Filipino tattooing and is currently writing a dissertation on this subject that will hopefully be published in the future. The groundwork was being laid for my visit. Thankfully, Virgil, Lane, Ikin, Jared (Lane’s brother) and Marcos (Lane’s cousin, who lives in the Philippines and took responsibility as our driver) were all part of this adventure.

I met Virgil at the Honolulu airport as he flew in from Los Angeles. We left via Hawaiian Airlines on Wednesday and landed over the Date Line, on Thursday evening. Virgil and I were fetched at the airport in Manila by Lane, Jared and Marcos. We headed for Lane’s uncle’s place in Tarlac, four hours north of Manila. We overnighted there before heading out to Baguio to meet Ikin. In Baguio, Ikin showed us around and we decided to rest there for the night. Traveling to Bontoc the next day was predicted to be a very long trip. On our way to Bontoc, we saw the many rice terraces that are noted in that area of the Philippines. The terraces extended all the way up to our final destination of Buscalan and beyond. We reached Bontoc in the evening, were able to sleep over and eventually got to see a little of Bontoc the next day. Bontoc was the first place that we saw older women with traditional tattoos going about their daily routine. Our next leg was from Bontoc to Bugnay, a village at the foot of the mountains leading to Buscalan (where Whang Od lives). The road to Bugnay was a combination of sections of dirt,

Rice cooking.

mud, stones and cement pavement. Minutes away from Bugnay, we were faced with a massive landslide that literally happened as we watched. The landslide closed the road for over eight hours. We were able to reach the upper homes of Bugnay as the rain started to fall. Luckily, we were able to stay at one of Ikin’s friend’s home, a teacher in the village of Bugnay. We then started our journey’s final leg up the mountain trail leading to Buscalan. The majority of the trail is fairly easy as long as you are not affected by heights. The last third of the trail is an arduous climb up stairs that seem neverending. While walking up the stairs, locals would pass me up, reminding me of how out of shape I am. When we finally made it up to Buscalan, we were greeted by kids and adults alike. Whang Od was there, dissappeared, then came back again to welcome us. Right behind us were some of Ikin’s friends from Bugnay who came to help with the translation. Whang Od is part of the Kalinga people and within the Kalinga language there are several dialects. Being that Bugnay is right down the mountain and one of five Bodbod villages along with Buscalan, there would be no confusion or misinterpretations with the translations.

Village water pump.

We introducted ourselves and they told her I tattooed in the same way that she did. She was very surprised at this, never having seen anyone outside of her tribe tap tattoos on. We all went to her house and sat. I showed her the few tools I brought with me, a combination of items that I made and some made by my cousin Keli’i Makua. She was very interested in the tools and commented on how well-made the bone needles were. I was told that there were some old Filipino tattoo needles made from bone found in an archeological dig but none are made like that now. I gave her some ink that I made and she showed me her tools. They consisted of a tapping stick and a tattoo stick having three holes on the end where a single citrus tree thorn was inserted. This acted as the needle which did the piercing for the tattoo. As we were talking, I felt the joy and life in Whang Od. The “rascalness” that is present in many Hawaiian kupuna was in her, and she was a joy to be around. I asked if she would like to see how I do my work. She beamed and said yes. Ikin and I spoke during the trip over and I showed her some of my work. Ikin was amazed at the similarities of the Hawaiian design elements to Filipino ones and how some also had identical meanings. Ikin agreed to lay down and get tattooed by me. Whang Od was surprised at the tattoo recipient having to lay down while someone else, besides me, stretched the skin.

Whang Od working on Lane.

Often times, her technique is done with the tattoo recipient sitting upright, as she simultaneously tattoos while stretching the skin taut using her forearm. As I worked, she noted that I was much faster than she was. I told her that it was simply because I had more needles. When I finished Ikin’s tattoo, she questioned why Americans go all the way up to Buscalan to get work done by her when they could easily fly to Hawai’i and get worked on by me. I told her that they want work done from the master, which she is.

She wanted to show me how she works. We went outside and she worked on Lane, as I observed intently. The first thing I noticed were the differences: the way she holds the tool with the needle in a back-handed fashion, how she sits and how she stretches the recipient’s skin with her forearm. After that, I noticed all the similarities: the way she makes ink, the sounds of the tapping, the way she taps, the laying out of the design and the hand motion which lays out the designs.

Whang Od

After finishing, we sat and discussed what we observed of each other. She was happy to see that tapping was done and lives elsewhere. She also wanted me to work on her, but her last experience was very painful and was still very much on her mind. That evening, we all ate together and I showed her pictures of my work along with pictures of Hawai’i. She was facinated with the whole-body approach in Hawaiian tattooing and relayed a story of a Kalinga warrior who wore a full-body tattoo. We asked what she thought of the trend of Filipino-American men putting on traditional Kalinga chest tattoos. She was not happy. She said that, if they did not take a head or participate in a head hunt but adorned themselves with these chest tattoos, they would either die before their time or go crazy.

The next day, she worked on Virgil and we spent the rest of the afternoon talking about tattooing. We prepared a small feast to thank her and the village for their hospitality. The night was cut short by a downfall of rain, but the conversations lasted late into the evening. As morning came, we prepared to leave for our journey back to Manila. I still needed to catch a plane back to Hawai’i. All of us were not prepared for the emotions we felt as we started to say our good-byes. Sadness was present in the eyes of Whang Od, as she wiped away tears. Her face also showed the joy of meeting and seeing work that has roots in her own tattoo traditions.

The Mona Lisa of Buscalan.

The hike back down the mountain and journey to Manila was largely uneventful. We stopped at Bontoc and picked up some treasures to take home. We overnighted at Baguio and parted ways with Ikin. Our next stop was at Tarlac to gather some of my previously left belongings and to rest before returning to Manila. The journey to Manila consisted of both group and individual reflections of the entire experience. Although Buscalan gifted each of us with different memories, we all felt the need to return to the smile, joy and presence of Whang Od.

—Keone Nunes

2 Responses

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  1. Baylan said, on October 5, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Thank you, Keone, for being interested enough to make the long journey with my friends Virgil and Lane. Perhaps we will meet sometime soon during my travels. I would love to hear more of your story.

  2. jonnaco said, on June 8, 2017 at 7:01 am

    Thank you sir for writing great and true words about our apo Wang od here in Cordillera

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