Sunday, April 3, 2016

Kalinga Tattoo Artist Apo Whang-od Featured In An Art Exhibit In Toronto, Canada

On one of the outside walls of the century-old Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Canada, there hangs a huge banner announcing the opening of an art exhibit that explores "the fascinating history and evolution of tattooing". The image gracing the banner is that of Apo Whang-od Oggay, a tattoo artist from the village of Buscalan in Tinglayan, Kalinga. The 98-year-old woman is one of the subjects of the exhibition that will run from April 2 to September 5, 2016.

The exhibition is called Tattoos: Ritual, Identity, Obsession, Art. Curated by Chris Darling, Kenneth Lister, and Anne and Julienne (of hey!: modern art and pop culture), the exhibit is described by the museum as an exploration of the "5000-year-old multi-faceted world of tattooing, showcasing a visual history of body art and markings, ancient tools, and commissioned tattooed silicone body reproductions, inked by some of the most respected tattoo artists in the contemporary world."

The exhibit showcases over 200 objects that chronicle the colorful history of the art of tattooing. These include photos of Apo Whang-od, a trunk of a travelling tattoo artist from the 1830s, photos showing the evolution of tattoos inside jails in East Los Angeles, images showing the rise of tattoo art in Japan due to the influence of the Yakuza, artifacts from New Zealand, commissioned works of art by the legendary French tattoo artist Tin-Tin, among many others.

One of the images of Apo Whang-od on the exhibit is that of a photo taken in 2011 by Jake Verzosa. Apo Whang-od rose in popularity after being featured in numerous travel websites and television programs. Hordes of tourists now flock to her humble abode in Tinglayan not only to get a glimpse of the artist but to get one of her unique tattoos as well. There are times when the line of people wanting to get tattooed is so long that some concerned citizens and groups are now calling for the local government to intervene.

It can also be recalled that last year, an online petition was started to call for the declaration of Whang-od as a National Artist. Unfortunately, nothing came out of the petition. The tattoo artist also found an ally in Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago (now a candidate for the presidency) who filed a Senate Resolution in October last year which aims to nominate Apo Whang-od as a National Living Treasure (Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan). According to the official Philippine government portal (, this is an award "conferred on Filipinos who are at the forefront of the practice, preservation, and promotion of the nation’s traditional folk arts." The resolution is still in limbo.

So far, only thirteen people have been given the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan. The most recent one was awarded back in 2012 to Magdalena Gamayo, a weaver from Ilocos Norte. In the event that Apo Whang-od is conferred the award, she will be the second artist from the province of Kalinga to do do. Alonzo Saclag, a musician and dancer from Lubuagan, Kalinga was given the award in 2000.

Here are a couple of photos from the ongoing exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Photos courtesy of Kayleen Kwet)
A larger-than-life image of Apo Whang-od occupying a wall at the exhibit. Photo credit: Kayleen Kwet
Apo Whang-od's image featured on one of the banners outside the museum. Photo credit: Kayleen Kwet