Notes on Tattoo Etiquette and Community Life

It’s an emotional bond that I have with Buscalan, Kalinga. It was here, on Valentine’s Day, a few years back, that I marched a broken heart up a path, uncertain of where it led. I had just lost my left eye completely and I wasn’t sure if I’d still be myself without it. At the time, I needed a talisman of sorts to guard me and some marker to signify something that once was. Tattoos had not occurred to me at all. No one in the family had any and I recall my parents being vehemently against them when the eldest sister floated the idea of having one. But then, there I was, one afternoon, seated on the ledge of Fang Od’s house, sipping hot Kalinga coffee and contemplating this Gayaman (centipede) that had crawled its way to a woman’s breast. I pointed to the image and in broken Iloko said, “This is the one. On the left shoulder please.” We sat for three hours. She hardly said anything but when the rain poured she began to sing and that’s when I knew that this had been a pilgrimage and that, as in ritual, she had taken some blood and purified me.

These days, I overhear many things about Buscalan in Manila. Everyone seems to want a piece of the mambabatok and know so much about her and her community. Entire mythologies are being passed around by way of mouth: “You know she isn’t good anymore. Grace is better.” “The tattoo she makes fades.” “Ah, so you’re joining this fad?” “There’s really nothing to see in Buscalan except her and once you’re done getting inked, you might as well go.” “The people there don’t do anything. They’re a lazy bunch and for a little money, they can house you and do stuff for you.” “Good luck getting a tattoo. The lines are so long and sometimes there are people who singit!” “We didn’t announce that we would come. Just call C, he can accommodate as many people, no problem.”

I thought these were all myths until I visited Buscalan again last weekend. I was welcomed by a vandalized shed and four vans parked beside it. “There are over 50 visitors, you know?” No, I don’t know. We climbed up the snaking footway. I was relieved to visit in the dry season having recalled going once in boots that had no traction and nearly paying the price of a pig for would-be injuries. Nothing seemed different, at first. Fang-Od’s house was still where it was but no one was home. I scanned the porch where we once sat and seeing no one, figured they had all gone to nap.

We kept walking until suddenly, I bumped into all of them. Master Fang-Od wore her usual: a scarf elegantly tied around her head. She looked stately and so much younger than her advertised age. Grace had grown tall and beautiful. She squealed when she recognized me and had become quite tall. I could sense that over the years her confidence had grown by leaps and bounds. Her mother and some of the boys were all familiar faces–we were home at last.

It was not clear where we would stay because there were so many people but I had so much faith in G, our guide. He had been saying, since we made the trek, “Basta here in Buscalan, no province, no province.” Of course, no problem. I handed him a small sack of vegetables to tide us over for the duration of our stay and asked if I could bathe. The room we were given had just been vacated, the tourists left coffee cups and garbage lying around. They were quite filthy and I wondered if the homeowner was bothered. Downstairs, after showering, G told me again, “No province.” Of course, I’m sorry I asked.

We took our time the next day. I know well enough that the guides speak among themselves and set schedules with Fang-Od and Grace. Waiting was the order of the day and certainly, what a gift to wait for the Master to be ready, noh? The boys led us to a little shed where all the tattooing was now being done. There was a real line and I was shocked to see others waiting and watching as each person sat to be inked. How odd to sit, as if in confession, but have all your sins air-dried for others to see. Signs of the times, I figured, but I knew I had to be there. For all that had changed, Buscalan is still special. The people make it so.

On the same day, a young boy had turned six and everyone I passed from the village who recognized me made an invitation, “Come up this afternoon. We will go dancing to the sound of gongs and there will be lots of food.” How auspicious, I thought, to be here for another ritual.

I watched Fang-Od and Grace work for six hours that morning. There is no truth to the myth that her lines have gone askew, only that tourists have made a thing of mixing and matching designs so naturally, the drawing takes time. While sitting and eavesdropping on strangers, I was touched seeing how many had traveled great lengths just to meet Fang-Od. I was told of a Chilean tattoo artist who came all the way, machine in tow, to experience the traditional in exchange for his contemporary. The traditional tattoos are a link to this generation of seekers eager to discover and deepen their roots. Once upon a time, these marks were only for the people of Kalinga–a testament to their brave warriors and strong women. They were rites of passage now considered rites of belonging by a majority of young, city-folk who need not be told what it means to be Filipino because they are comfortable claiming it for themselves.

The story of Fang-Od goes beyond the nostalgia for a lost tradition or the attempt to “save” one from dying. She has bypassed entombment in a museum and surpassed the anthropological gaze. In her ripe old age, she is at her prime, peaking by giving people roots in exchange for rice. This is a transaction we are able to enjoy despite the pretentious value of our city currencies–for what does one really do with paper money in the mountains where people would rather have your weight in rice? Yet, for a few thousand pesos and a different form of toiling away in our bland offices, we are able to purchase our way into tradition, into the life of this community. Fang-Od grants us that privilege as bearer of her gifts and this is why my tattoo means everything and nothing. She allows me to inherit her art despite my being an outsider. She does it because she knows how to do it, because it is beautiful, and because I tell her I want it. It is my want–our collective desire–that translates the old symbols into new ones and keeps the taktaktak-ing sound alive in the mountains.

You can imagine my anger then when some prick of a politico-wannabe, also from Kalinga, brought a sorority to Buscalan and attempted not only to cut the line (to accommodate his guests), but also advised his guests to feel free to haggle with the mambabatoks. Are you truly from Kalinga, Sir, and are you not ashamed to have exploited your own? Kaili mo isu da ngem sika pay ti lastog.

First, the line. The logic of waiting is not only to appease the visitors that have arrived before you. It is the due respect you afford the woman who has sacrificed much in the mastery of this art. I have never asked but I know she is single to this day–a price I am guessing she had to pay to fulfil her role as mababatok. I will verify but as far as I know, there are only pigs in her custody and a ragtag set of grand-nieces and nephews. In tattooing, she uses no machines and employs no artist. She is both and there is a science to her skill. She knows the movements of the body well enough to decide the best, most regal placement of the tattoos. Yet, despite embodying the soul of this art, I watch people rush her into attending to them. “The bus will leave me.” “I have no time.” “I came just for this, what is taking so long.” “She can sleep when I am not here. I mean, what else is she going to do here anyway?”

Fang-Od wipes the water in her eyes and touches her head. She is tired, with a recurring headache, and I know she has not eaten. It’s my turn. The visitors are anxious. They want to know if I’ve given up my slot for them. The politician continues to berate the guides, nagging them to tell the Master that someone else wishes to sit. They are tense, understandably, and a little surprised by my protest. I apologize to them profusely under my breath but the one next to me taps me in the arm and smiles, “No province.” Meanwhile, in a language so foreign but a tone understandable, I hear her give a firm, “No.” She is gesturing at me to come over and telling the guides in a not-so-sweet way that I have been waiting and it is my turn. I’m so ashamed to cause this stir. If the politician and his insistent guest had just found the nerve to speak to me directly, I would have perhaps let them cut the line? Who knows?

I am seated half-naked, surrounded by this throng of people eager to see and get it over with–very much unlike the first time. There is no intimacy here at all except forthe passing looks of the gentlemen, now gentle dogs, keen on seeing if the grip I have on my shirt betrays the breasts I am trying to conceal. Soon, Grace arrives and the insistent visitor permits her to begin a tattoo that she is told Fang-Od will later finish.

We are so near each other now with the insistent lady–just the karma I deserve for having caused the stir. She sees the work to be done on me and understands (or so she says). I am peeved to say the least, but having felt the needle on my back and heard the music of the Master’s laugh, I am happy to make small talk with this lady. We are fine until she asks me about cost, “How much will this cost, Ate? Hindi ba mahal yun?”

“I don’t know. How much does your life cost, Ading?”

She didn’t hear me because she was already asking Grace if it was okay to have her tattoo some Alibata.

“Nagpunta ka dito sa Buscalan para lang magpabatok ng Alibata?! Dapat pala sa Manila ka nalang nagpa-tattoo.”

What is (G)race, truly?
This has gone on longer than expected and still, I feel I have not said what I need to say so I will try again tomorrow. Perhaps then I’ll tell you a bit about the community gathering and the words exchanged there. But simply, I wish only that we saw visits to communities as a person-to-person exchange. I wish we appreciated more the time our guides spend with us especially when they could be working the fields, raising their own set of kids and pigs. Our money can afford us space in their homes but it is not commensurate to their service and hospitality i.e. go home with your own damn garbage and don’t vandalize–don’t call them lazy either.

I wish we regarded our homestays less like hotel rooms we can pay to trash and more like homes. To accommodate the bulk of visitors, I overheard a friend tell his wife to sleep next door and bring the kids. They gave up their own rooms because there were too many people to house. “No province. No province.” I know but in my province, that shit will not fly. My mother will have none of it and I understand why.

Lastly, as a tourist, I have grown so aware of the impact I have on the communities I visit. When I cause a stir by not having the sensitivity to inquire about the ways of the people, I go home blissfully ignorant thinking that I had the best trip ever. Meanwhile, I leave the people I have stirred to face the consequences of my actions alone. We take our fond memories home with us and in exchange, we leave headaches for people to deal with. What shall that man tell his wife in the coming evenings before they make love? How shall he explain, once more, that though she is Queen in his heart and in his home, it is the green gold of the city that can sometimes buy her a home? Hay.