Watch: ‘Apo Whang-Od’ Documentary Trailer about Filipino Tattoo Culture

MANILA, Philippines  — A documentary about 106-year-old Indigenous tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od and Philippine tattoo culture, including the traditional batok that Whang-od is known for, is in production following the release of an extensive trailer.

The documentary “Treasure of the Rice Terraces” is directed and written by Filipino-Canadian Kent Donguines, who features heavily in the five-minute trailer as he explores the local tattooing culture.

Donguines, the voice heard in the trailer above clips of the Philippines, begins the conversation by saying: “The question of identity and permanence has always posed a complex discussion.”

The Vancouver-based filmmaker said he started feeling less Filipino as he aged, mainly because of the many aspects of Filipino culture that he didn’t get to explore, understand, and experience. This included tattooing.

Voiceovers explain the negative connotations of tattoos, including prison time, membership in a crime syndicate, and gang affiliations.

Whang-od, a native of Kalinga in the province of Whangod’s home, is the main subject of the trailer.

Whang-od shared how she began as a mambabatok, like her late father, when she was still young so she could earn money.

The tattoo artist’s grand-niece Grace Palicas then talked about life in their village and the growing recognition of tattoos as symbols of beauty and bravery due to the influx of tourists.

“[Whang-od] It is impossible to pass on all the knowledge it holds. “The stature of Whangod, the materials she uses, and the designs she creates, are the epitomes of cultural practice”, says a voiceover.

Donguines’ statement regarding Filipino identity and permanence is especially relevant for Filipinos living abroad. This solution, getting tattooed, can be a good way to solve this problem.

“Kung babalikan natin, malaking tulong si Whang-od, sa totoo lang,” said Joe Musngi, a tattoo artist in Manila. “Malaking tulong si Whang-od, binabalik niya yung pagiging maka-Pilipino natin.”

Grace said over clips of tattooing Donguines that she wants to continue the Batok tradition of her people and eventually pass them on to younger generations.

Whang-od, a Kalinga speaker, said: “When we die we only have our tattoos to keep as a treasure.” When you die rich, your jewelry will be removed and only your tattoos remain on your body.

Donguines ends the trailer by saying “Treasure of the Rice Terraces” will also explore stolen mummified bodies, cultural appropriation, and the “ongoing fight for cultural sovereignty.”

“The current Philippine Administration is ready to allow China to take over the nation.” Never has the time been riper to interrogate our national identity,” said one of the documentary’s producers Patti Lapus in a statement. At this point in our history [the rediscovery of cultural identity and national pride] “It has evolved into a more than just a personal act, but essentially reflects a proactive and overtly political act.”

Whang-Od appeared on the cover of Vogue Philippines in April 2023, making her one of the oldest people to ever appear on a Vogue cover.

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