BEFORE Apo Whang Od became widely known as the oldest living tattoo artist in the Philippines – she is said to be 100 years old but there is no documented proof of this – she used to tattoo one person a day. Thanks to stories about her on international television shows and social media, she now accepts five to 10 clients who travel 14 hours from Manila to Buscalan, Kalinga, to see her.

On Oct. 20 to 22, she left her mountains to come to Manila on a special plane to attend the FAME trade show in World Trade Center, where she tattooed approximately 200 people over three days.

Eager urban dwellers saw it as a convenient opportunity to see Whang Od in person and have their photos taken with her without the need to cross mountains.

Whang Od’s translator said during the fair that the revived attention for the dying art has brought money and modernity to Whang Od’s community, which is obviously a positive effect. But what about the negative impacts?

In indigenous communities, tattoos have always been seen as badges of honor, especially for men who have killed and protected their land. But today, the essence of honor is lost to give way to humble-brags among friends and virtual friends on social media. This opens the discussion on the ideas of art and culture being appreciated, commodified, and appropriated.

Walter Benjamin, a critical philosopher, laments the loss of aura and authenticity in art in the age of reproduction. Art, he says, is intrinsically derived from a ritual, resulting in an aura that is unique and exclusive to a body of art. But in the age of mechanical reproduction, Photoshop, and “likes and shares” on social media, an artwork that was once authentic and exuded aura, loses meaning and ritual because it is reduced to an everyday, banal thing. In short, the relationships of tradition and ritual in art is lost in the process of duplication. The revered Mona Lisa in the Louvre, for instance, loses its “aura” because it can be seen anywhere: on postcards, T-shirts, bags, earrings, and Facebook. Just recently, luxury brand Louis Vuitton and artist Jeff Koons collaborated on a collection of bags where iconic paintings by revered artists Leonardo Da Vinci, Claude Monet, François Boucher, and Peter Paul Rubens were reproduced and put on the bags.

“I would get myself a tattoo from Whang Od if only I didn’t have to share it with thousands of other people with the same tattoo as mine,” a friend told me. According to Whang Od, the tattoos she inks on people are images of animals and plants. The most reproduced types are of centipedes and snake scales.

Today, art works are not only duplicated but are appropriated, once again losing not only their aura, but also the significance of the cultural artifacts. Art and cultural appropriation happens when an outsider adapts or copies a culture aspect of a minority and renders them onto other items, mostly fashion, without knowing their genuine meaning.

“That is the struggle,” said Elamae Membrere of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Northern Cultural Communities and Traditional Arts at a forum with Apo Whang Od on Oct 20. “We claim it (a culture) as ours because it is part of our culture, but we do not have documents to prove that is ours,” she said.

Indigenous textiles are examples of cultural artefacts that are being appropriated.

“When it comes to design, in the Cordilleras, hindi kami nagagalit pero kung nakita niyo siya na ginagamit namin (we don’t get mad, but when you see that we use it) for rituals or festivities, please do not disrespect it. Wear it properly, or better not. Please just respect [it], don’t make them into wall decors – but if you do, please put a frame or protection. When you buy or when we give you something as a gift, you are getting a part of us. We gave it to you, so please respect it. Sana tama ang pag-gamit (hopefully it is used properly) and combination… Lucky if nobody tells you if you do it wrong,” said Ms. Membrere.

Her point of view is that of someone from the Bontok, Applai, and Bulangao communities in the Mt. Province. She said there are, for example, items of clothing that are worn only by the dead, but, unaware of this, tourists would use these items as a regular everyday clothing.

Thanks to the appealing and enticing patterns of our indigenous textiles, tourists and outsiders are inevitably drawn to own and commodify them because they are perceived as exotic.

“People should do their research,” said fashion designer Bea Constantino of people appropriating an art and culture for use in commercialized fashion items. A Tausug woman from Sulu, she said: “I feel slightly offended if I see textiles being used inappropriately. Siguro [I suppose] they do not know. It’s all about education and intention,” she said.

As a fashion designer herself, she said it is part of her commitment to represent her culture and create a dialogue about Southern Mindanao’s cultures. “Our textile should not be used in risque ways, as halter tops and bikinis,” she said as an example.

She said there are indigenous textiles in Sulu that are not meant to be worn at the waist and below, “but I see them being used for pants and shorts,” said Ms. Constantino. There is, after all, a certain sense of sanctity in these textiles, as she noted that her people usually pray before they start weaving, and that no weaving pattern has a template. It is sacred, she said.

If weavers pray before weaving thread into a piece of cloth, the community in Buscalan, Kalinga would kill animals as part of their tattoo rituals.

“In older times, when warriors were given tattoos, it was part of tradition [to kill animals]. Nowadays it is not mandatory at all. While I was getting my tattoo from Whang Od, the locals I befriended and hung out with told me about it, and I said why not [do it],” writer-photographer Erron Ocampo, told BusinessWorld through Facebook. He got his arm tattoos from Whang Od.

Mr. Ocampo chose to make an animal sacrifice in order to experience the ritual completely. He was asked to choose between a chicken, priced at P700, or a pig, P1,200. He chose the latter and they later feasted on a roasted pig. He paid P2,000 each for the tattoos he got in both arms.

“The rates for the tattoo depends on the size. You can choose a design from their list of designs, but best way is you let them choose the design for you,” he pointed out.

Whang Od, through her translator, said anyone can bring to her a design they fancy, but if she finds them odd or not pretty, she said she would do her own design instead. During her stint at the FAME fair, her asking price for a three-dot tattoo was P500 while a full design was P2,500.

According to reports, Whang Od, together with her niece, earned P800,000 from their work at the event. The Department of Trade and Industry and FAME, who invited her to participate, did not get anything from it. – Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman