The Master; still strong, still awesome
photo c/o Ponyo
We had all agreed to wake up as early as 5:30, eager to meet the Master…and as the fates would have it, her apprentice, the beautiful Grace, was going to be present too!
But first we had to find a way to get down the hut of course. the door, always faulty and difficult to slide open i had somehow managed to wrangle off its base and so all four of us had to make a dive across the bed spreads to pull the door to safety. because the antique door is worth more than our skins, obviously.
“Eh, at least we won’t have a hard time with it anymore.”
That was true. but as we looked out into the morning, we saw that nary a soul was in sight, and the ladder was still nowhere to be seen. what must have we looked like, four girls gaping hopelessly at their doorless, ladderless fate. It was almost funny.
Oh who was i kidding. It was hilarious, but mostly only to anyone downstairs looking up at us. It probably wasn’t even that high, and we were stranded like a pack of dodos on a floating iceberg, and i didnt say that to make sense, because if there was probably anything funnier than a panicking pack of dodos on a clump of floating ice, it was a pack of worried girls stranded seven or so feet above the ground.
“We should call for help.”
“Don’t wake up the whole village!”
“Wake up early he said…put back the ladder, he said…”
“Guys, i think you should lower me down…and i’ll call for help—”
“This is ridiculous, it isn’t even that high!”
“Maybe we should tie the blankets together and prison break ourselves out of here—”
“McGyver lang, teh?!”
Eventually, Heroine tried hoisting herself down (“HOY!” screeched Whang-young, “Quit being a hero!”) and we could only offer her elbow support and moral support.
“Hey…it’s not that high!”
“So parang tanga lang pala tayo…”
So it was Heroine that found the ladder and linked us back to the earth. And right on cue, a creaking of hinges and Kuya Charlie emerges bleary eyed from within his house.
“I woke up to the sound of a body hitting the ground,” he would later recall.
And so, we set about with breakfast (“Forgive me Kuya Charlie, for I have sinned. I think I might have broken the door,” and then he explains that the door was always problematic, sabay bungisngis) before grabbing jackets and heading on down to Apo Wang-Od’s house.
Morning in Buscalan. Our Summer skins were not prepared for the cold, but damn did we welcome it.
photo c/o Ponyo
it was not my first time to meet Apo Whang-Od, so it is not mine to say here, how it felt, to meet her then. Next time i see them again i may ask my companions how it felt like to finally meet her.
The first time i met her, i had expected somehow, a heavy sadness. My first trip i think, had been fueled with the built-up idea of a sad story, a myth with a sad ending, this old lady being the last traditional tattoo artist, and none of the girls in her village, even her apprentice, would want to be tattooed at all anymore, and that the tradition would be dying out soon.
But what i had arrived to see was a sprightly old lady with a twinkle in her eye and a mischievous grin, teasing you where you should put your tattoo, her voice deep and full. I hear stories from Kuya ruel of her just randomly talking about things like how big penises are always better than small penises; or joking about her age, changing them every week whenever a visitor asks her; or that when she goes off to visit a friend she would jokingly tell people in her house to tell incoming visitors that she had died. This woman is greater than her loneliness. The whole of the village, i think, is greater than our outside perceived doom. little girls practice tattooing on each other, copying Whang-od, tattooing little hearts and flowers and names on friends’ hands and legs. the men and women may not have full sleeves, but they have the python motif on their arms and backs and legs, some the centipede. Whang-Od’s grand-niece, Ate Emily, had said that she had originally wanted the tattooed necklace, but she had been pregnant at the time so her great aunt advised against it, instead tattooing the underside of her forearm.
“For dancing,” she had explained, raising her arm and moving as if to begin a dance, the python very visible, the blue black beautiful against her skin.
Heroine and Whang-young had already gone on ahead, and so when Ponyo and I got there, Whang-Od was already beginning to pull Whang-young to her seat. Before, the sessions were held in the corner just outside the front door of Whang-od’s house. Now it was in a shade where there had once been an empty lot beside the house.
Whang-young being stenciled by Whang-Od. The younger had initially wanted to have fish scales but since there is an abundant lack of fish (therefore lack of fish motifs in the area, sadly), she settled instead on the ‘boneless’ python, that Whang-Od herself has on her nape.
photo c/o Ponyo
They had wanted to finish quickly, so it was a combined effort between Whang-Od and Grace. There was supposed to be one more of us to be tattooed: Hat, the rockstar, who had wanted to be second in line, but he was still very much passed out and we didn’t have the heart to wake him so suddenly.
photo c/o Ponyo
That was the first time i met Grace. too. In past visits, she had been away for college.
Grace, picking up where her great aunt left off
And then, it was Ponyo’s turn. throughout the trip was undecided about what her design was going to be, so when her time came she asked Whang-Od what she would want to put on Ponyo’s shoulder, pointing to the spot.
“The most beautiful,” was the old woman’s answer. And boy did she deliver, as always.
laying out the stencil
photo c/o Ponyo (or, Ponyo’s camera, as obviously she isn’t behind it this one time)
The design, Kuya charlie said, was a double mountain range motif daw. The several books they have may say different things (like how the honeycomb motif i have on my back and chest are, according to the books, python scale motifs), but the meanings and adaptations of designs all vary depending on the region. But we can all agree that Ponyo’s tattoo is beautiful. mapapamura ka sa ganda!
all of this isn’t without pain, of course. I couldn’t say if this hurts more than machine tattoos because all my tattoos up until that point were done by the Master, but Ponyo and Whang-Young, who both already have several tattoos done by machine, have said that the batok way hurts five times more.
Ponyo and Whang-Young and me, all in pain. Whang-Young’s python motif, as with Heroine’s (not pictured here because there are no steady hands to capture her singing in varying pitches to cope with excessive pain) are ‘boneless’, whereas Ponyo’s python, and mine, have “bones.” somehow it doesn’t read very well in english. “May buto” could also translate as, With Ridges, but boneless is more preferred for a lighthearted, humorous purpose.
picture c/o Ponyo
there had been stories of people crying because of the pain, and of people passing out, people begging Whang-Od to stop and resume another day. newly tattooed arms would swell, and bruise for days, and the bleeding, at times, copious. One was not allowed to drink before a session, but some had taken to smoking some weed to hopefully alleviate the pain, but one girl who had done that had gone frightfully pale, close to the brink of blacking out, and her session had to be stopped. And it would always hurt tenfold when it is about to finish, as if your body has just about given up taking the sharp, repeated jabs of pain. The old lady is a bit more light-handed than her grand-niece, and they are both sensitive to the reactions of their clients, but when the tapping begins, the only thing you feel is the thorn getting hammered into your flesh. one would not understand how the light, almost playful, tapping sound equates to such horrific pain.
"if machine tats are like kalmot (scratches)," Hat said of the pain the night prior, "the tats here are like palakol (shovels.)"
So, one would ask, what’s the damn point of going all this way for something that obviously hurts too much?
Every person who made that trip, i think, would each have different answers to that. and that maybe, the point of this, the tattooing, and maybe of most tattooing cultures, is that beauty is not something that you are born with, but something that you earn. As with all things good, and great.
all joking aside though; the pain was worth it.
We all got pythons, whose local name i always always always keep forgetting. Also pictured: my first tattoo from months ago, puncture marks still visible. there is the tinullipaw (honeycomb) and half of a gayyaman (centipede). the sight of a python daw, was a good omen, and so one can only imagine what omens must come when it is paired with its best friend the centipede, also a sign of good omens. (again, meanings vary by region, by book definition, and by how much kuya ruel wants to humor himself at the time of the inquiry)
photos c/o Ponyo
It was also Heroine’s first time to get a tattoo. sadly there weren’t enough pictures of her session, as most people tasked to document it were overcome by fits of laughter at Heroine’s musical numbers. we could all only admire Grace’s composure for not missing a line as Heroine belted out her musical best. Even the unshakeable Whang-Od, who normally requires silence as she works, couldn’t help but chuckle at Heroine’s antics.
Also noteworthy: Ponyo’s citing Media Theory to cope with the pain. It was so eloquent that i felt so sorry i didn’t recall anything. And also that time when some chickens battled it out nearby, and Ponyo, deathly afraid of the fowls, jumped clean out of her seat during the session. what the Master would have thought of these silly girls!
an apologetic Ponyo
Also, as added bonus: This handsome little man is named Lars, after Lars Krutak, the tattoo anthropologist of Tattoo Hunter fame, who paid a visit to the village when little lars was born. That green bottle to the side contains coconut oil, which is rubbed onto the newly finished tattoo, to make the color vivid and dark. One will be told to bathe after an hour, and prohibited from drinking alcohol as it will hinder the healing process. Chilies and seafood are also to be avoided, as it is said to cause itchiness.
Photos c/o Ponyo
We exchanged payment, medicine, and matches, after the sessions (“Salamat,” Apo Whang-Od said brightly, “salamat!”) It had also begun to rain, and we eagerly let it clear away the blood. Heroine and Whang-Young were also preparing to leave, as they were short of time and had to be back in Manila for work by Monday. They were not a few yards away and we missed them already. They bade goodbye with promises of returning soon, and for a longer period of time.
it was noon, and the rains drizzled lazily on.