Before you judge, here’s what really happened between Whang Od and Manila Fame

Over the weekend, Twitter and Facebook blew up with outrage over the exploitation of Kalinga tattoo artist Whang Od Oggay at Manila Fame.

Manila Fame is the country’s premier design and lifestyle event. For their 66th year, the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions (CITEM), the organization responsible for the event, arranged to have Apo Whang Od travel from Buscalan down to Manila so they could feature her in the event.

She attended the event on Friday and Saturday. By the tail end of Oct. 21, there was an outpour of angered tweets and Facebook statuses shaming CITEM for exploiting Whang  Od’s skills, culture, and art for their own commercial gain.

There were those who expressed concern for her health, berating the organizers for making this fragile, 100-year-old woman travel all the way down from the mountains just so they could use her to make money.

Then, there were those who argued that the whole thing cheapened the value of the Kalinga tattoo. This group of netizens claimed that through bringing Whang Od over here to Manila, CITEM removed the pilgrimage that would have earned a person a tattoo from the master.

Both Rappler and CNN immediately reported on this.

A day later, relatives of Apo Whang Od spoke out in defense of Manila Fame. Then, Rappler, CNN, and other news sites began collating accounts clarifying that Whang Od enjoyed her visit to Manila and her attendance in Manila Fame. Slowly, we were getting glimpses of what really happened. Yet, the picture that they–media sites and social media users alike–were painting still portrayed that of a gullible group of provincial folk who may have consented, but only because of manipulation.

To set the record straight, we gave CITEM’s executive director, Clayton Tuganon a call to get the facts behind Whang Od’s controversial trip to Manila. Unsurprisingly, everything was not as it seemed.


The Coco Martin Invite

In all the reports I’ve read, there always was the implication that Whang Od was tricked by Manila Fame organizers, getting her to agree to “perform” in exchange for meeting Coco Martin.

Mr. Tuganon clarified that they were upfront with Whang Od about the purpose of their invitation. We invited her because part of Manila Fame is Create Philippines. It’s where we show yung tunay na art ng Pilipinas, and we thought Apo Whang Od would be perfect, because she’s the oldest known Kalinga tattoo artist. And, si Apo lang yung alam natin na walang halong influence yung art nya [by other foreign entities].” It was also to promote her nomination as a GAMABA or Gawad ng Manlilikha ng Bayan awardee.

That’s why they invited her, and that’s what they told her, the Buscalan elders, and her relatives when they went over to Whang Od’s home to formally give their invitation. It was  all very official. The whole tribe was present, and there were gifts involved.

Once representatives have laid down their invitation, Whang Od agreed under three conditions. First that she would meet Coco Martin. Second that she would be taken to Manila via helicopter. Lastly, that she would get to promote her tattoos “para malaman ng tao at maalala nila yung tattoo ng Buscalan kahit wala na sya.

The first thing she did once she landed in Manila, of course, was to meet Coco Martin.


The Tattooed 200

“Part of their contract did state that Whang Od would do a live tattooing session. But, she was only meant to do it on five to seven people.”

This is where it all began. What enraged the internet public was the idea of making the elderly tattoo artist who was about to retire tattoo 200 people in three days.

Speaking with Mr. Tugonon, I tried to check if the figures were correct. Did they really contract her or trick her and her relatives into signing a document agreeing that Apo would complete such a task?

The short answer? No.

The longer answer? Yes, part of their contract did state that Whang Od would do a live tattooing session. But, she was only meant to do it on five to seven people. It was just for the sake of demonstrating her art so that people could see and appreciate how Whang Od does her tattoos. And the original five to seven people were pre-selected.

“After the original number of people finally had their tattoos, Whang Od saw that she had already gathered a crowd and that they all wanted to get tattooed as well. It was then that Whang Od decided to accept more “customers.””

After the planned number of people finally had their tattoos, Whang Od saw that she had already gathered a crowd and that they all wanted to get tattooed by her as well. It was then that Whang Od decided to accept more “customers.” According to Mr. Tuganon, Whang Od said, “Aakyat pa sila. Andito na ako, mag-tatattoo na ako.”

She was happy that there were so many who wanted to get her people’s tattoo because for her this meant the promotion of their province and their tattoos, which meant the survival of their culture and their art.

And even when she started accepting more “customers,” it was mostly her grandnieces Grace and Elyang who made the tattoos. She spent around two minutes maximum per person signing her signature after the two were done.

That photo circulating where Whang Od had her head down, looking like the picture of fatigue? That was just her growing impatient during the panel session. She wanted to go back down and continue tattooing fairgoers.

Aakyat pa sila. Andito na ako, mag-tatattoo na ako.”


The Outrageous(?) Rates

CITEM had nothing to do with the rates asked by Whang Od and her team of tattoo artists. Once the lines started forming and Apo began tattooing after the originally planned live tattoo sessions, the organizers basically just let Apo Whang Od and her team do their thing as long as everything was orderly. They didn’t know about the rates that were requested, and neither did they profit from it.

It was Eva, the cashier-slash-treasurer of the group that set the rates of those getting tattooed. Eva is a college graduate, just so you all know.


The Exoticized Display

Another major criticism that Manila Fame received was that Whang Od’s live tattoo session done on a platform was very reminiscent of the Philippine Exposition at St Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

Mr. Tuganon defended their choice of platform explaining that the reason why they asked her to “perform” on a stage was that so people could see how she did her art. It was so that they could learn and appreciate the art of her people.

It wasn’t that she and her team tattooed 200 people on the platform either. After the initial five to seven pre-selected people were done, they moved Apo Whang Od and her team to a more comfortable location.  


Perversion of Art

“For Apo Whang Od, those tattoos were a gift.”

The way I and my team see it, it’s a double-edged sword.

For Apo Whang Od, those tattoos were a gift. She was happy to have that many people want and be interested in her people’s culture. It meant security for her family once she’s gone, that the rest of the country wouldn’t forget Buscalan even after she’s long gone. So, giving those tattoos were her gift to the Manileños for helping the Kalinga tattoo art thrive. That’s her freedom of choice.

Of course, there would also be those criticizing and calling out cultural appropriation and exploitation, etc. There will always be those who see the negative side to things, and that’s just something you can’t help. And, I guess, you have to admit that to the random onlooker, it will look like exploitation.

End of story: It’s just always best to be informed.  

Photos courtesy of,, and, and


Read more:

Capiz, bamboo, brass, and other raw materials that stood out during Manila FAME

Five exhibitors you need to watch out for at Manila FAME

Find traces of our rich culture in this urban space

Writer: ANTHEA REYES © 2020. Hinge Inquirer Publications, Inc.


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