It was a long trip from Manila to Kalinga: 12 hours by bus, three hours by jeepney, another hour by minivan, and finally, three hours of trekking into the jungle. Finally, we approached a small house. Outside the door was a plywood sign, “Welcome. Tattoo Artist Fang-Od,” written in red paint. She was tattooing someone at that very moment.
Seeing her work, slowly and methodically with a stick tipped with an orange thorn, and a pot of ink, I was completely starstruck. Fang-Od was old, the wrinkles of a long life carved into her face, and yet she sat with poise, completely focused on her work. She was covered in methodical patterns from neck to toe, her own tattoos emerging and disappearing along every limb, in and out from around her clothing. The entire wall was covered in photos of her alongside those who had trekked to receive her work, and there was a line of fresh backpackers, all tired from the trek in, slumped against the wall, waiting for their turn.
To capture a portrait of Fang-Od, I had to bide my time. I waited for her to wrap up for the day. Before she left, I asked her niece to ask Fang-Od on my behalf because I don’t speak the village dialect, and Fang-Od doesn’t speak English or Tagalog.
Fang-Od smiled gently at me, nodded, and removed her jacket. I used the light coming through the door to light her, and I chose vertical to allow for more of her mesmerizing tattoos to show. Sadly, for me, all the other travellers jumped up and also started taking a photos, so I lost the connection I had with her. However, I did get this one frame, this one moment, which I love because it highlights her strength, and her commitment to an ancient tradition.