I like to think that my grandma is a badass. She’s pushing 80 and has two boyfriends, two cars, and two thousand cats. She’s at that point in her life where she clearly doesn’t give a shit about anything, which is why she tells each of her grandkids that we’ve gotten fat every chance she gets. We might get mad at her if she didn’t drink like a college kid and shell out fifty-dollar bills like it’s her job.
But no matter how much of a BAMF my Mamaw is, she’ll never be as cool as Maria Whang-od Oggay. Maria isn’t just your average 100-year-old woman; She’s a ritual tattoo artist of the Butbut tribe in the northern Philippines, and is one of the only remaining artists keeping the traditions of her people alive.
She uses the traditional tapping style of tattooing, which is done by hammering ink into the skin using the spike of a lime tree attached to bamboo and dipped in wet charcoal. It’s slow, painful, and tedious. But it’s a tradition worth preserving for Maria, who cherishes the prominent technique among the tribes of the Philippines. Tattooing has been a tradition in her homeland for centuries, though the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s heavily discouraged the practice. Years later the tradition has faded, and few are left with full sets of traditional tattoos.
But Maria remembers how they’re done, and she bears the traditional ink all over her skin. Part of the reason the practice has survived in her home is because of the remoteness of her tribe and the warriors who defended themselves against the colonial Spanish. Warriors who traditionally earned tattoos on their torso and upper arms, dependent upon the amount of men they killed.
Maria even has the names of some of her ex-boyfriends on her wrists, like every rebel grandma should. She continues to ink locals and tourists (including some tattoo artists) who flock to see her. She has passed the ancestral art form down to her grandnieces, and their services not only protect their culture, but enrich the village with tourist revenue. Simply put, she’s a legend, and exemplifies the most respectable aspects of tattoo traditions across the world.