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  • Copies of "The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga" by Jake Versoza and Kalinga elder Natividad Sugguiyao  
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04/28/15 Photographer Jake Versoza on “The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga”

Photography by Samantha Ang  I  Words by Margarita Buenaventura

The Cordilleras used to be a mystery to city-dwellers: rarely did tourists venture farther than Baguio to experience the crisp highlands. Interest in the sloping north has been growing lately, and all eyes are trained on Kalinga province’s brood of tattooed women. Photographer Jake Verzosa, however, has always been keen on getting to know this proud heritage of northern artistry, which he documented in his book The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga. A sprawling coffee table book of black and white portraits, Kalinga explores the savage beauty of the traditional batok (Kalinga tattoo) process, and the elders who wear them proudly.

NOUS drops by Jake Verzosa’s book signing at Silverlens Gallery in Makati, where he and Kalinga elder Natividad Sugguiyao (the book’s co-author) talk about the renewed interest in the mysterious north, keeping the culture alive, and their favorite batok tattoos.

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Hey, Jake. So what piqued your interest in these tattooed women?

JV: I grew up in the northern of part of the Philippines—Cagayan, Tuguegarao. Which is adjacent to Kalinga. I’ve been seeing the women since I was a kid. I was curious about ano yung meaning ng tattoos nila. That was before. Tapos when I got the chance to get into professional photography, I wanted to document something doon sa region. That’s when I started the project and I met Nati, who also helped me with the project.

And Nati, you’ve lived in Kalinga all your life, and you grew up with the women there. Do you recall your first tattoo?

NS: Yes, I am from Kalinga. I was taken care of by the women there. My first tattoo was a painful but wonderful experience. I chose my own design… I think it’s innate, the design you get.

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There’s been a growing interest in the culture of the tattoo artists in Kalinga. Ever since you got to know them and photographed them, how have things changed, would you say?

JV: There’s a good and a bad side to that thing happening. I guess the bad is that people sometimes make it too commercialized, and they don’t really understand the meaning of their tattoos. On the good side, there’s an interest in preserving the art.

NS: It’s a revival effort to bring out the true meaning of what the tattoo means to the Kalingas. The stigma or the bad meaning of the tattoo is that it’s for criminals. With the interest now, the artful aspect of it is more known.

Is there anything about the culture in Kalinga that people should know more about?

JV: Para sa ‘kin kasi, my interest is in the meaning of the tattoos. Looking from there pa lang makikita mo na yung buong history nila. I guess there are also lots of stories. Rich din yung mga kwento nila. They can tell a lot of stories through the tattoos.

NS: The interest is endless in Kalinga, from the art to the way of life. Everything. I think I would venture on the beads now. They’re made of stone. Now we’re trying to trace back the history of how they came to Kalinga. The original ones are handmade, but now they’re mass-produced in China. [Laughs]

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Of all the tattooed women you photographed, did anyone stand out among the rest?

JV: When we talked to all of them, may sarili silang mga anecdotes about their tattoos. Most affected  ako siguro kay Whang Od, kasi siya yung nag-tattoo sa akin.

Which tattoo from Kalinga would you say is the most meaningful for you?

JV: Para sa ‘kin, getting tattoos symbolizes periods in our lives. So pag nakikita ko, may naaalala ako. So parang milestones siya.

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