Nas Daily cheapens Whang-od

August 7, 2021

The question is does our oldest living mambabatok have the right to sign away ‘all the rituals, tools, and methods’ of this ancient art of tattooing

When viewed as an ancient practice, there is nothing personal in the Kalinga tattoo. On the men, especially during the headhunting phase of Kalinga history, it was a symbol of valor, bravery, victory, even ruthlessness, and so each mark had to be earned, sometimes representing the level of combat skills, the number of battles fought, or the number of enemies killed. On the women, it was a sign of beauty, sometimes the mark of maturity, the readiness to take on a husband or to bear children.

And so, despite inconsistencies on both sides of the squabble between popular Palestinian-Israeli vlogger Nuseir Yassin, better known as Nas Daily, and body art apprentice and Whang-od grandniece Gracia Palicas, I find it justifiable or even a relief that, on the basis of the social media shitstorm that resulted from their altercation, the online tattooing class by Whang-od on Nas Academy has since been taken down.

Whang-od, now 104 years old, the last of the mambabatoks, the name given to the masters of hand-tap tattooing in her tribe, the Butbut, may have become a celebrity, an icon of a vanishing world, but she remains no more than a member of one of the indigenous peoples of the Kalinga district of the Cordilleras.

“Apo Whang-od has dedicated her whole life as she continues the art form and stands as living archive holding memory and mastery of Kalinga’s tattoo practice. The art of tattooing is an ancestral birthright of the community, the Butbut, of which Apo Whang-od is a member,” said Loren Legarda, three-time senator, now deputy speaker, and avid champion of Philippine culture. “Nas Daily should have gone through the process of seeking consent from the community, as stipulated under the Indigenous People’s Rights Act, considering that the art form is considered communal traditional knowledge.”

The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples Cordillera Administrative Region (NCIP-CAR) has stepped in, assuring the public that “appropriate intervention” has been initiated. Recognizing Whang-od’s artistic expression and capacity to enter into private contracts, NCIP-CAR regional director Marlon Bosantog shared, however, that “the Kalinga community had made known their claim on certain tattoo designs as belonging to the entire Indigenous Community being an expression of their culture and traditions.”

There is, of course, Republic Act No. 8371, the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act, which assures the indigenous cultural communities (ICC) and indigenous peoples (IP) of their right “to control, develop, and protect their sciences, technologies, and cultural manifestations, including human and other genetic resources, seeds, including derivatives of these resources, traditional medicines and health practices, vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals, indigenous knowledge systems and practices, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literature, designs, and visual and performing arts.”

But Legarda has also filed House Bill 7811, or An Act Safeguarding the Traditional Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in the House of Representatives, aimed at creating a comprehensive cultural archive and mandates the payment of royalties for the use of the cultural property of the IPs. “To prevent possible abuses or the exploitation of our cultural heritage, this bill hopes to fill in the gaps and apply the conventional forms of intellectual property, like copyright, royalty, and ownership. It has broader coverage for royalties that will compensate communities for their collective and individual creative expression and extends intellectual property rights past 50 years,” she explained.

As Bosantog pointed out, however, IPs “have intellectual property claims to cultural expressions and there are issues of cultural intellectual property that intersect in the art of Apo Whang-od.”

Whang-od’s course on Nas Academy would have cost interested parties only ₱750  or around $15 to learn ‘all her rituals, tools, and methods for making traditional tattoos,’ as well as those of generations upon generations of mambabatoks before her.

The whole brouhaha started early this week when Palicas called the Nas Academy out for offering a course on the Ancient Art of Tattooing without her grandaunt’s consent. In response, Nas Daily ran a video showing Whang-od affixing her thumbprint on what appeared to be a contract, claiming that a niece, Estella Palangdao, was present to translate it.

“Bandying on social media a contract is not proof of compliance,” said Bosantog on a Facebook post, promising to have the NCIP-CAR conduct an immediate investigation to ensure that free, prior, and informed consent had been secured to greenlight the project.

“Insensitive cultural appropriation or commodification of culture is currently caught and called out in social media, but we must ensure that legal protections and remedies are available and supported by the government through a clear system of registration easily accessible to indigenous peoples and communities. This incident also serves as a reminder for all of us to always vet, be mindful, and be respectful of the culture and community we wish to present in our materials,” said Legarda.

Whether or not the oldest living mambabatok did give her consent and sign away through her thumbmark the secrets to a long-revered tradition of body art is beside the point. The question now is, with all due respect, is all that rich heritage, rife with headhunters and valorous warriors, for Apo Whang-od to give away?

And if yes, why did it have to come so cheap? Whang-od’s course would have cost interested parties only ₱750, around $15, to learn, as Nas Academy promised, “all her rituals, tools, and methods for making traditional tattoos,” as well as those of generations upon generations of mambabatoks before her. That’s just 31 percent of what Nas Daily himself charges for his Art of Storytelling class, which Nas Academy offers at ₱2,400, something like $47.

So, yes, take it down. Nas Academy not only commodifies our culture, but also cheapens it.




By: AA Patawaran