Apo Maria ‘Whang-Od’ Oggay has made history as the oldest woman to have featured on the cover of Vogue.

Regarded as the last mambabatok of her generation, Whang-Od was born in the remote village of Buscalan in the northern Philippines’ province of Kalinga in 1918, and entered the world of tattooing at just 16 years old.

As Vogue Philippines’s editor-in-chief Bea Valdes explained of their decision to feature her on the cover, “we felt she represented our ideals of what is beautiful about our Filipino culture.

“We believe that the concept of beauty needs to evolve, and include diverse and inclusive faces and forms. What we hope to speak about is the beauty of humanity.”

And Whang-Od was the perfect choice. Vogue Philippines’ demonstrated as much when they wrote on Twitter that “the symbols of the Kalinga tribe signifying strength, bravery & beauty” are imprinted on her skin, and that Whang-Od embodies the “strength and beauty of the Filipino spirit”.

As tattoo anthropologist Dr Lars Krutak found out for Vogue, it was through Whang-Od’s father’s mentorship that she launched her career in tattooing. She was the first – and only – mambabatok of her time, and would spend her time visiting neighbouring villages – and beyond – to “to imprint the sacred symbols of their ancestors on individuals who have crossed or about to cross a threshold in their lives.”

Her own life story can be found on her skin – featuring everything from her accomplishments to her ailments, and even the names of past lovers – in a story of beauty, bravery, and the heritage of the Kalinga tribe.

For men, tattoos reflected them as “a headhunting warrior”, while women were typically tattooed for “fertility and beautification”. As Vogue reported, the elder women of Kalinga say that “when they die, they can’t take their beads and gold with them to the afterlife. They only have the markings on their body.”

As Vogue went on to cover, decades of colonial erasure had a significant impact on batok – in Kalinga, village girls had to cover their arms, while many others abandoned the art.

But through Whang-Od and her descendants, the ancient art of batok will continue – both in Buscalan and the rest of the world.

Batok itself, as explained by the Vogue team who had the honour of receiving a tattoo from Whang-Od, involves “an unused gisi, a bamboo stick with a thorn attached to one end” and a pattern traced “using a length of grass dipped in the soot and charcoal mixture”.

The process then sees Whang-Od hold the inked gisi in one hand, while she “uses a larger stick to whack it with her right hand, driving it over a hundred times per minute into the flesh until the three dots are filled and oozing with blood and ink. She dabs at them with a wet wipe before deciding to go over the freshly wounded spots again for good measure.”

And now, Whang-Od has been teaching her craft to her grand-niece, Grace Palicas.

Under Whang-Od’s mentorship, the thousand-year-old tradition will live on, as the next generation of stick-and-thorn artists strive to preserve their craft, and share it with the world.

As for Whang-Od herself? Her plans are quite simple, with the artist explaining that “when visitors come from far away, I will give them the tatak Buscalan, tatak Kalinga for as long as my eyes can see.”

Images: Instagram

This article first appeared on Over60.