Jade Small
Jade Small
April 12, 2023 ·  4 min read

106-year-old Indigenous Filipino tattoo artist becomes Vogue cover model

Vogue is one of those prestigious magazines that everyone expects to be extremely exclusive. That is, not in terms of who reads their articles, and who flicks through the pages. Most people think that you have to be of world-class beauty standards to make a Vogue model. However, once a tattoo artist from the Philpeans made it onto the cover of one edition. Not only was she not your typical model, but she is an elderly lady of 106 years old at the time the photo was taken.

The Least-Expected Vogue Model

At 106 years old, Apo Whang-Od Oggay, otherwise known as Maria Oggay, is a traditional tattoo artist from the Kalinga tribe in the Philippines. This April, she became the least expected, and most unlikely, Vogue Philippines cover model. Her story highlighted the indigenous culture’s need to stay in existence. As the world becomes more and more globalized, culture across the world is disappearing.

Image credit: Artu Nepomuceno

Whang-Od’s journey to the pages of Vogue began in the mountainous region of Kalinga, where she has lived her entire life. Her village is known for its traditional tattooing practices, which have been passed down from generation to generation for over a thousand years. Whang-Od began learning the art of tattooing at sixteen years old and quickly developed a reputation for her skill. She was so precise with her work, that people came from all over to have their skin blessed with her talent.

Whang-Od never had her own children. So, her grandnieces were as close to her as if they were her grandchildren. Her eldest grandniece, Grace, was the first to learn the skill as Whang-Od’s apprentice. Next, her sibling, Elyang, took Grace’s place when she went to college. “I was the first child to learn how to tattoo. I just observed what she did,” said Grace. “When I left for college in 2015, Elyang was next to learn so that she could help Apo when so many tourists were coming.” 

A Traditional Tattoo Artist

Despite the many changes that have taken place in the world around her, Whang-Od has continued to practice traditional tattooing throughout her life. She uses a technique known as “batok,” in which she uses a sharp stick to puncture the skin and create intricate designs with charcoal. This method is time-consuming and requires a high level of skill and patience. Nevertheless, the new Vogue cover model found a passion in her work, which continues to this day. “I will give them the tatak Buscalan, tatak Kalinga for as long as my eyes can see,” said Grace, translating for her grand-aunt.

Image credit: Artu Nepomuceno

In recent years, Whang-Od has gained international recognition for her work, as tourists from around the world have traveled to her village to receive traditional tattoos. This newfound fame has brought both attention and annoyance to the Kalinga people and their traditional practices. Some have accused tourists of appropriating or taking advantage of the Philippine culture. Contrary-wise, there are some who argue that the more people who want Philippine traditional tattoos has helped to preserve their traditions. This form of art is important to their culture. With globalization at its finest, their culture is threatened to become extinct.

Moreover, the rise in popularity of Batak tattoos has helped their village rise above poverty. “Before, farming was our livelihood. We would only eat kamote. You can see how tourism changed Buscalan when visitors started coming,” Grace translated Whang-Od’s words. “We also learned how to speak English and Tagalog because of the visitors.” 

The Unlikely Vogue Model is Determined

Despite these debates, Whang-Od remains a revered figure in her community, and her work continues to inspire younger generations to carry on the tradition of Batok. In 2018, she was awarded the Dangal ng Haraya, the highest honor given by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts in the Philippines.

Whang-Od’s recent appearance on the cover of Vogue Philippines is a wonder to all of their culture, and many across the world. The magazine’s editors chose to feature her not just for her age, but for the beauty and complexity of her tattoos. Each design is intricate and well-thought-out. As the world continues to change and evolve, it is important to remember the value of traditional art forms. As well as the importance of preserving the cultural heritage of Indigenous communities. Whang-Od’s story is a reminder that these traditions are not relics of the past. They are parts of our shared human history that are still alive and strong.


  1. 106-year-old Indigenous Filipino tattoo artist becomes Vogue cover model. NBC News. Emma Sanchez. March 31, 2023
  2. Apo Whang-Od And The Indelible Marks Of Filipino Identity.VOGUE. Audrey Carpio. March 30, 2023