Apo Whang-Od conferred the Presidential Medal of Merit

Kalinga tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od added another feather to her cap when she was conferred the Presidential Medal of Merit for her contributions to Philippine traditional arts. 

The award was given yesterday, Feb. 14, during the Civil Service Commission’s (CSC) Honor Awards Program (HAP), which recognizes public service exemplars who have displayed outstanding work performance and ethical behavior.

artist Apo Whang-Od and president Marcos
Apo Whang-Od is now one of less than a hundred recipients of the Presidential Medal of Merit. Photo by KJ Rosales, PPA pool 

Also honored during the ceremony in Malacañang were 22 employees and six organizations in the civil service for the other awards that were presented including the 2023 Civil Service Commission Pagasa Award, 2023 Dangal ng Bayan Award, and the 2023 Presidential Lingkod Bayan Award.

These awards are conferred to an individual or group of individuals for exceptional or extraordinary contributions with nationwide impact on public interest, security, and patrimony, said the Presidential Communications Office.

This is not the first award conferred upon Whang-Od by the government. In 2018, she was honored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts with the Dangal ng Haraya Award for Intangible Cultural Heritage. It was the first time the award was given to a traditional or folk artist.

artist Apo Whang-Od recepient of Dangal ng Haraya
Apo Whang-Od was a recipient of the Dangal ng Haraya award for Intangible Cultural Heritage last 2018. Photo by Jilson Tiu

The Dangal ng Haraya award is bestowed upon contemporary Filipino creators, cultural advocates, and scholars, as well as artistic or cultural collectives, historical organizations, foundations, and councils, in recognition of their exceptional accomplishments in their respective fields, which have profoundly influenced and enriched Philippine culture and arts.

The conferment of the Presidential Medal of Merit further cements Whang Od’s status as a national treasure.

Who is Whang-Od?

Also known as Maria Oggay, she is considered the last mambabatok of her generation. Her hand-tapping method of tattooing uses thorn and bamboo sticks and ink made from charcoal and water to imprint tribal design tattoos. 

artist Apo Whang-Od
The 106-year-old member of the Butbut ethnic group began her nine-decade career as a tattooist when she was only 16. Photo from Alamy Stock Photo

According to interviews conducted by anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak, Whang-Od was only 16 when she began what would become her nine-decade career as a tattooist. At the time, she was the first and only female mambabatok, with the craft taught to her by her father.

In 2007, Krutak featured her in a documentary on Discovery Channel. It was this fortuitous event which saw the 106-year-old mambabatok’s fame expand beyond the rice fields of her tiny village in Buscalan, Kalinga. 

Mambabatok can only pass on their craft to someone who shares the same bloodline. With Whang-Od never having any children of her own, she handpicked Grace Palicas, her grandniece, to be her apprentice. 

Aside from Grace, however, the art has seen a recovery from the brink of extinction, with dozens of young apprentices mastering and continuing the practice, inspired, of course, by Apo Whang-Od. 

An exceptional award for a select few

A rare recognition, the Presidential Medal of Merit, as per Executive Order No. 236, may be conferred on Filipinos and foreigners for outstanding service to the President, the Administration, or cabinet members.

It may also be given for gaining prestige for the country in an international event, in the fields of literature, the sciences, the arts, entertainment, and other civilian fields of endeavor that foster national pride and artistic excellence.

artist Apo Whang-Od medal of merit
The Presidential Medal of Merit may be conferred on individuals whose acts of merit enhance the prestige and honor of the country. Photo by Maria Vanessa Ubac, DFA-OPCD

A retiring cultural worker or artist, after serving the government in an official or advisory capacity, or a foreign artist who has promoted Philippine culture, could also be considered for the honor. 

The Presidential Medal of Merit may also be conferred on someone whose acts of merit enhance the prestige and honor of the country.

Looking at the roster of recipients, Whang-Od is indeed in great company. 

The award was first conferred in 1948, with the first honoree being the activist, educator, and journalist Rosa Sevilla, who advocated for women’s suffrage in the Philippines. Since then, only about 94 individuals have been a recipient of one of the country’s highest honors. 

Other recipients include the likes of the statesman Carlos P. Romulo, humanitarian and war heroine Maria Orosa, singer and actress Lea Salonga, cartoonist and painter Malang, and boxer and former senator Manny Pacquiao.

women in history: Hidilyn Diaz with President Duterte
Olympic gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz was conferred the Presidential Medal of Merit in 2016. Photo from the Presidential Communications Office

More recent Presidential Medal of Merit recipients are Olympic gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz (2021), artist Araceli Limcaco–Dans (2018), lawyer Peter Irving Corvera (2016), writer and historian Ambeth Ocampo (2013), lawyer Lilia de Lima (who is also a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award), and businessman and philanthropist Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala II (2009).

Associate Editor

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