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A look at Nas Daily’s alleged ‘exploitation’ of Whang-Od and why it’s considered an ‘encroachment’ of our cultural heritage

By Hannah Mallorca Published Aug 10, 2021 9:49 pm Updated Aug 13, 2021 12:39 pm

It’s been more than a week since the controversies involving Israeli-Palestinian vlogger Nuseir Yassin or Nas Daily and legendary tattoo artist Apo Whang-od Oggay have lit news sites and social media. 

In a now-deleted Facebook post on Wednesday, Aug. 4, Whang-Od’s grandniece and protégé Gracia Palicas accused Yassin of scamming the tattoo artist by signing her up through a masterclass on the online learning platform Nas Academy. The vlogger repeatedly stressed he sought and got consent from the artist, as he rejected accusations of “commodifying" an ancient cultural tradition.

Since the controversies broke out, Nas Academy has announced that it will pause all operations to address the matter. 

Whang-Od is revered as one of the last “mambabatoks” among the Butbut Tribe of Buscalan, Kalinga Province. In other words, she’s also considered a member of a revered indigenous community. 

The art of ‘whatok’ or traditional tattooing

The traditional practice of “whatok” or hand-tapped tattoo is part of the Butbut Tribe’s culture, which started from Kalinga headhunters and warriors. For men, it’s a sign of masculinity and dominance, while women view it as a sign of beauty. 

Whang-Od started out as a “mambabatok” at the age of 15 with her ink made of a mixture of charcoal and water. The tattoos are tapped into the skin through the sharp end of a calamansi or pomelo tree.

Whang-Od is immersed in her craft of traditional tattooing. Photo by Miguel De Guzman/The Philippine STAR

But experts in anthropology and culture have remarked that ownership of the sacred indigenous art goes beyond one person practicing it, which in this case is Whang-Od.

Ateneo de Manila University associate professor Jayeel Cornelio said "whatok" is a cultural heritage of the Butbut tribe. This means that “no one is by default an owner or has the authority to commit an entire heritage on behalf of an indigenous community.”

Ateneo de Manila University assistant professor Louie Sanchez also noted in a separate interview with PhilSTAR L!fe that the issue shows how some perceive the sacred tattoo as a “physical ornament” without understanding its context.

What qualifies as consent? 

Since the controversies, the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) has stepped in to investigate the supposed signing of the contract by Whang-Od with Yassin. 

In separate posts, Yassin insisted he sought the consent of Whang-Od and her family before putting up the “Whang-Od Academy.”

“In everything we do, we get permission. We worked with the family directly and got their consent. We made sure to support them during these difficult times,” Yassin said in a video posted on Monday, Aug. 9.

But NCIP-CAR information officer Rocky Ngalob said the "rightful owner to give consent over indigenous practices" is the Indigenous Peoples (IP) communities and not an individual. 

NCIP-CAR Regional Director Marlon Bosantog said that NCIP's investigation will last for two weeks.

UP anthropology Prof. Nestor Castro also said that the supposed contract is “questionable” since there was no “Kinalingga language translation of the 'contract.’” He said Yassin also “doesn’t understand Republic Act No. 8371" in a separate Facebook post on Friday, Aug. 6.

Republic Act No. 8371 or the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act protects the rights of indigenous communities in the Philippines where they’re provided the liberty to “control and develop” their “sciences, technologies, and cultural manifestations.”

Sanchez also said that what Nas did toward Whang-Od was a cultural offense and a form of “encroachment for the sake of capital.” 

“It’s not just a breach of protocols, para siyang kabastusan talaga sa wika natin,” he added.

‘Dapat magalit tayo.’

Sanchez said what Nas Daily did was a form of exploitation.

“Dapat magalit tayo. Bilang bahagi ng ating bansa at kultura, kapag sila ay ninanakawan, tayo ay ninanakawan rin. Kapag sila ay ine-exploit, tayo ay ine-exploit din. Dapat magbago tayo ng pananaw kasi ang pagnanakaw sa mga komunidad na ito ay pagnanakaw din sa atin. Hindi lang sila ang nawawalan, tayo rin ang nawawalan.” he stressed. 

Sanchez said what is also worrisome is that some Filipinos help fuel the exploitation. 

“Ang masaklap pa diyan, yung exploitation na yan ay pinalalaganap natin dahil tinatangkilik din natin ang mga produkto na nag-exploit doon sa IP. Ang pinakamasaklap pa doon sa nangyayari kay Nas ay captured market na nga tayo at pinagkakakitaan pa tayo bilang kultura,” Sanchez said. 

Legendary tattoo artist Whang-Od. Photo from Miguel De Guzman/The Philippine STAR

“Kailangan nating i-re-educate ang ating mga sarili tungkol doon. Importante na isipin natin at maging kritikal tayo sa mga bagay na napapanood natin at maging mas makiling tayo sa ating kultura, kasi kultura rin natin ito,” he added. 

Banner and thumbnail photos from Miguel De Guzman/The Philippine STAR, NAS Academy, and Nas Daily on Facebook