What’s the difference between a Disney mermaid & the last Kalinga tattoo artist?

Jessica Hudson

Imagine a small town in the Cordillera Mountains in 1920. No running water. No ocean. A fragile sanggol na babae is born on a chilly night. Her mother’s pain thin & quick like a needle hammered into a stick. At fifteen, the babae becomes a woman. Spends her paycheck to have scales inked taas at baba her brown arms. Lifelong sleeves for a life of long days. Twitter says she’s 103 years old today. She uses a second stick to tap the needle’s tip into curious tourists. Stick figure on a bicep. Sunrise on the back of a neck. She covers her wilted chest when she’s working. I dream Ariel visits her shop. The sirena shows off her fresh tats : a portrait of her & Flounder on her lower back : a triple water swirl on her left shoulder : a small word in cursive on her upper back. Something in Kalingá. Only one of them knows how to pronounce it.


Jessica Hudson is a graduate teaching assistant working on her Creative Writing MFA at Northern Michigan University. She is an associate editor for Passages North. Her work has been published in The Pinch, Sweet Lit, and perhappened mag, among others. Read more at jessicarwhudson.wixsite.com/poet.

A note on this piece: Whang-od Oggay is a Filipino tattoo artist from Buscalan, Tinglayan in the Kalinga province of the Philippines. She is often described as the last mambabatok, a traditional Kalinga tattooist. Born in 1917, she has been tattooing since she was 15 years old.