Back to Buscalan: Apo Whang-Od’s Cover Story Photographer Returns For A Personal Journey

Photo by Artu Nepomuceno

Vogue Philippines Apo Whang-Od cover story photographer Artu Nepomuceno and his wife, the stylist and creative director Meg Manzano, visit Buscalan to set up a water filtration system with Waves for Water. The return takes a turn for the personal, as the famed tattoo artists of Buscalan send the pair on their journey to begin again.

No sleep til Buscalan. When Artu Nepomuceno and Meg Manzano got home from the Vogue gala, they only had a few moments of shut eye before they had to leave for Baguio, first editing Artu’s photo diary, turning it in, then packing their bags before their early morning departure. The couple was on a tight schedule because this was the only time Jon Rose, the founder of Waves for Water, could make the trip to see Apo Whang-Od and install the water filtration system in her town. 

The group stopped over in Baguio for the first night and left early in the morning for Buscalan in what should have been a six-hour drive. But a typhoon was incoming, and visibility was close to zero. “We made a wrong turn at a certain point, and that led to a whole collection of other wrong turns,” Artu says. After backtracking and getting stuck on muddy roads, they finally arrived in Buscalan. Since shooting the Vogue Philippines Whang-Od cover, it was Artu’s first visit back, one much later than he had intended to take. But things happen for a reason. 

John Warren, Jon Rose, and Meg Manzano-Nepomuceno with Buscalan school teachers and their new Waves for Water hand washing stations. Photo by Artu Nepomuceno

The filtration buckets and rainwater tanks they brought were loaded onto the rickety cable car that crosses a ravine. Artu recounts how surprised he was to see a local riding the gondola (really just a metal crate), when all this time we had thought that human transportation was not allowed (for tourists, of course). 

He also noticed the improvements on the path—concrete steps, a wider bridge—making the village more accessible. Once settled in their homestay, they went straight to Grace Palicas’ home and noticed other changes: Whang-Od’s grandniece added glass windows and a sliding door around the balcony area, turning it into a semi-private tattoo studio. Clients can also lie down on a foldable massage table during long tattoo sessions—the basic amenities of the modern studio have come to the mountains.  A display cabinet held a copy of Jake Verzosa’s The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga, and now the Vogue Philippines April 2023 issue. 

Conversation naturally turned to the question “are you going to get a tattoo?” which is what Grace asked Meg, who was in Buscalan for the first time. An active volunteer with Waves for Water, Meg was going to help implement the water filtration program in the town but hadn’t really thought about whether she was going to get a tattoo. In Filipino, Grace told her, “If you decide to get one, I have a design for you, and I’d like to do it.” 

Grace Palicas. Photo by Artu Nepomuceno

Curious, Meg asked what the design was. Without hesitation, Grace told her it was a design for fertility. Immediately, Meg started crying.

A few months earlier, Artu went to Bhutan with Jon and a Waves for Water team on motorbikes to distribute water filters around the different districts. After an arduous hike up to Tiger’s Nest, a monastery 10,000 feet above sea level, monks encouraged the visitors to pray at one of the shrines. Artu found himself silently making a wish. At the end of the article Artu wrote for Vogue Philippines last July, the photographer revealed that his wish came true—he and Meg were expecting. 

It was a joyous moment only to be cut short by grief. Meg made the decision to be open about the painful experience of miscarriage, which happened a couple of months into her pregnancy. “We should start having these difficult and delicate conversations,” she posted on IG. “If the narrative of miscarriage could come into light, if we could discover oneself in another and trade our stories, maybe community could be a welcome consolation to our pain.” It was a brave and beautiful act that brought to light the untalked about feelings of shame and guilt women feel when they lose a baby.

Meg Manzano-Nepomuceno’s fern tattoo. Photo by Artu Nepomuceno

“All I could think of when Grace offered the fertility tattoo was ‘yes,’—she had no idea what we went through the past couple of months,” Meg says. “When she first mentioned it, I just got a mix of goosebumps and tears. I came into the moment not knowing what the design would look like or where Grace planned on putting it on my body, but it was a welcome break from the discipline of decision-making we’ve had to practice the last few weeks of our miscarriage.”

Grace placed the tattoo of a fern and triangle on Meg’s left shoulder while humming a soothing melody, just as the sun was setting over the rice terraces. 

“Little did we know that is what this trip was all about. This is why we found ourselves here and why the schedules align, and this is why Meg had to be here,” Artu says. Their pilgrimage was mainly for providing clean water, and it was a trip that was postponed several times due to the couple’s changing situation. “It was all for this very special moment where Meg gets this tattoo, a gift from Grace.” 

“It kind of made perfect sense for us to be there on that exact day,” Meg says, “and find strange comfort in the mountains, a few hours north of where my mom grew up.”

Apo Whang-Od adds her three dots over Meg’s fern tattoo. Photo by Artu Nepomuceno

When Apo Whang-Od asked Meg if she had gotten a tattoo, she showed her the fern on her shoulder and agreed to receive Apo’s signature three dots. After studying Grace’s work for a bit, Apo Whang-Od placed her three dots above the fern in a triangular formation, a departure from her usual straight (or semi-straight) line. The tattoo was complete, a harmony of threes.

After the tattoo session the team gathered at the basketball court and showed the townspeople how to use the water filtration system and rainwater catchment system. Some locals were selected to distribute within the families, and teachers from the nearby schools were also given water filters and hand washing stations, a new product that W4W has been providing. The hand washing station is a water filter system with a mechanism that allows kids to wash their hands safely with filtered flood water.

Anna Tambalong, one of the local champions, shows how to assemble the water filters. Photo by Artu Nepomuceno
A Buscalan elder tries the water filtered from the demonstration. Photo by Artu Nepomuceno

Before the day ended Artu got a tattoo from Elyang, Grace’s cousin. On his last trip, Artu chose the symbol of a dog in honor of his first and oldest dog that had just passed. This time, he left the design up to Elyang, who tattooed a full band around his arm, adorned with mountains. Artu was surprised by how the tattoo resonated with the recent events of his life. “It reminded me of my trip to Bhutan, where it was when I got back that I found out we were pregnant. It just felt like a closing of a chapter with our miscarriage,” he shares.

Grace then told him that she would add another band when Artu comes back. Artu has pledged to give the profits from his photo print sale, a collection of portraits of Whang-Od, back to the Buscalan community, and now he was able to consult with the people to see where the funds could be put to use. They will most likely go to the school that Grace’s daughter attends, which is in need of repair and some new desks.

Elyang Wigan, Apo Whang-Od, and Grace Palicas. Photo by Artu Nepomuceno

Our stories with Apo Whang-Od and the people of Buscalan will continue, because each visit, each tap of the inky thorn always triggers something within us, whether it’s a connection to our deep heritage, a cathartic moment that needed to be released, or a gift of healing bestowed upon us by the spirits. 

Before the group headed back down to Manila, Artu held a portrait session with Apo Whang-Od, Grace, and Elyang dressed in their traditional clothing. He shares the photos with us here.

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