Notes & Essays

Unpopular Opinion: In Whang-Od Issue, Nas Did Nothing Wrong

Let’s give the guy a break.
ILLUSTRATOR WARREN ESPEJO
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Most Filipinos who spend any significant amount of time on social media must have heard of Nas Daily, and if they haven’t before, they've surely heard his name over the past couple of days. To summarize: The social media superstar is in hot water for a partnership he, um, inked, with Whang-Od: an online “masterclass” that will teach people about the ancient Kalinga methods of tattooing. A close relative claimed that the famed tattoo artist was not aware of any contract and, while conceding that Nas had good intentions of sharing their culture to the next generation, she expressed concerns about people profiting from and exploiting their art and culture. 

This issue is extra sensitive for many because it involves Whang-Od, a living, breathing national treasure who is carrying on a centuries-old tradition that we all desperately want to hold on to. She may not have asked for all the attention, but the 104-year-old mambabatok has become something of a generational icon; a symbol of the age-old artform of traditional tattooing and one that has pretty much singlehandedly made it “cool” to younger people everywhere.

When Whang-Od’s grandniece first posted her rejoinder to the news about her lola’s masterclass on Nas Academy, the online reaction was swift and severe. “Whang Od is being conned by Nas,” “I always knew there was something sketchy about that guy,” or some variation thereof seemed to be the most common comment. The outrage is understandable and the implication clear: The poor old woman is being exploited by capitalists.

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What’s worse: The capitalists are foreigners. It’s bad enough that Whang-Od would be taken for a ride by potentially abusive strangers out to make a quick buck, but that it’s being perpetrated primarily by a non-Filipino takes things to a whole ‘nother level. Somehow, the situation is always made worse when the perceived villain isn’t from around here.

But let’s take a step back and examine the facts. The granddaughter, Gracia Palicas, deleted her post accusing Nas of exploiting Whang-Od. In turn, Nas has also taken down the offending masterclass course in his Nas Academy platform. On Thursday (August 5), Nas, through the Nas Academy Facebook page, issued a rather lengthy statement explaining his side. According to him, the transaction was aboveboard. He even posted a video of Whang-Od affixing her thumbprint on what looks like a contract for the masterclass course. Of course, the argument can be made, as Palicas did, that the old lady had no idea what she was getting herself into as she apparently did not understand what the translators were saying.

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But if Nas is to be believed, he and his organization did nothing wrong. They approached Whang-Od and her representatives (presumably all the way up in the mountains of Kalinga), presented their proposal, gained their approval, and formalized the transaction with a contract. Everything seemed to be aboveboard. In that sense, it’s no different from all the other partnerships that Nas has inked with other experts and prominent personalities that have (or will soon have) their own or masterclass courses on Nas Academy, like designer Michael Cinco, videographer Jason Magbanua, journalist Jessica Soho, and beauty queen Catriona Gray. 

Personally, I don’t follow Nas and do not subscribe to any of his online channels, but I have little issue with his brand of content that seems to resonate with so many people worldwide. Some stories have also come out on social media about Nas himself and the allegedly unsavory tactics he employs in pursuit of that ever-elusive "clickable content." If true, it's disconcerting and downright disappointing.

That said, and you may call me naïve, but I choose to believe him when he says he has utmost respect and reverence for Whang-Od and for what she represents. “We love her traditions, and are inspired by her,” he said. “We wanted to share her culture for future generations to appreciate and respect the ancient Kalinga tradition of mambabatok.” 

What makes this particular issue different, and why it seems to have struck a nerve with so many people, is who is involved and what she represents. Nobody wants to see our beloved Whang-Od—a 100-plus-year-old living legend—manipulated and abused. We’re all just looking out for her. And for many of us, the idea of making her artform that’s been passed down from generation to generation available on a new platform, in a so-called “masterclass course” that you pay good money for, does reek of exploitation and soulless profit.  

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Remember, this isn’t the first time that the internet has rallied around Whang-Od and (loudly) came to her defense in what was perceived to be a clear example of abuse. In 2017, when she visited Metro Manila and was invited to display her skills at the Manila FAME trade show, keyboard warriors were up in arms after photos of her sleeping at the venue went viral. For them, it was unconscionable that such an important figure in Philippine culture, and one who was over 100 years old, was being made to “work” to the point of exhaustion. It later came to light that, according to organizers of Manila Fame, she was happy to tattoo guests at the event, and that the photo of her napping was because she was bored waiting for a talk to finish. Even Palicas herself put the issue to rest and said they were happy to have been invited to the event.

We, Filipinos, seem to have this obsessive need to be overprotective of compatriots who we deem to be helpless and marginalized. That isn’t a bad thing, per se, as it’s yet another example of our empathy and compassion as a people. But often we allow our emotions to get the better of us at the slightest provocation. Many of us keep our fiery feelings at surface level and then explode at the slightest jiggle like a popped soda can.

In this case, while those of us on the sidelines may feel one way or another, only Whang-Od, her family, and her representatives can say with absolute certainty if they’re being exploited. For his part,  while allegations of exploitative behavior may continue chasing him around, it doesn't seem like Nas and his team are being given a fair shake in this case, particularly with all the hurtful accusations based on a social media post that has since been withdrawn.

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Personally, if Whang-Od and Nas really did come to an agreement about sharing her artform with the rest of the world in a video masterclass, then more power to them. But whether or not they can get me to shell out P750 to access that class—to teach myself an ancient method of tattooing, to perform on myself and perhaps to others—is another issue altogether.

The Unpopular Opinion is Esquire’s space to provide additional insight and introduce new perspectives to issues that we may think have foregone conclusions. These articles don't always reflect our editorial stance, but we publish them here to continue the discourse.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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