Tattoo artist Apo Whang-od
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Nas Daily Controversy with Apo Whang-Od

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Recently, Nas Daily was under fire for allegations of exploiting the PH culture after he had launched an online course about traditional tattooing. This raises a lot of points for discussion when it comes to foreign influencers catering to audience in underdeveloped nations such as the Philippines, the ethics of commodification of culture, and more.

As a Filipino content creator, these are my opinions on the Nas Daily controversy.

What the issue is about

Nuseir Yassin is an Arab-Israeli vlogger who gained popularity for his 1-minute videos in his Facebook page Nas Daily.

Recently, he has launched Nas Academy and collaborated with Filipino creators to teach online courses. One of these courses is the Art of Ancient Tattooing featuring Apo Whang-Od as the masterclass instructor.

Tattoo artist Apo Whang-od
Apo Whang-Od. Taken in 2015.

Apo Whang-Od is a national cultural icon in the Philippines. The 104-year-old woman is known as the last mambabatok (traditional tattoo artist) in the Butbut Tribe in Kalinga. Every year, thousands visit the mountains of Kalinga to have their skin marked by this legend.

The courses promises to reveal “all her rituals, tools and methods for making traditional tattoos.” The fee for this course is P750 ($15) per enrollee.

Nas Academy course with Apo Whang-Od

Apo Whang-Od’s grandniece, Grace Palicas, posted that the course is a “scam” and that Apo Whang-Od did not sign any contract with Nas Daily.

Gracias Palicas post about Nas Daily

In response, Nas Daily posted that Apo Whang-Od consented with the course and showed a video that shows her affixing her thumbprint in the contract.

Nas Daily response to Apo Whang-Od issue
Nas Daily response to Apo Whang-Od issue

Grace explained that Apo Whang-Od did not understand the translators. “I know you spoke to someone and gave some money and will share profits, but Apo Whang Od is not aware of your contract.”

With this, a lot of Filipinos called out Nas Daily, accusing him of exploiting the culture of Filipinos for profits. Thousands immediately unfollowed his page and even called for a boycott. There is also an on-going petition to declare him a persona non grata to the Philippines.

The ButBut Tradition

The art of tattooing is special among the Butbut Tribe. It isn’t something that is just taught to anyone.

As explained here, the skills for traditional tattooing can only be passed down the lineage. Apo Whang Od believes: “It can’t be passed on to anyone else. It has to be within the same family because if someone else who is not from the same bloodline starts tattooing, the tattoo will get infected.”

Since Apo Whang-Od is childless, she had trained her grandniece Grace Palicas a decade ago to continue this art. Since then, more women were trained and, currently, there are over 20 women involved in tattooing.

Rights of the Indigenous People

Officials also made statements about the issue. In a Facebook post, Trixie Cruz-Angeles, Legal Counsel for the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, said:

“Nas Daily and Nas Academy attempted to make money from the cultural manifestations of the Kalinga indigenous cultural community by featuring the manner and works of Apo Whang Od.

This violates the Indigenous People’s Rights Act, in particular Sec. 16 Rule VI of the IRR pursuant to Sec. 29 of the law.”

According to Cruz-Angeles, the tattooing method is the intellectual property of the community. As such, Nas Daily needs the consent of the community, not just Apo Whang-Od. The contract should also be written in a language that the signee understands. Apo Whang-Od does not speak English or Filipino, but a dialect in Kalinga.

The National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP) also announced that they are going to investigate this matter.

Nas Daily’s Response

Nas Daily shut down the course and halted their operations in the Philippines. In a Facebook post, he said: “We will come back more energised and ready to help more inspiring people become teachers in the Philippines.”

There are other issues that came out of this. However, I believe they are irrelevant so I will not be including them here.

Discussion

Now that the facts have been laid out, there are a few points that I would like to discuss.

The first one is the agreement with Nas Daily and Apo Whang-Od.

Was the agreement done in good faith?

First of all, I do believe that Nas Daily entered the agreement in good faith. In his post, he explained that he consulted Apo Whang-Od and her immediately family. Apo’s other niece Estella Palangdao was present and she translated the contents of the contract prior to Apo Whang-Od signing it with her thumbprint. There is video evidence of this.

However, it seems that the other side of Apo’s family was not aware of this. It was after the course was launched that Grace Palcias came out to say that Apo Whang-Od was not aware of the contract.

It may seem like there are conflicting versions of events, which lead to these questions.

Was the contract properly translated to Apo Whang-Od?

Does Apo Whang-Od have the capacity to enter into such agreement? Doc Adam made an informative video about this and he explained that capacity is an important consideration since Apo Whang-Od is over 100 years old.

This aside, the contract still stands on shaky grounds because it did not include permission from the community itself. As far as we know, Apo Whang-Od had not been elected as a representative of the community at that time.

Is this a form of cultural exploitation?

A lot of Filipinos feel strongly about this issue because it appears as cultural exploitation.

Cultural exploitation is a complex topic. I will not pretend to be an expert about it, but based on my readings here are my thoughts.

As per the California State University, cultural exploitation is a type of cultural appropriation:

“Cultural exploitation is the appropriation of elements of a subordinated culture by a dominant culture without substantive reciprocity, permission, compensation, understanding, or appreciation (Rogers, 2006).”

Nas stated that most of the profits generated from the course when to Apo Whang-Od and her family. But again — the art of tattooing does not belong to Apo Whang-Od, but to the whole community.

With this in mind, there are questions we need to ask.

What would the community be getting out of it? Would it be beneficial to them? Would they be properly compensated? In my opinion, they should be getting as much if not more than the business making a profit at their culture. Remember, there should be “substantive reciprocity.”

How will it affect their culture? Will it help appreciate and preserve it or will it do more harm than good?

If we are going to use the definition above, then yes, what Nas Daily did was culturally exploitative. Important elements were missing in the course setup.

There was lack of permission (Nas Daily only approached Apo Whang-Od and her immediately family, not the whole community who rightfully owns the traditional art). Hence, there was also lack of substantive reciprocity and compensation (the community itself does not benefit directly from the course). There was also lack of understanding or appreciation of the culture (tradition dictates that the skill is passed only to lineage or at least within the community).

Moreoever, the community has voiced out concerns about the course, as Grace has plead before. Also, in a Facebook post, another member of the Butbut Tribe stated:

“It is an honor for us that the world has taken interest in this part of our culture but many of us may not agree to putting it out there for the world to consume.”

Even if Nas entered the agreement in good faith, it does not mean that it is ethical.

On a related note, Nas also mentioned that Nas Academy consists of 40% Filipino. On the surface, this appears as a generous gesture because he is giving jobs to Filipinos. I believe that an important question to ask is how much is Nas Daily paying his Filipino staff in related to others who are doing the same jobs?

When is commodification of culture okay?

This issue enraged a lot of Filipinos, in particular because Nas Daily is a foreign influencer who has commodified a sacred art of an indigenous tribe without their permission. To be honest, when I heard about this issue, it left a bad taste in my mouth.

However, I’d also like to point out that commodification of culture is not necessarily bad.

In terms of the ethics of commodification of culture, the indigenous people should be properly informed, involved in every step of the way, and compensated. It’s important to hear what they themselves feel about it. Is it something that they actively participate in? Is it something that they benefit from? Are they happy sharing their culture with people outside of their own?

The line between cultural appreciation and cultural exploitation can sometimes be murky. This is why it’s important to do proper research and consultation with the people involved.

Is Nas Daily guilty of Pinoy-baiting?

In light of this issue, a lot of Filipinos came out to say that Nas Daily is Pinoy-baiting. Pinoy-baiting is an interesting topic and one I believe is long overdue.

What is Pinoy-baiting? One definition comes from MA Buendia:

What is Pinoy-baiting

As a blogger, I’m familiar with the concept even before this term was popularized. In the blogging world, it’s an open secret that one of the easiest ways to get hundred-thousands (or millions) of views is to post how much you love or hate the Philippines. If you love the Philippines, you’re a source of “Pinoy Pride.” If you hate it, you’re going to generate a huge controversy that you can monetize as well.

In recent years, Pinoy-baiting has also evolved to exaggerated reaction videos. The Bureau also talks about this in an article: How to get a thousand likes in a minute. The art of Pinoybaiting.

Foreign influencers do this to jumpstart their career before moving to other areas they are truly interested about.

It actually saddens me to write about this. In fact, I believe that there should be a separate discussion dedicated on Pinoy-baiting.

Pinoy-baiting is distasteful because it involves foreign influencers pandering to a large demographic in a third-world country for monetary gains, often without significant return to the said people. As a Filipino blogger, it can also be frustrating especially because foreign influencers often get preferential treatment and more support compared to local content creators.

That saying, I believe that it’s not fair to put the onus on the foreign influencers only. After all, they are filling a demand — the Filipino’s need for foreign approval. The reason behind this may require a socio-cultural study so we can get understand the Filipino psyche. My guess is that there are embedded ideas in our culture that affect our sense of worth and what we lack in ourselves, we search for in others.

I don’t watch Nas Daily, so I don’t have an opinion on whether he is Pinoy-baiting or not. If you’ve been watching his videos, let me know what you think.

Final thoughts

The need for accountability

We should give credit where credit is due. I believe that Nas Daily had good intentions when he created the course. Also, I appreciate that he immediately took down the course and even (temporarily) halted the academy operations in the Philippines following the call out.

But as a Filipino, it’s frustrating to see that he has not issued an apology, not even once — especially to the Butbut Tribe. Instead, in his post he stated: “Sadly, some of our intentions have been misunderstood, as we have seen with the Whang-Od Academy.” This may true, but it doesn’t absolve him of his wrongs. It’s clear that his team lacked sufficient research on the tradition of the Butbut Tribe, which raised concern among its people. Also, he failed to approach the proper channels first (i.e., NCIP) before creating the course. These parts are not misunderstood.

Also, he announced coming back “more energised and ready to help.” Nowhere did he say that he will take time to educate himself on how to deal with indigenous peoples.

In short, his response is devoid of accountability.

As a Filipino, this is terribly upsetting. Influencers or not, people who are visiting other nations should educate themselves on its culture and tradition first. This is the bare minimum for all. Personally, I believe there should be leeway because mistakes do happen, but there should still be accountability. For those who are planning to start a business that involves a particular aspect of someone else’s culture, the burden of responsibility is greater because money is involved.

Let’s support more locals

Lastly, I hope that we use this as a wake-up call to support our own.

I hope to see clear implementation of rules and regulations that protect the indigenous people. When it comes to business startups that involve the local culture, I hope to see efforts to include local entrepreneurs first before opening up the venues to foreign business entities.

Also, I hope that this serves as an opportunity to support more local content creators. I’m speaking not only to ordinary Filipinos but to tourism bodies as well. Filipino creators deserve as much love and recognition as anyone else. There are a lot of hardworking content creators that showcase the beauty of the Philippines and have gone to impressive feats (such as visiting all provinces of the country).

If you’re looking for recommendations on vloggers/Youtubers that you can support instead, off the top of my head are: Lost Juan, Avelovinit, Jayvee Manikan, Jervis Jaylo, Gayyem Ben, NumuTV, and Hungry Bolo.

And of course, we are always updating this blog for budget guides, itineraries, and staycations. 🙂

What are your opinions on the Nas Daily controversy with Apo Whang-Od? Let me know in the comments below.

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