World-renowned indigenous tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od. Photo: Caitlin Tordesillas
A campaign to unfollow the social media accounts of Arab-Israeli influencer Nuseir Yassin is gaining traction in the Philippines following allegations he exploited a cultural icon. His team has said the claims are false.The 29-year-old vlogger better known as Nas Daily stoked anger after the relatives of world-renowned indigenous tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od alleged his team created an online course featuring Whang-Od’s craft, calling it a scam.
Living in the mountainous Kalinga province in the northern Philippines, Whang-Od is known as the last tattoo artist from the tribe of Butbot, which views tattoos as badges of honor for defending their tribe and villages.Whang-Od, 104, has been practicing the craft since she was 15, and she gained international traction in recent years as tourists came to her to be tattooed, some hiking for hours for the opportunity.But the move to feature Whang-Od in a masterclass-type online course which can be accessed for a fee of about $15 angered Filipinos and cultural preservation advocates. Yassin has also reportedly entered into a deal for courses featuring other Filipino icons such as Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray and Peabody-winning broadcast journalist Jessica Soho. As the controversy erupted on social media, Nas Academy, an online learning platform created by Yassin, took down the course on Whang-Od earlier this week. The team has also posted a video that showed Whang-Od signing some sort of document. In a statement to VICE World News which was also posted on Facebook, Nas Academy “strongly denied” accusations regarding the so-called “Whang-Od Academy.”“We approached Whang-Od because just like you, we love her. We love her traditions, and are inspired by her. We wanted to share her culture for future generations to appreciate and respect the ancient Kalinga tradition of mambabatok (tattoo artist),” the company said.
It said the idea of creating a “Whang-Od Academy” was pitched to her and her family and got the approval of Whang-Od herself, adding that a niece of the artist was present at the signing of the contract to aid in translation. Whang-Od’s relatives could not immediately be reached for comment. Yassin graduated from Harvard University and went to work in tech. But despite getting a big paycheck, he decided to travel around the world to film one-minute vlogs, some of which then became popular in the Philippines, where other influencers and vloggers have also found success.Yassin had been embroiled in controversies before, most recently over comments during the violent flare-up in Israel-Palestine in May, when his use of the term “conflict” did not sit well with many fans who said Israel was the more powerful aggressor.Whang-Od has been subjected to what critics called “exploitation” in the past. For instance, in 2018, she was transported from her remote home province to Manila hundreds of miles away to be featured in a tattoo fair where enthusiasts lined up to receive a tattoo from her. Under Philippine law, prior consent of indigenous tribes, which is processed and facilitated by the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP), is required before documenting their traditions, practices and culture. This is meant to protect them from abuse and exploitation. It was not clear if Nas Academy secured prior consent, but in its statement, the company said it was engaging directly with the National Commission on Indigenous People and Whang-Od’s family “to ensure these accusations are put to bed.”After the Whang-Od controversy erupted, separate allegations related to Yassin’s work surfaced, including claims that he mocked the Filipino accent during a shoot. He has disputed the remarks.Follow Anthony Esguerra on Twitter.