From Borneo and Around

This blog is all about Borneo (and sometimes elswere) as I experience it. It's about places, people, fauna, food ... and anything I find pleasantly worth sharing in words and pictures.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011




January 2011   

A tribal and tattoo expo in Kuching? I had to go; after all, tattoos are the ancestral written language of the indigenous people of Borneo and in particular of the infamous former head-hunters: the Ibans. 

In this region of the world where paper would not have subsisted the ambient humidity or the frequent crossing of rivers, sophisticated symbols drawn and printed on the skin became the portable library of the indigenous people.

Although there were some rules depending on the tribe one belonged to or the status the person enjoyed within the community, as a general rule, both men and women could adorn their bodies with artistic and, more often than not,  symbolic designs, with the difference that a man without tattoos was considered sissy and cowardly.

Some legends say that the Ibans are able designers simply because their gods wished them to be so. Two creative spirits in particular are believed to have given the Ibans the idea of decorating their bodies, when the Contrococcyx bird (Bubut spirit) tattooed his friend the Argus Pheasant (Ruai spirit) – both happened to be were in their human form – with the most exquisite designs.
The Bubut spirit tattooing the Ruai spirit - Iban design – Augustine Anggat Ganjing

                                            The Argus pheasant

Since the designs were symbolic and the ink was charmed, certain tattoos were believed to protect from one’s enemies and in particular from head-hunters. The winner in a man to man combat to death would cut his trophy from the neck of their opponent and immortalise his victory by having their hands and fingers tattooed with a special Entegulun design.
Entegulun design.
Basic Iban design – Augustine Anggat Ganjing
Amongst other popular designs to decorate the skin were the scorpion on the throat; the crab, immediately below the nape of the neck, and the nowadays, the ever popular Bunga Terung or egg-plant flower.  
Bunga Terung
Basic Iban design – Augustine Anggat Ganjing

Tattoos would also tell the life story of the Iban man who had had to leave his village and travel alone and far for a few years to prove his courage; they would tell of his Berjalai (his journey) and where he had been. With more Ibans joining the army rangers, they started tattooing their forearm with their ID number and the name of the places their unit had been dispatched.

The recent trend and, I’d say the worldwide rehabilitation of the tattoo has somehow rekindled the pride of being a Borneo native amongst their younger generation often turned urban and college educated. The old Bunga Terung has become the new symbol of the young Ibans and surprisingly, many insist in having it tattooed on their skin the old fashion way: manually.
Tattoo artist with Bunga Terung on the shoulder


Reference: Basic Iban design – Augustine Anggat Ganjing                        
Wooden Iban tattoo blocks can be seen at the Sarawak Museum.


I thought the Lars Krutak’s from the TV documentary show “Tattoo hunter” (Lars is the Tattoo hunter) was a wonderful way for the visitors to understand the universality of tattoos. Regrettably, it was the only information available at the gathering.                                                                                                 
Lars Krutak is an archaeologist and cultural anthropologist who discovered his passion for the art of tattoos while researching in the arctic region back in 1996. Since then, Lars has recorded the lives and stories of tattooed people around the globe and become the technical adviser for one of the world’s largest and most popular tattoo website:
Here are a few of the fascinating info I jotted down while at the exhibition:

-       -   SHAMANIC SKIN: In Indonesia the Mentawai people believe that their bold body tattooing keeps them in harmony with the universe and the spirits that govern it. Most tattooists are shaman.

-          SOUL POWER: Less than eighty years ago, Kayabi warriors who had taken human lives were believed to enter an intimate relationship with their victims. A powerful Kayabi shaman explained to Lars that “you definitely take an enemy’s soul when you kill him. Also, the blood of the dead man begins filling your stomach which necessitates a special diet and ritual seclusion to avert spiritual poisoning and physical transformation.” But before the warrior went into seclusion, he was entitled to have the name of his victim tattooed upon his body. “This tattoo symbol represents the new soul that he has gained as well as its spiritual power”.                                                                                                         Today, the Kayabi of the Brazilian Amazon no longer hunt men, but they continue to wear the facial tattooing of their ancestors.

-          RITUALISTICIn Thailand, having the picture of an elephant tattooed on the back to absorb the power of the animal.
BLBLESSED PRAYERS: In Thailand, magical tattoos are based on ancient Khmer texts. Combinations of magic number and Hindu mythological characters that are endowed with special powers that tattooed monks and ordinary Thais find appealing. Some of these designs are believed to protect from bullets and knives; to bring luck in business, to protect from danger, while others may give strength, or even have the power to attract a future husband or wife.
  AAFTERLIFE:  In India, one will be recognised after death only by the tattoos one one’s body.
  GGOOD OMENS:  In the Philippines, Kalinga tattoo motives, centipedes and python scales seem to dominate. Both creatures were considered to be friends of the warriors because of the omen they delivered on the warpath.

-          CURATIVE POWER: In the Philippines, a tattoo on the neck could prevent or cure goiter. It did not always work as Lars’ picture revealed, showing a woman with a tattoo on a huge goiter.

-          EARNING HIS STRIPES: Shows an old Indian man wearing a chest tattoo showing that he is a successful head-hunter and that he can shift to the shape of a tiger when attacked.

-   FLOWER POWER: Shows a Kayan woman (Sarawak, Borneo) with hornbill, “shoots of bamboo”, “guardian spirits’, “dragon dog” and tuba root motifs that are all believed to repel evil spirits. Floral imagery symbolising spiritual power and relationships, permeate every facet of Kayan life, Plants are regarded as a major kind living thing sharing the same fundamental properties of life and death as humans.            

-   HERO SCARS: In Ethiopia  


Tattooed Sape player from the highlands of Borneo

"Old Time Tattoo" Artist work

Preparing the ink at TNT Tattoo

Making a choice

Having it done at "Pijama Tattoo"

Offerings to the gods

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