Monday, June 01, 2009

Traditional Borneo Tattoos by Ernesto

Traditional Borneo Tattoos by Ernesto

Borneo tattoo artist Ernesto founded Borneo Head Hunters Tattoo Studio in Kuching Sarawak in 1998. Borneo Headhunters Tattoo and Piercing Studio aims to promote the rich traditional art form of tattooing which has been an integral part of the Iban community for centuries. Here Ernesto gives us an insight into the rich culture and history of traditional Borneo tattoos.

Borneo tattoo artist Ernesto performing traditional Borneo Tattoos.

© Borneo Head Hunter.

Can you tell me a bit about your background?

Well, My name is Ernesto, of the Iban Tribal origin. I am the sole owner/founder of Borneo Headhunters Tattoo & Piercing Kuching, Sarawak, the one and only. I was born in Sibu, and lived in Kuching almost all of my life, my village or longhouse is located in the Upper rivers of Ulu Spak (rumah temedak ) in the Betong District.

You graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Law from the U.K. and it seems you became a tattoo artist quite by accident.

After high school, I worked at pizza hut as a delivery rider for almost a year ,and during the period I went for a interview for a position in a Local Bank here in Sarawak and then when I got the job I resigned from Pizza Hut and went to work in the Bank. I worked there for three and half years and after some time I realized that there I slowly realized that there was not a really bright future working in a bank and that I was in a routine day by day situation. And so I resigned in 1993.

After that I was looking into other things to do. I was into vintage motocycles and custom choppers so I got into that for a while. That was where I met a friend named Richard who introduced me the first home made tattoo machine. So I tried it and it seemed to work for me. My clients (was working from myrented room) were growing quickly but I wasn't charging much rather trading for cigarettes. I guess you could say I wasnt earning much. Professional tattooing was unheard of at the time, so I decided to make a change in life again.

I went to the British education fair and when it was in town in around late 1993. I applied for a place to study Law in the United Kingdom. One of the reasons was because law has no mathematics involved! I got a place went to law school and left motorcycles and tattooing. During my time in England I worked in a restaurant called the Red House in Telford, Shropshire in the Midlands, where my University is.

To make ends meet and pay for accommodation and school fees, I would go to a casino at night to try double my money. What a joke! It worked most of the time. During the time I would sometimes pass a tattoo studio located in Wolverhampton, where a tattoo artist called Spike owns. I would check out the tattoo designs and found that there was a big interest in Borneo style tattooing in the western world. So we became friends.

Traditional Borneo tattoos done by hand.

© Borneo Head Hunter.

I graduated in 1997 but I didn't go home yet, still working in The Red House until January. Early in 1998 I went home and loafed around for a few months. Then an idea popped into my head to start a tattoo business. I rented a run down shop below where I am located now and started a very small studio which was 5 x 7 x 5 feet with some money I collected from home tattooing. Then when the shop first opened many people thought I was going mad! The four main reasons were...
1 because I have a law degree and I chose not to practice.
2 there is no way a business like tattooing is going to sustain itself
3 theres no respect to this trade here in Sarawak then.
4 Basically no one believed in the whole idea.

I can still remember my first customer, a guy called Tommy Leach from Denmark. He had an Iban Scorpion on the side of his foot. Business at the time was too slow so I collected enough money in a couple of months for the airfare to return to England to see my friend Spike. I left again and went straight into Wolverhampton to his tattoo studio and asked him for a job. He was the man who gave me my first shot into the International tattooing scene. For these reasons I will never forget him for that.

I then tattooed there for a year and two months and returned to sarawak where I reopened the shop. Business was getting better after my return in November 1999 - thanks to the Organiser Bit Schoeneberger of Ethno Tattoo in Lausanne Switzerland. I did my first International tattoo convention in Lausanne won two of my first trophy's, got 3rd best of day and respect prize.

At that stage I was still tattooing by machine only. During that period I met with the Leu Family where Felix Leu came into the Studio where I was doing a short guest artist spot and said these words 'hey man!, what the hell are you doing with those machines? Throw them in the trash, you got a culture...embrace it, practice it, don't waste it, you're the chosen one, use 'em sticks'. Then he walked out. I was left in a dazed situation and trying to figure out what he meant. Eventually I got what he meant. So I took his advice and started the journey. The rest is history as they say.

By then and for this I will always remember my guardian angel Don Feliz Maria @Felix Leu. All respect to him and his great family.

Traditional Borneo tattoos done by hand.

© Borneo Head Hunter.

Are you originally from Sarawak, Borneo?

Yes I'm from Sarawak, Iban tribal origin.

You mentioned that you learned the traditional of technique of tattooing from the elders in the Iban region.

Yes, but this is just by theory only. No one really does it anymore at this time. Iban culture is a culture that is in many ways already dead. The only ones left are those elders who have the traditional tattoos but are not practicing tattooing the traditional way anymore. It was regarded as old fashioned or outdated like most of the other old practices.

In 1999 I started research in the interiors of Sarawak going to Kapit, Lubok Antu, Layar, Betong, Sibu and Miri to the longhouses to talk to the old people about the reasons why we Ibans tattoo, the meanings and how to recognise the motifs. The elders speak in old tongue and in rhymes. So sometimes what you hear is not always what you get! If you take it literally it may mean opposite or nothing at all. I understand the old language and folklore thanks for my great relationship with my grandfather who is a lemambang (Shaman).

I took notes, photographs and videos for records but the most important is being there and experiencing it first hand. Nothing beats that. You can read books but I would say accuracy is 40%, because most of the writers are foreigners and they most definitely don't speak Iban because they are not Iban. To understand you have to be Iban and living the Iban way. There are some recent writers who claim to know more Iban than an Iban which I find very strange!

After a two weeks trip Upriver and living in the longhouse they know everything already. Even me, I dare not claim what I know is maybe only 1% or even less of a culture that is already almost lost. So in short I just tried the method and tattooed traditionally since then and everyday I learn a new design. It is art. Practically I must say I was self taught.

How long did it take you to become an artist?

I suppose I was born to be one. I was already good at art and drawing long before tattooing.

Did you learn the traditional Borneo hand tattooing before you took up an electric needle?

I was exposed to traditional tattoos (not tattooing) before I knew about electric tattooing. I learned electric tattooing before I took on traditional tattooing.

Borneo tattoos done with an electric needle.

© Borneo Head Hunter.

There is a rich history of tattooing in Borneo. How would you say it has evolved to what it is now? I mean do most young people there go in for the traditional style or are they getting modern Western tattoo designs?

The traditional tattoos culture is at the brink of extinction, but modern tattoos are more in the trend. Usually if I have an Iban come to my studio to have a tattoo or tattoos I'll have a talk with them about the importance of preserving this culture. Hence, the only way is on skin and maintaining the original design and meanings. Most people would go for it these days. But generally a dying culture. Fashion and modernization kills cultures and traditions. We cannot go against time. This applies everywhere in the world. So I try in every little way I can to help preserve it.

Do you still see old tribal members with dots on their hands signifying that they killed someone?

Yes, but very rarely and chances are so remote to encounter even one. They are made out of dots or even designs and chevron style or even saw blade style dragons. But most importantly is that not everyone who has taken heads wishes to have such a tattoo because of the burdens that come with it. Only Ibans understand this part of their culture so I will not discuss it here.

It also signifies that you either have taken one or more heads yourself or have joined in the headhunting party, headed by a 'Tuai Kayau'. The tattoo is called an 'Entegulun' but pronounced "tegulun'. The tattoos are done usually on or after the 'Gawai Enchabung Arung' where the headhunters wife if married or mother if single welcomes the heads attained during each headhunting expedition to their longhouse with a 'Pua Kumbu' (weaved linen ) made with designs that are specially weaved. For example 12 Giant snake design (Nabau) with a sungai 'Sungai pemali' (Forbidden River) across the weaving in the middle separating six snakes on each side of the woven river.

The Gawai enchabung arug Arung is held for 7 days and 7 nights and those involved are not allowed to enter their "Bilik" for that same period of time, they eat, sleep and celebrate only in their Ruai (common area of the Longhouse). No contacts with ther wives or women (you know what i mean) in this period of time as this is the Taboo. There is more but I'm not giving anthropological lessons so I'll just stop here.

Borneo tattoos done with an electric needle.

© Borneo Head Hunter.

Can you tell me a bit more about your studio and a typical day in the life of Borneo Headhunters?

I only do a maximum of 2-5 tattoos per day on an appointment basis. The studio is opened from 11am to 7pm. It has a closed door system meaning that you either have to call in advance to see if I'm in or just drop by and knock the door for attention if I'm not in call. It is a no rush environment. I take my time on each piece whether it be by the machine or traditional tattooing. I have a lot of traditional designs that I attained from the old people and those designs will not be changed, but if there is a need for custom work I will design one.

Any conferences or guest appearances planned?

1.The Paris Convention In April 2007
2.The Northern Ink Exposure in Toronto June 15-17 2007 (
3.The 2nd International Borneo Tattoo Convention 29th June -1st July 2007
4.The Evian International Tattoo Convention 2007 in Oct in Lausanne, Switzerland in Ethno Tattoo OCT 2007

Do you get a lot of Westerners traveling to Borneo to get the traditional Iban tattoos?

Yes, a lot, from tattoo artists, collectors, first timers and those seeking remembrance tattoos of their trips (souvenir). I mean, where else better to get a Borneo Tattoo than on the Island of Borneo itself, and from an Iban especially!

Your parting shot/funny story or words of wisdom!

I would like to thank everyone who has believed in me and those who gave a helping hand when i was in my darkest hour, and mostly to those who support the Culture and tradition of my people The Ibans and keeping it alive by getting traditional tattoos. All of you are Ibans as the word Iban means 'people' or 'person'. It was the British that gave Category to the name Iban. As a tribe or race, in the old day we were known by the name of the area or river that we come from (live) eg, Iban Batang ai means 'people'from Batang Ai riverine, Iban Saribas means 'people' that come from the Saribas Riverine.

For those who got and support traditional Iban tattooing, you all have been the example for us Ibans to realise what a beautiful and great culture we have. With this we can have a greater view and value for this dying tradition which was once great and shed light from a different prospective on the history of tattooing in our culture.

* Thank you again for the support on behalf of the Iban Culture.

Artist Details:

Borneo Headhunters Tattoo and Piercing Studio
1st Floor 47 Wayang Street
93250 Kuching
East Malaysia
Tel/Fax: 006-082-237062
Mobile: 006-019-8566317

*courtesy of


Jeffry said...


♥B.P۞HeaVen eYe۞ said...

Hidup Tatoo Dayak.. diatu yau maio bala org luar berpantang bungai terung.. good ..

*aku kak berpantang tang takut ke jarum.. indu misi kak ngejik aku , aku enggai biar makai ubat aja...

LM said...

awesome stuff. hope you guys at Sarawak had a nice Dayak Celebration. :)

HappyMedium said...

Thank you for enlightening me about the your rich heritage. This is truly an art form, and I would love to see folks in the U.S. display some of these amazing tatoos.

I saw a woman tatoo artist on Current TV who was drawing people from the U.S. to her shop in Japan just by posting a website displaying photos of her incredible work.

Yours is also very impressive. All the best to you in life and business!

Robb Sempurai said...

Thanks for the support!

Jen said...

Interesting post. I love the pictures of the tatoos!


berapa ungkus ngaga pantang nya ngal....bc ati ka ngaga asuh aku ba

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Ovonel said...

excellent work!!! hope to visit ur studio one day

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