Sunday, December 06, 2009


The earliest records we have of tattooing in Borneo are from the 19th century. The void before that is probably due to the fact that the interior of the island was considered dangerous territory and the inhabitants were greatly feared. The tribes inhabiting the coasts were better known but their tattoos weren’t very significant.

Edwin Gomes, who worked for 17 years as a missionary teacher among the Iban (coastal people), wrote in this connection, “tattooing is practised by most of the Dayak (Iban or coastal Dayak) to a lesser or greater extent. It’s limited to the menfolk though, who often have small tattoos on the forehead, Adam’s apple, shoulders or chest”. It was only in the 19th century, when explorers and missionaries ventured up rivers into the interior, that the West caught a first glimpse of the Borneo tattoos we’re familiar with today. Most of these tattoos probably originated amongst the Kayan, a tribe in the interior belonging to one of the first peoples to settle in Borneo, a branch of the Karen, who inhabited the mountainous regions of Burma and northern Thailand. They are thought to have broken away from the original group to emigrate south towards Malaysia and Borneo around 800 years ago. So it may be that it was the Karen who brought tattooing to Borneo.
Excluding aesthetic considerations, women and men in Borneo tattooed themselves for certain precise reasons. For men it was a symbol of virility, heroism, even cowardice (but only rarely). It was a means of identification in battle, a talisman warding off demons and diseases or boosting power, virility and prestige.
For women it was primarily a mark of high social standing. It signified group solidarity and ensured them access to the world of the dead. The Kayan believed that a tattoo is like a “torch” in the world of spirits and that without it they would be engulfed in utter darkness. They believed that only tattooed women were able to bathe in the legendary Julan river and collect the pearls that lay on its bed, while the Biajau were convinced that in paradise tattoos turn into gold and take the place of clothing. There’s no doubt that tattooing was thought to confer great beauty. Young Kayan girls were probably comforted – while undergoing the torment of the tattooist’s needles – by the legend of the pheasant, which was believed to have been tattooed, at the dawn of time, by a caucal (a tropical bird similar to a pheasant) and to have become the most beautiful bird in the forest, instead of staying the dull, insignificant creature it originally was. The number of tattoos Kayan women had depended on their standing. A young slave was only allowed a single line along her legs, drawn freehand and called “Ida teloo” (three lines). A young girl, if free but of humble extraction, could wear a slightly more elaborate tattoo, called an “Ida-pat” (four lines), whereas the daughter of a chief would have highly elaborate tattoos on her forearms, on the backs of her hands, on her legs (from the top of the thighs down to the knees) and on the tops of the feet.

The whole operation, beginning when a girl was 8-10, usually took around four years. The tattooist, always a woman for the girls, was highly respected in society and paid generously for her services. The tools she used were simple – two or three wooden sticks each with three or four steel needles stuck to the end with resin, and an iron hammer. The pigment was obtained by mixing soot scraped off the bottom of a metal pot, with water and sugar cane juice. Before tattooing the more complicated designs a sort of stamp was used, a tablet of wood delicately carved by the community’s craftsmen. The tattooist smeared the stamp with pigment and “printed” the pattern on the girl’s skin. Then, adding pigment as necessary, she’d follow the out line left by the stamp and perforate the skin by tapping the needles with the hammer.
The entire operation proceeded according to precise ritual. The ninth day after new moon was considered a propitious time to start. The girl’s brothers had to be in attendance, taking turns, and special food was prepared every day for the girl and the tattooist. The work was in pre-established stages, often with long intervals between one and another. The back and backs of the hands were tattooed first, then the tops of the feet, the forearms and lastly the thighs to just below the knees. The arms were divided into longitudinal sections, bands containing the following symbolic patterns: concentric circles, spirals, two concentric circles representing two full moons joined together (the most important motif), a series of horizontal zig-zags, entwined tree roots, a tuba, the ribs of a boat and the “Kayan hook”, two linked spirals.
Tattoos could vary from person to person but certain figures were always put in the same position. The symbol representing the roots of the tuba, for example, was always placed in the top half of the arm (women used these poisonous roots to catch fish). The design considered most important was the two full moons. Interestingly, each band always contained a small detail preventing it from being perfectly symmetrical. The back of the thigh was usually decorated with a linear pattern, the number of lines making up the pattern depending on the girl’s social standing. The front and side parts were completely covered by the patterns described above, often embellished or modified, including the following: Balalat lukut, Tinggang, Hornbill, Silong, “Tailless dog” (only in the Rajang area). The final leg tattooing session – decoration of the kneecap – was particularly solemn because considered the conclusion of the whole operation.

Many sources concur that in the 19th century Kayan men wore few tattoos. Head hunters had tattoos on the backs of their hands and fingers and anyone who took part in such proceedings was allowed to decorate a finger or thumb. Certain small motifs were sometimes tattooed on the wrist, forearm, thighs, chest or shoulders. It was a Kayan custom for men to tie a sacred seed to the wrist as a charm against disease. A symbolic representation of this seed, the Lukut, was often tattooed on the wrist for the same purpose.
A stylized rose (rosette) or star was tattooed on the chest or shoulders. The so-called “dog” motif was tattooed on the forearm and thigh. Some anthropologists sustain that the rose and the star are both derived from the dog motif and represent the animal’s eye, others that the spirals that hook up and usually form the centre of the “rosette” and the “lukut” are in fact based on the Chinese yin and yang symbol. Of the “dog” design, Sharon Thomas wrote the following in the Sarawak Museum Journal in 1968:
“People tell me that the animal…. isn’t a dog but an animal that’s now extinct. It used to live in the jungle or the river, it was very big and ate men. ….. It would be more precise to call it a dragon”.
In this connection, it’s worth remembering that the Burmese (or Shans) used to tattoo themselves with a representation of a monster to ward off evil. Other ethnic groups in Borneo had their own traditional tattoo designs but by the 19th century they’d abandoned them all and adopted the Kayan style. The Kenowit – originally a tribe of pirates inhabiting the banks of the upper Rajng and with a penchant for plundering villages downstream – were extensively tattooed, in a way “strongly resembling armour plating”. The Kenowit used to tattoo their faces as well, like the Bakatan, who belonged to the same ethnic stock as the Kenowit and tattooed the chin and lower part of the cheeks and sometimes a rosette on the forehead for rapid identification in battle. The most original characteristic of their tattooing was that they used to cover their bodies with “negative” tattoos, the patterns being formed by the skin in its natural colouring while the background was a heavy black. This body decoration took years to complete. Every time a warrior distinguished himself for bravery in battle, he would add a new tattoo. So only the bravest got to be completely tattooed.

The various motifs used by the Biaijau – another ethnic group on the south west coast symbolized not only courage in battle and successful headhunting but also skills and craftsmanship, such as carving, or success in love. Particularly interesting is the “naga” tattoo on the stomach, with a traditional Chinese dragon’s head, sporting long sharp teeth, tongue out and a horn on its forehead.
The Dusun aborigines used to wear a decorated band, two inches wide, from the shoulder to the stomach and on the forearm a perpendicular stripe for each enemy killed. Their neighbours, the Muruts, used to record the number of enemies killed in the same way and would tattoo a black square on the backs of warriors guilty of fleeing from the field of battle. One tribe that maintained their original traditions were the Kelabits, inhabitants of the northern plains. The men limited themselves to stripes on their arms, while the women decorated their arms and legs with geometrical figures, zig zags and Vs. It is thought that the Iban only started tattooing around 1890 but they immediately showed such exuberance in the practice that they were described by the Sarawak Gazette in 1907 as the “most extensively tattooed tribe in Borneo”. Malcom MacDonald has given us the following description of Temonggong Koh, an Iban chief he met in 1947: “Apart from his distinguished expression, the most noticeable physical attribute was the backs of his hands, which were completely blue, from his wrists to the base of the fingernails. This decoration had an honourable meaning, as it showed he was a great head hunter. Originally, hunters were entitled to tattoo one phalange for every head they cut, so with every new head the hunter would colour a new phalange black-blue. Chief Temonggong Koh had all his fingers, including his thumbs, covered with those honourable signs”.
We can’t tell for sure if the symbols on his hands gave an exact count of his human victims or whether the community he headed had merely allowed him to exaggerate with those symbols. Anyway, even if the symbols and their
positioning didn’t have a particular meaning, the tattoo in itself certainly did. They indicated that the wearer had taken part in a Bijalai, an important custom amongst the Iban, consisting in a journey the men had to make to obtain material gain and social prestige. It might entail spending months in the jungle cutting rattan (used to make chairs, sticks, etc.) or even a number of years working in a distant city. A man returning from his bijalai had to bring home a trophy – such as a gong or a rifle – and thus earned the right to be tattooed, an operation usually carried out before actually getting home.

Iban tattoos:
- Calf muscle: usually “Kowit” hooks, a sign that indicated the reaching of puberty.
- Shoulders: a rosette (“bunga trong”, “tandan buah”, “buah andu” or “ringgit saliling”).
- Thighs and arms: a “kala” scorpion, symbolizing a
- Back: rosettes, also symbolizing a journey.
- Throat: a “katak” frog (derived from the Bakatan “hooks“), an imitation of the “burong lang” (war god) signs on the throat.
- Backs of hands: large tattoos or linear decorations. Symbols of success as a head hunter.
The Iban “war god” is a symbolic bird called “burong singalang” but it’s masked by “burong lang”, which can be a falcon or a kite with signs on the throat similar to the “katak” of the Iban.
Iban women were also tattooed though not very extensively. The most common tattoo was a “bracelet” around an arm, probably indicating having been cured of a illness. They rarely tattooed their throats like men. Tattoos on the backs of their hands indicated skill in weaving, which was considered a worthy enterprise, much as cutting enemies’ heads off was for men.
The Ibans’ lifestyle has undergone many changes in recent years. Certain customs, such as the “bijalai”, have survived anyway and some Ibans still tattoo themselves with the sign that represents it. The throat tattoo has stayed the same, like many other Iban tattoo motifs. The same rosettes can be seen today on shoulders and backs and more or less recognizable scorpions on legs and arms.
A lot of new motifs have been introduced, including ships and aeroplanes, often accompanied by the names of places visited. Men also get themselves tattoos in the style of the places they visit, where possible. A tattoo on the back of a hand nowadays probably means that a man has been to Thailand on his bijalai and not that he’s cut someone’s head off.

by Luisa Gnecchi Ruscone

Tattoo Life


on the edge said...

This was another great anthropology lesson made fascinating by you . Tattooing is outlawed in the Quran but many of the "older" generation Libyan women had tattoos drawn on them before they married upon their faces , hands and / or ankles to resemble jewelry, to enhance their beauty .Now a days you won't find anyone with a tattoo here in Libya .

Anonymous said...

good points and the details are more precise than elsewhere, thanks.

- Thomas

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