Painted Past: Borneo's Traditional Tattoos

Sharon Guynup
National Geographic Channel
June 18, 2004
In the Indonesian section of the island of Borneo, an adolescent boy of
the Ngaju Dayak people embarked on a solo hunting adventure, his first.
He ventured into the jungle armed with a blowgun and poison darts. He
went in search of wild boar or monkey, favorite foods among his people.

The journey was often perilous. The forests crawl with snakes so venomous that a bite can kill within an hour. The rivers are filled with crocodiles. Neighboring tribes might have taken his head if he had stumbled into their territory.

When he returned home safely with a wild boar draped across his shoulders, he had navigated an important rite of passage: He had crossed the threshold into manhood. To mark his achievement, he was ritually tattooed in the longhouse of his ancestors, first with a full moon on his calves, and later with the image of a water serpent that wound along his upper thigh.

More Than Adornment

Tattooing is one of the world's oldest art forms and has been widely practiced for thousands of years. The oldest tattooed body known to date was discovered in the Austrian Alps in 1991—over 5,000 years old.

For some, tattooing is a bit like clothing, says Webb Keane, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But among many indigenous cultures, body art is often much more than mere adornment.

Tattooing is also a ritualistic practice with powerful social and spiritual significance. Some tattoos denote an affiliation with spirits, deities, or ancestors—or ward off harm or disease. Others mark the coming of age, signify tribal rank, or distinguish friend from foe. Still others recognize great hunting prowess, weaving skills, or a successful headhunting raid.

"The reason people tattoo are incredibly varied," said John Barker, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "There are different motivations in different locations at different times."

For example, in many Polynesian cultures tattooing is extremely sacred, forging a connection to the ancestors, Barker said. In Papua New Guinea the Maisin women cover their entire faces with exotic curvilinear patterns in a puberty ceremony. Until they are tattooed, they are thought to have "blank" faces, not yet ready for marriage.

Tattooing has also held great significance in head-hunting cultures around the world—from the Naga in India and Bontok Igorot in the Philippines to the Mundurucú of the Brazilian Amazon and the various Dayak peoples of Borneo—said Lars Krutak, an anthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Dayak Tattoos

For Borneo's Dayak peoples, spirits embody everything: animals, plants, and humans, Krutak explained. Many groups have drawn on this power by using images from nature in their tattoos, creating a composite of floral motifs using plants with curative or protective powers and powerful animal images.

Tattoos are created by artists who consult spirit guides to reveal a design. Among Borneo's Kayan people, women are the artists, a hereditary position passed from mother to daughter. Among the Iban, the largest and most feared indigenous group in Borneo, men apply the tattoos.

These tattoos are blue-black, made of soot or powdered charcoal, substances thought to ward off malevolent spirits. Some groups spike their pigment with charms—a ground-up piece of a meteorite or shard of animal bone—to make their tattoos even more powerful.

For the outline, the artist attaches up to five bamboo splinters or European needles to a stick. After dipping them in pigment, he or she taps them into the skin with a mallet. Solid areas are filled in with a circular configuration of 15 to 20 needles.

Ritual Tattooing

Traditionally, Dayak tattooing was performed in a sacred ritual among gathered tribe members. Among the Ngaju Dayak, Krutak said, the tattoo artist began with a sacrifice to ancestor spirits, killing a chicken or other fowl and spilling its blood.

After a period of chanting, the artist started an extremely painful tattooing process that often lasted six or eight hours. Some tattoos were applied over many weeks.

For coming-of-age tattoo rituals, the village men dressed in bark-cloth. This cloth, made from the paper mulberry tree, also draped corpses and was worn by widows.

Tattooing, like other initiation rites, symbolized both a passing away and a new beginning, a death and a life.

Head-hunting Tattoos

One Dayak group, the Iban, believe that the soul inhabits the head. Therefore, taking the head of one's enemy gives you their soul. Taking the head also conferred your victim's status, skill and power, which helped ensure farming success and fertility among the tribe.

Upon return from a successful head-hunting raid, participants were promptly recognized with tattoos inked on their fingers, usually images of anthropomorphic animals.

Head-hunting was made illegal over a century ago—but even today, an occasional head is still taken.

Tattooed Women

In past times, just as Iban men were tattooed to recognize their prowess in hunting or warfare, Iban women were adorned for accomplishments in weaving, dancing, or singing. Adolescent Kayan girls were tattooed at puberty to render status as an adult, to attract men, and to provide protection against evil spirits.

As they grew older, women were often covered by a weave of inked images spreading around their legs, across the tops of their feet, forearms, and fingers.

But only very wealthy Kayan women sported these intricate tattoos, Krutak said—"only aristocracy who could pay with a sword, a gong, pigs, or old trading beads." Only aristocratic women were allowed to use particular designs, because only these women were powerful enough to resist any negative magic associated with the designs themselves, he said. Slaves were forbidden to tattoo.

Marking Perfection

Tattooing was done in stages over many years and was governed by various taboos. Once a Ngaju man had acquired some wealth and reputation, his shoulders were adorned with a star and his arms decorated with rooster wings and plant patterns.

"But later in life, perhaps at the age of 40, only 'perfect' men would be allowed to receive the complete form of Ngaju tattoo," Krutak said. These were men who had distinguished themselves by living their lives according to ceremonial law, participating in head-hunting expeditions and the offering of a human sacrifice—and who had acquired wealth.

This "complete" tattoo was applied over many days. The man's arms were covered with images of areca palm fronds that were said to protect him from malevolent jungle spirits. Then his torso was tattooed with a design of the Tree of Life, an everlasting symbol of strength and divinity that protected him from his flesh-and-blood enemies. He was then considered godlike, perfect and sacred, and it was believed that in the next world he would receive a golden body.

Among the Iban, the chests and backs of older, venerated warriors were completely decorated with a collage of powerful images. The hornbill was a favored motif because the bird was seen as a messenger of the war god Lang and also marked rank and prestige. Other favorites were the scorpion and the water serpent, which protected the wearer from evil spirits lurking in the jungle.

But in Borneo, and among many other indigenous groups around the globe, this practice is fading. "Many traditional forms of tattooing are dying out," Keane said.

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