Tattooing is a form of art that can be traced to ancient civilizations around the world. One of the world’s oldest tattooed bodies was discovered in the Austrian Alps in 1991 and was dated to be over 5000 years old. In many indigenous cultures, tattooing is more than mere adornment; they use tattooing as a powerful ritualistic practice which denotes one’s social or spiritual standing. Tattoos can signify one’s alliance as friend or foe, affiliation with higher powers, or ward off harm and disease. Some also denote the rank or function of a person within their community.

For the Dayak people of Borneo, spirits are a part of everything around them; plants, animals, and humans all embody a spirit. Tattoos are thus a way of drawing the power of these spirits by using their images which are deemed to be curative or protective. Tattoo artists among the Kayan and Iban people of Borneo are highly revered as they consult spirits to reveal the tattoo designs for a person.

The ingredients that are used for these tattoos are soot or powdered charcoal, which are thought to be able to ward off malignant spirits. There are some indigenous group that mix their pigments with certain charms, such as powdered animal bone shards or ground up meteorite, which is believed to make the resulting tattoos more powerful. The tattoo artist uses about five bamboo splinters or needles to a stick for the outline and taps them into the skin with a mallet. Solid areas are colored in using the same method but using 15-20 needles on a circular configuration on a stick. The resulting tattoos are intricate patterns derived from nature depicted in blue-black tones on the skin.

For the Dayak people, tattooing is a sacred ritual, and in many Dayak tribes, begin with a sacrifice to the ancestors, usually by killing a chicken and spilling its blood. After chanting, the tattoo artist will start the tattooing process, which can last up to eight hours to spanning a period of a few weeks, depending on the design. Tattooing thus represents a rite of passage, symbolizing both death and a new life.

In Iban cultures, the women are also recognized for their accomplishments as the men are. Adolescent girls are usually tattooed to mark their passage from girlhood to womanhood and to provide protection against malignant spirits.

Tattooing is sometimes done in stages, which is why some people have “incomplete” tattoos; they have to abide by the taboos and rules of their cultures and earn their “complete” tattoos  by participating in ceremonial events that will earn them the tattoos. For example, A man’s arms are covered with the images of areca palm fronds believed to protect  him from jungle spirits, with the torso depicting images of “The Tree of Life’ which symbolizes strength and divinity which protects them from their enemies. This is considered a perfect and sacred body, ready to receive their “golden body” in the afterlife. For warriors, their chests and backs are completely decorated with powerful images, such as the hornbill, believed to be a messenger of Lang, god of War, and scorpions and water serpents that protects them from evil spirits lurking in the jungle. These symbols are also earned and denote the mark and prestige of the bearer within the community.

Today, many of the designs no longer exist. Many people in Borneo converted to Christianity in the 1950s and 1960s and the old tattooing methods slowly faded away. The styles of the tattoos almost died out. There was a revival about 10 years ago, when a number of writers and scholars came to raise concerns about the traditional ways of tattooing. This has prompted many younger people to look back upon their culture, and we are seeing a slow revival of this ancient practice again.


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