Iban Tattoos

There are many cultures in the world which use tattoos and body decoration, the Iban tradition is certainly one of the most well developed and interesting. In the past most adult members of the Iban tribe from Borneo were tattooed. These tattoos were more than just decoration, each one had it’s own meaning and story.

After the second world war  missionary work in Malaysian Borneo almost succeeded in wiping out the tattooing tradition. Tattoos were viewed as pagan and their wearers as primitive and undesirable (in marriage). In a country where strong emphasis was placed on development and modernity all aspects of the tattooing art were strongly discouraged not just by the missionaries but by the communities themselves (now strongly Christian).

Here is a traditional story of how the tattooing began (translated by Joyce Langgu from the book Nendak):

A long time ago, there was an Iban man named Gendup.  Ever since he was very young, he enjoyed using his blow pipe for hunting.  He frequently spent nights in the jungle, in caves, on the tree tops and other suitable places in the jungle on his own when he went hunting far away from his longhouse. He was a brave person, not afraid of snakes/scorpions, beasts/ghosts that can easily harm him in the jungle.

One day while hunting, Gendup wandered too far away from his longhouse and he was not aware of the time that went by.  He ended up at someone’s pendai (place where people from a longhouse wash, get water etc) and saw a girl bathing in the river.  Before Gendup can say anything, the girl said,

“Welcome Gendup!  Bathe first before we proceed to my longhouse.”
“Sure!” Gendup said and sat his basket and blow pipe by the river before taking his bath.  He was surprised that the girl knew his name.

After bathing, the girl led the way to her longhouse.
“Come in Gendup.  All the men are in the longhouse,” said the girl as they were climbing up the stairs to the longhouse.
“That’s great that they are all at home,” replied Gendup.

As they were entering the longhouse, Gendup heard ‘tik-tok’ beating sounds from inside the longhouse.  He had no idea where those sounds came from and what the people were doing inside the longhouse.

“What are the people in the longhouse doing?” Gendup asked.
“Eh, the people are making kalingai/bepantang (tattooing),” replied the girl.

As they were walking along the corridor of the longhouse, everyone greeted Gendup and asked him to sit at their ruai (hall space outside each family unit in the longhouse) but Gendup said that he’ll follow the girl to her ruai first.

When they reached the middle of the longhouse, the girl went into her bilik (family “apartment”) and Gendup hung his basket, blow pipe and duku (war/work knife similar to a machete) on a set of deer horns on one of the pillars in the ruai.  An elderly man of that ruai welcomed Gendup and Gendup sat down in front of him.  Gendup noticed that the elderly man had a lot of tattoos on his body.

After the evening meal.  All the longhouse folks were mingling and they asked where Gendup was from, why did he come and how long was he going to stay with them.  Gendup answered and mentioned that he was in no hurry to go back home.  The men in the longhouse then told him that they would want to give him tattoos as a reminder of his visit to their longhouse.  Gendup was reluctant at first, because he thought it would hurt a lot from the sounds of the ‘tik-tok’.  In the evening the elder men in the longhouse explained to Gendup which tattoos are placed where on the body, such as the ones on the throat, shoulders, arms, thighs, back and other parts of the body.  They also told him about tegulun (hand tattoo).

“Tegulun can only be done once you have killed someone” said the men to Gendup.

After long chats/conversations about tattoos, Gendup began liking the idea.  The next day, he said that he is willing to get some.  The men started to make the designs for him and tattooed him.  It took them 3 days to complete the beautiful tattoos on Gendup.  Several days after the swelling healed, Gendup said that he was ready to go back to his longhouse.  Before he left, the elderly man (host) told him his name.

“My name is Selang Pantang.  We are Antu Pantang (Tattoo ghosts/spirits).  You Gendup are the first human who visited our longhouse, therefore you are the first human to ever get tattooed.  No other humans will know about tattooing unless you and your descendants teach them in the years to come,” said Selang Pantang to Gendup.  Soon after, Selang Pantang gave Gendup the directions to go home.

When Gendup reached his longhouse, everyone was shocked to see his tattoos.  He told them about his adventure and the spirits that he met.  This is how Iban tattoo came about….. according to the book “Nendak”.

There are several different explanations for the beginning or source of the tattooing among the Ibans, this is just one of them.

Today the tattoo situation is a little better, although still rare, tattooing is going through a mini revival as many young people look for contact with their traditions and culture.

Strength giving flower design, usually done at the age of 16 or so.
Bunga Terung design, usually done at the age of 16 or so.
Another Buah Terung design
Another Bunga Terung design

Each design has it’s own meaning, and each area had it’s own set of tattoo designs. Both men and women wore tattoos. For young men the first tattoo was usually the “bunga terung”. This was a depiction of the flower of a local aubergine species. It was tattooed underneath the outside edge of the collar bone. This location is chosen because this is where straps from back packs rest, and the design was intended to make the wearer strong for their bejalai journey. During this journey the young man was to gain his wealth and fame, it could last a few months or years. While on the journey he would visit other Iban communities where his help was rewarded with other tattoos. On his return his tattoos  could be read as if they were a map of where he had been and what he accomplished. For the women too there were special designs, each was awarded to the woman upon attaining a particular skill  (e.g. weaving).

Women's tattoo desing
Women’s tattoo design

The tattoo technique itself is similar as in many other places, a hammer and a wooden staff with bone or bamboo needles is employed in tattooing. The needle is dipped in paint and held over the surface of the skin while the staff is used to hit it rhythmically, as the needles do their work the artist moves them across the surface of the skin. The process was fairly painful thus it was regarded as a small test in itself (especially the first two bunga terung designs).

In order for the design to be detailed and well filled out the help of another person was required, this second person would stretch the skin in the area currently being worked on. If applied by an expert the result is nearly indistinguishable from modern machine tattoos. The technique is still being used in Sarawak today although the soot paint is replaced with commercial tattooing ink and the bone needles by metal ones.

Local Tatoo Artist Ernesto Kalum working on a tattoo
Local Tattoo Artist Ernesto Kalum working on a tattoo
Onlookers in the Sumlin longhouse
Onlookers in the Sumlin longhouse
Crab design

Crab design

 pict0115
Other designs

Most Iban tattoo designs are either plants or animals (sometimes mythical) in both cases they are a bit abstract rather than trying to be realistic. The topic of Iban tattoos has had much  interest from the outside world. Not just from the tattoo community, there have also been two large documentaries filmed in Sarawak with the help of the local artists. Today the tattoos are quite easily available for both locals and tourists who come to Kuching or other parts of Sarawak.

whole back design (including top design meant to protect the neck from being cut)
whole back design (including top design meant to protect the neck from being cut)

On a recent trip to bukit Sadok, I saw some more original tattoos, here are some of them. Note the Throat design, said to be a particularly painful tattoo to get.

An elderly gentlemen from one of the longhouses near Bukit Sadok showing off his tattoos.

An elderly gentlemen from one of the longhouses near Bukit Sadok showing off his tattoos.

Whole back tattoos, note the compass rose, the Iban take on tattoos is quite free and newer designs often mix with traditional ones

Whole back tattoos, note the compass rose, the Iban take on tattoos is quite free and newer designs often mix with traditional ones

A "Naga" or dragon design, in the iban tattooing tradition the function of the dragon and the dog is similar and as a result the two designs often mix and mutate

A "Naga" or dragon design, in the iban tattooing tradition the function of the dragon and the dog is similar and as a result the two designs often mix and mutate

I was not given a clear name or meaning for this design

Ketam Lengan, the crab on the arm

Nor for this one

Another Ketam Lengan design

Please note that this page is still very very far from complete, it is a mere introduction to the Iban tattooing tradition I am also aware that there are differing interpretations of some of the designs and even their history. Feel free to comment if you disagree or have something to add.

 

Ps: I have  heard a very strange explanation of the meaning of the Bunga Terung design, I am not going to get into it here but please remember that the Triskel design is NOT an Iban design and has no connection whatsoever with the Bunga Terung.

 

33 Responses

  1. nak tahu tentang perubahan yang berlaku terhadap amalan bertatu dalam masyarakat iban?

    dar segi peralatan, corak dan warna tatu…

    • Hi, my BM is not really good enough to answer you so I have to do it in English.

      Improving the place of tattoos in society:
      As far as improving the place of tattooing in society there are a number of Tattoo artists who try to promote it as part of the Dayak tradition, and it seems to be catching on to some degree. Some younger people in towns and nearby do get the tattoos, not necessarily for their original meaning but more as an identification of being Dayak.

      Changes in style:
      Unfortunately a lot of people in the longhouses these days wear western or Chinese tattoos instead of Dayak ones. Tv and other trends can not be blocked entirely. Having said that the Iban tattoo has been very quick to change in the past, each artist would have their own set of designs and although the name and general purpose of the tattoo was set to some degree often the graphical representation was wildly different from the older versions. In that sense you can not really say that these new designs (eagles, american indians, chinese dragons etc) are totaly wrong for them, even though the stylistic continuation is not there. For other tribes however the old designs were a lot more set and rigidly controlled, for them the new tattoos must seem completely out of place. There are also some tribes like the Bidayuh who did not practice tattooing in the old days but do so now as an expression of being dayak, which is another interesting trend.

      Colours: I am not aware of any changes, the colour used to be black and still is. The colour used to be made of soot and perhaps the shade is different now as commercial tattooing ink is used generally.

      Tools: Most tattoos are done by modern tattoo machines but in some places you can ask for the tattoo to be done with the traditional tools like those in the pictures. They use normal tattooing needles instead of bamboo or bone ones though, but this means the quality of the tattoo remains very good so it should not be a big problem. Being tattooed the traditional way is more expensive though, firstly because you have to have a second person stretching the skin and secondly because it take a lot more of the tattoo artist’s time.

      Hope this helps.

  2. Hi I read the article and I was wondering if there’s different meanings for the different designs of the Borneo Flower. I saw some very simple and somme very artistic even when you look to traditional pictures from local people, can you explain me this meanings?

    thanks

    • There are no differences that I am AWARE of. There are literally hundreds of this design out there though. I think the main reason is that it is one of the most common basic designs to have done. And among the Ibans each artist would have his own designs, drawn by himself based on others that he has seen, but not identical to them. With each generation they would change, and each long house would have slightly different ones. There may be regional differences possible to trace but I do not know enough about them now to say for sure. The Iban tribe was not one united tribe in the past there were several distinct groups: Sebyau (in areas close to Kuching), Remun (near Serian), Balaus (near Simanggang, now renamed Sri aman), Saribas (Betong and Saratok) and the biggest group the Rajang Ibans further east from Sarikey. There is also an Undup group and an Ulu Ai group but I heard this from someone who was not Iban and I am not sure what the Ibans themeselves think of this.

      Sarawak is pretty big and although there was contact between the different groups there was also enough separation for each one to develop a distinct style I think, not sure if there was enough time but that is another story. Hope this helps.

  3. so nice for culture for iban guys…

  4. [...] For further reading check out this great blog post on Iban tattoos here [...]

  5. Hi, I am doing a class website project on tribal tattoos from across the world. I found your website and I was wondering if I could use some of your pictures and information for my website. I will cite you and link them to your page if you wouldn’t mind.

  6. hi Jedrzej,i am very impressed your research.i was just wondering whether you one young iban by the name of peter john jaban.?i read about his artical long time ago in the 80s.very interesting artical about dayak tattoo and how he revive the dying native tattoo in sarawak borneo.I remembered he said that the ibans in the 70s and 80s are ashamed of having Native tattoo and they started to have Modern tattoo design such as Chinese dragon,Tiger,leopard and etc.But for peter,he believed tht he should preserved borneo native tattoo.This Dayak tattoo legend said that,when he had first Bungai terung and his throat tattoed,everyone laugh at him and says that he is looking back wards.Look like uncivilzed iban.being a chinese Sorry my english is very poor..i hope you understand what i am trying to tell you.I am sure it will be very interesting to know from him how he revive the dying native tattoo.
    Thank you.

    • Hi Lee, yes I do know Peter quite well. At the moment though he has moved on to other things like trying to rid Sarawak of at least some corruption. However I think he is still very much in favor of maintaining the tradition and has helped with some tattoo events and even a blow pipe competition fairly recently.

  7. Nice tattoo of iban..may i look more

  8. hye. im interested in knowing more about iban tattoo. the meaning behind the designs and the placing of the tattoo.where can i get more info? and do you agree that today youngster from different races use the iban designs to give them strength. even the malays?

    • Hi, as far as the info is concerned most tattoo artists can give you more information about it. In terms of written work there really isnt much out there that is very detailed. I dont know of any publications that go into more detail than I did here (though would be glad to hear of them if any one finds some). I had one (only) tattoo done at Ernesto’s shop (borneo head hunters) not far from the harbour view hotel in Kuching. I am happy with the quality and the information he gave me about other tattoos (mine is not Iban).

      Your second question is more interesting. I certainly see nothing wrong with Malays having tattoos, though this may be a controversial issue with the family of the person getting the tattoo. Where I come from religion is your own choice, as is how closely you choose to stick to it. In Malaysia things are a bit different. I have now moved to Singapore, I find that teenage Malays here have at least as much if not more tattoos than the Chinese teenagers. This is not a suggestion or an excuse, just an observation.

      But if your question is: is it ok for non Ibans to have Iban tattoos than the short answer is yes. Now for the longer answer. I have heard Ibans say both that they like it when people of other races express their interest in their culture this way an that people of other races should stick to their own traditions. My wife is Iban, we have been married for 6 years now, we have a son, he speaks fluent Iban at home most of the time. Yet even with many Iban relatives I do not feel it would be appropriate for me to get an Iban tattoo, somehow it does not feel quite right. On the other hand I have also seen plenty of other europeans who visit Sarawak for a couple of weeks and walk away with a tattoo, a very vague notion of what it is about and no clue about the culture behind it. So you get all sorts.

      Getting tattoos should be a pretty serious decision too, consider why you are doing it, it is going to be on your skin for the rest of your life, if you remove it the scar is often worse than the tattoo itself. In my opinion you should pic a design that has meaning to YOU. I would suggest that you make your own design or if you lack the ability to do so ask the tattoo artist to make one for you. That way you will always have something special and something to say when people ask, not just: I kinda liked the Iban tattoos so I got one.

      So my advice: If you are over 18 and are getting the tattoo because you want it, not out of spite or to rebel etc. Go ahead and get a tattoo but try to make it mean something, dont just get it cause its cool to have one. Hope this helps.

  9. Wow, you have such a great topic here. I’m happy to see this article. Keep writing. I’m a dayak, but I’m not from iban. Btw, I live in West Borneo, Pontianak…

    Regards

    • Maybe you have something to add on the tattoos on that side of the border? I have visited a couple of times, though I have not made it to Pontianak so far.

  10. hi,

    first of all very nice blog and article :) Would you have the name of the crab tattoo design in Iban ? And what is its meaning ?

    Thanks !

    • “Ketam” means crab. Some of the other designs consist of them so for example “Ketam belakang” is on the shoulder blades. On their own I dont think they have much meaning outside of being sort of like a piece of protective armour.

  11. Can you identify the names for each kalingai for the back neck, throat, woman’s lengan and the men’s lengan?

    • Pantang Rekung (or degum) is the throat tattoo, Ketam lengan if for the men’s arms (ketam is just crab and half of them have it in the name), Naga is the dragon design (for example on the arm of the older gentlemen in the picture). Pula tumpa is the womens bracelet and I think the tattoo is called the same. Ketam ngerayap is the crawling crab, placed on the base of the neck.

  12. While processing it,people get hurt or not?

    • Short answer: yes. But it does depend where, which method and how much tattooing you are getting done. For me a smallish tattoo on my back did not really hurt. I tried acupuncture once and that hurt a lot more than the tattooing (traditional style, machine more pain).

  13. Hi,
    i really enjoy reading this. I’m deciding to get one soon but just not sure what is the best and suitable design for a lady. Based on your experience or knowledge….maybe you have better suggestions. I’m thinking to get it done on my feet.

    • It’s all pretty individual so I cant give you too much advice. I have certainly seen some nice delicate tattoo designs around ankles, also arms and shoulders. I have seen some horrible designs on lower backs which were too big and very heavy lined. In the Iban tradition there isn’t that much choice for women, so most that do get tattoos just pick a design they like and go ahead with it anyway. There are a few designs of the bracelet for the arm, its traditional meaning is that you have mastered something (weaving etc) so people sometimes get that after university or some other experience. Many dayak girls get the bungai terung, though usually smaller and on arms or ankles rather than a heavy one on the front of the shoulders. Do think about the design and what you want to have on your skin for, well for a pretty long time ;) It is also possible to draw non traditional designs using traditional design lines so you could choose other animals, plants etc. I had my tattoo done a few years ago at Ernesto’s place (Head Hunter tattoos) and I think he still has the best touch when it comes to balancing designs out.

  14. woow traditional tattos are the best

  15. I really like the Iban flower tattoo. I father is indonesian and my mother dutch. So i am half indonesian. I would like one iban flower but i red they allways must come in pairs.

    Is it really that silly/odd to take one?

    best regards
    Tom

  16. According to the tradition, is it allright if i take 1 big Iban flower en 1 small iban flower?

    greetz

    • Look, the tradition is simple: two flowers, same size. If you want to go traditional this is what you will do. If however that is not what you want to do for whatever reason then it is up to you, you can have 5 small flowers or 1 big one or whatever you like. It is your body and your choice. No one says you have to stick to tradition, though if you want to then that is two equal flowers. It has to do with balance, Iban tattoos are mostly symmetrical on the body.

  17. My father is 79 years old and has an Iban tattoo on his hand between his thumb and index finger. We have always wondered if it had a meaning but also why did the Iban agree to tattoo a young Briths man all those years ago. Your article was very interesting and has encouraged me to research this further.

    • Hi Ann, the only traditional tattoo that I know of (though keep in mind I certainly dont know everything) which would be placed on the hand if for taking part in a war expedition or for achievements during one. Though having said that more recently I have seen a lot of small marks in the hands of many Iban men between the thumb and the forefinger. Most of them just ordinary family men whom I know well and who have certainly never gone on any war expeditions or for the most part even been in a fight. At the same time most of them dont reply or say “its nothing” when you ask about it. As to the second question, the Iban’s dont really have a problem tattooing people outside of the tribe, traditionally they consider the tattoos to be gifts from gods to all people, and they are very happy to share their culture with guests.

  18. Fascinating article, thank you ! I am a collector of symbolic and cultural tattoos and am priveliged to work in the largest captive indoor rainforest in the world, the Eden Project in the UK. Am looking to gain a protective symbol and love the Iban styles and forms. Any advice?

    Darren.

    • Hi, Technically they are all protective tattoos. Most of the crab (ketam) ones are meant to be armour of sorts. The throat tattoo is another that is supposed to keep your head on your shoulders. My advice with tattoos is always the same. Dont copy, get something personal that means something to you. If you like these designs think of what kind of protective symbol/animal you would like then go to a good tattoo artist and you can ask him to imitate the style. Or just go with one of these designs, it is after all your skin ;)

  19. Sir, what does the tatto symbolises

    • You are going to have to be more specific, which tattoo are you talking about? I would say most are either protection or a badge of achievement for something.

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