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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.