Being Sarawakian: The Tattoos

Tattoos have served in many various and diverse cultures since prehistoric times. Most commonly as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, and marks of fertility, among others.

Throughout much of the 20th century, getting inked intimidated people and brought about many negative stereotypes in mainstream culture. Those sporting tattoos were often considered social deviants and outcasts. There was a degree of uncomfortableness and employment opportunities were also perceived to be negatively affected.

However, the culture experienced a resurgence in the 21st century in many parts of the world. And more people are slowly embracing the culture. As tattooing increasingly enters the mainstream culture, walking into a corporate office with a full sleeved tattoo is in fact, very common nowadays. I personally experienced it myself for the past 5 years, thanks to my democratic workplaces and better awareness about tattoos. Although I would cover them during certain occasion and when meeting the VIPs.

Despite it being a Muslim country, judging by the number of tattoo conventions held across Malaysia, it was evident that a growing number of Malaysians seem to be more welcoming towards the idea of having tattoos. The growth in the culture for the past decade has also seen an influx of new professional tattoo artists into the industry, especially in Sarawak. Some artists are renowned for their skills in doing traditional, hand tapped tattoos. And some, with their artistic talent, are building their portfolios coupled with the ongoing refinement of the equipment used for body tattooing.

Traditional tattoos are a significant part of Sarawak’s rich history. Borneo Traditional Tattooing is something that is symbolic to the lifestyle and daily practices of the native tribes in Borneo; mainly the Iban community. And the fascinating thing about traditional Iban tattoos lies in the process and its tools. The traditional tattooing process is a rather intricate one. The tattoo craftsmen usually make their tools for tattooing from bamboo poles and the ink is either from soot or powdered charcoal. Designs were carved on a block of wood that is smeared with ink and then printed onto the body. Once a design is in place, the skin is punctured with bamboo needles dipped in ink. It is said that a hand-tapped tattoo can last and look its best even after years of being exposed to harsh weather conditions.

While it is a common practice amongst many indigenous groups in Borneo, the specific designs and cultural associations vary from group to group. And each design and placement refer to a particular meaning and significance. On men, these tattoos are seen as a symbol of bravery, while women see them as a beauty enhancer. And the women often have the most impressive tattoos. Some are associated with weaving ceremonial garments that are used to hold freshly severed heads from headhunting trips. The headman’s daughter would have her arms, hands and legs completely covered in fine tattoos.

With nature as its main focus, the most basic type of Iban tattoo is the bunga terung design, mostly tattooed at the shoulders, just by the edge of the collarbone. It is usually the first tattoo that a man gets before going on his bejalai or coming-of-age ceremony. Many of my Iban and non-Iban friends have this on them. According to my Iban friend, the tattoo is believed to help strengthen the wearer during his bejalai journey into the woods. During the journey, the young man is said to gain his fame and wealth by helping out other neighbouring Iban communities and the favours would be gifted with tattoos.

Borneo Traditional Tattooing disappeared in the 1960s as many people in Borneo converted to Christianity. For the past decade, however, a lot of the younger people, in their effort to preserve and promote their culture, looked back and many of them had now started getting these traditional tattoos done again – as a tattoo artist and a tattoo wearer.

On a separate note, I have had a fascination with the art of tattooing since I was a kid. And faced the needle myself for the first time in 2009. My first tattoo is a musical note on the slightly lower back of my right shoulder. I often forget it is there until I’m in my towel and someone comments on it. My friend Chris and I were supposed to get our tattoos together, spontaneously, but he had his a few days later.

A tattoo virgin at that time, I thought it was going to hurt. And the funny thing is, I hate needles. Apparently, it did not hurt and on my body as of now, I have 15 individual tattoos. However, I don’t consider that I have that many as I like to combine them. And behind each marking, there is a story. My tattoos represent the many anecdotes of my life.

My most recent tattoo is the Amaryllis flower. Well, three of them together, as per design by my tattoo artist.

Back in the Victorian Time, the amaryllis flowers were given as a gift to writers, artists, and poets to show gratitude as well as respect for their work.

While I consider myself as a writer, I can’t say a good one. But, for 5 years I was employed as a professional writer who has developed and produced content for education and marketing purposes. And I enjoy writing. I have been writing since my first writing class in school. I write short stories, poems, songs and random stuff. Although after many years now, I still constantly feel I lack a bridge between my thoughts and my words that make my writing feels average. And I judge my own writing. I tend to get worked out by every single word.

Sometimes I feel like I am a better poet than I am a writer. When I feel very strongly about something, whatever that is related to it would just beg me to write it down into a poem. Sometimes a series of the same thing. I am not a grammar freak. In fact, my grammar sucks and that makes my writing probably not a reliable text grammatically and figuratively. Just PROBABLY.

So being a writer, a poet and a musician myself, I receive praises, constructive feedbacks as well as both gratitude and respect from my friends. It gives me a sense of pride and the encouragement to just keep writing. My friend Charmaine even said that I live to write. So the recent event where one of my poems were featured on a website and received so many views, that had provoked me to get the amaryllis flowers tattooed on my forearm. There are also other reasons, but that is the main one.

The artist responsible behind this tattoo is Ray, from Kota Kinabalu.

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Ray was a guest tattoo artist at BlackOut Tattoo Studio in Kuching where my usual tattoo artist Jona Vayne work his magic.

Jona is one of the tattoo artists here that I frequently go to. He basically did all the tattoos on my arms, except the amaryllis. The guy has been around for a few years now and he has been producing really excellent artwork across all tattoo genres. His creativity and passion for arts, however, is not limited to tattooing. I am going to write more about him in my future post. Stay tuned.

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