Indonesia Expat

Tribal Ink: Writing Stories on Human Skin

In the early days of Indonesia’s independence, the largely urban, Dutch-educated political elite had strong notions and clear ideas of what a modern nation and its citizens should look like, how they should behave, and what they should believe. Indonesia was to become part of the modern world, and to do so, it had to reject not only all traces of colonialism, but also all vestiges of primitive superstition and belief. Of course, certain aspects of the high cultures of the major ethnic groups, such as Javanese batik textiles, Balinese dance and Western Sumatran architecture, were regarded as evidence of the new nation’s strong cultural traditions, evidence of its glorious historical past, and held in high esteem.  A modern nation, it was felt, could be proud of these traditions.

By contrast, the traditions, beliefs and practices of the country’s isolated indigenous groups, people who lived in forest communities, mountainous regions or remote islands far from the Javanese heartland, were frankly regarded as a source of shame and embarrassment. Instead of encouraging these communities to maintain their cultures and traditions, the new national government actively implemented measures to “civilise” them, with laws enacted in 1954 to “integrate the tribal groups into the social and cultural mainstream of the country.” Missionaries were encouraged to strive to convert these communities away from their belief in “primitive superstition,” and into the country’s five major accepted religions, but particularly Islam, Christianity and Catholicism. In the period up to and including the New Order, Dayak communities were pushed to abandon traditional longhouses, Bajau sea gypsies were encouraged to settle on land, and the Suku Anak Dalam were enticed or forced to abandon their semi-nomadic lifestyle in the forests.

Local authorities often strongly discouraged or banned practices and traditions that they deemed to be backward or primitive. Amongst signs of their integration into the social and cultural mainstream, members of these and many other communities were expected or required to abandon traditional forms of clothing and body decoration. Thus, in the early 1970s, the government launched “Operation Penis Gourd” in the Papuan highlands to discourage people from wearing the traditional koteka and to instead don “modern” shorts and shirts. Similarly, some Dayak, who maintained a tradition of elongating their earlobes, were required to cut these lobes off to gain acceptance in modern society, amongst other gestures of capitulation.

One form of traditional body art and decoration that was particularly disparaged was tattoos. In fact, amongst the traditional communities, tattoos told significant stories about the individual who wore them. Amongst both the Dayak people of Borneo and on the Mentawai islands, off West Sumatra, tattoos were often significant status markers, with certain motifs restricted to a specific gender, social class, or specialised occupation, with some motifs worn only by shamans or priests. They might also be the mark of membership in a particular sub-group or community, the mark of participation in a rite of passage, or of attainment and prowess in hunting or tribal warfare. But these were exactly the type of stories that the authorities thought people shouldn’t be telling. They should forget all that and learn to be productive members of society instead.

In the 1980s, not only were tattoos associated with primitive, backward ethnic groups, they were also regarded as a mark of criminality, the sign of membership in gangs of thugs and gangsters in the urban areas. The general disgust and contempt for tattoos was reinforced during the early 1980s, during the so-called “Mysterious Killings,” when thousands of long-haired, tattooed youths said to be members of such gangs were summarily executed by paramilitary groups, to the general approval of respectable, middle-class society. For decades, then, tattoos were the mark of a criminal thug or a backward tribesperson from a marginal, stigmatised group.

Of course, attitudes have changed a lot since the turn of the new millennium. Amongst young people around the world, in some circles, tattoos have become entirely acceptable, almost an obligatory fashion statement. Indonesian millennials are certainly not as conformist as their parents’ generation, and the faint remaining hint of rebellion and stigma attached to tattoos is for many, if anything, part of the attraction. At any happening hipster gathering spot in Jakarta, tattoos are now pretty much par for the course. And a lot of these tattoos borrow from tribal and religious motifs, not only from the rest of the world, but also from traditions within Indonesia itself, including the previously despised Dayak and Mentawai traditions. A lot has changed since 1954. In this post-modern world, the whole project of modernisation has lost much of its sheen.  “Cultural diversity” and “local wisdom” are the buzzwords of the new century, at least amongst the young.

Of course, having a Mentawai tattoo permanently etched onto your body doesn’t necessarily mean that you know the first thing about the culture of the islands. Maybe you just think it looks cool. But a small band of Indonesian tattooists have made a sincere attempt not only to understand the fading tattooing practices of marginal ethnic groups, but also to work with them to preserve their own traditions. Perhaps the most prominent of these is Aman Durga Sipatiti, an Indonesian tattooist of mixed cultural heritage who has worked in Jakarta, Yogya and Holland. Since 2009, Durga has conducted frequent visits to the islands of Mentawai to document the Arat Sabulungan belief system through the production of a short film entitled Mentawai Tattoo Revival (Kembali Merajah Mentawai) and to work with traditional tattooists and shamans to revive the vanishing tattoo traditions there. Speaking through an interpreter with older people in the interior of Siberut Island, Durga found that sikerei (shamans) still play a strong role in the community, particularly in the rituals associated with housebuilding and healing. He also heard stories of  sikerei being beaten and forced into slave labour by local authorities, with the sikerei often identified by their extensive tattoos.

He also found that while many older people had incomplete tattoos, having abandoned the process of completing them in the environment of official disapproval that previously prevailed and that while younger people had avoided being tattooed entirely, they now wanted to reclaim their heritage. Unfortunately, there were very few people left with the skills to practice the traditional hand-tapping tattoo technique, a time-consuming process in which a needle (or, in the distant past, a fish bone or long thorn) is placed at the end of a stick and tapped with another stick to puncture the skin. While Durga had learned this technique, he didn’t have time available to use it to complete the tattoos of the locals who requested them, so he used a modern tattoo gun instead, while at the same time cataloguing and analysing the patterns and motifs the local people requested in cooperation with sikerai and other knowledgeable informants.

In addition to Durga, a number of other tattooists and aficionados have also held live displays of the hand-tapping tattoo process so that Indonesians can learn more about the country’s indigenous tattooing traditions. Refi Mascot, a much-tattooed blacksmith, activist and guerilla photographer, who was instrumental in setting up the BauTanah tattoo museum in Jakarta, also facilitated a display of the process in an upmarket gallery in Plaza Indonesia, where Ranu Khodir, an enthusiastic practitioner of the hand-tapping technique, displayed his skills to an audience of curious upper-middle class Indonesians, who form a large part of his clientele.

Iriene Natalia, a worker on a late-night news show at a radio station, deliberately sought Ranu out after hearing about his use of this technique. She’d already had a few tattoos, done using a modern gun. Iriene loves owls, night birds like herself. She’s an audiophile, living in a world of sound and radio waves and music, so she already had a tattoo of a grumpy, serious looking owl wearing headphones depicted on her right wrist. She’s also a Dayak, although it must be said that her knowledge of Dayak culture is limited. “I grew up in Pontianak and small towns in West Kalimantan, but my parents mostly spoke Indonesian at home, so I don’t know the local language well,” she says. And she has mixed feelings about some aspects of Dayak culture anyway. She speaks with a touch of resentment about an uncle, who expected her and the other women to sit on the floor of his house while the men sat on chairs, in keeping with Dayak culture. She sat on a chair and tolerated his hard stares, unprepared to yield. She may be a Dayak, but she’s also a tough Jakarta woman who refuses to put up with nonsense from traditional Dayak men.

But she certainly considers herself to be a Dayak, and wanted to mark that statement on her skin. Her second and third tattoo were both traditional Dayak tattoos, representing flowers. They may have some specific meaning in Dayak culture, although she admits she isn’t quite sure. She chose them from a book. But for her fifth tattoo, she wants another traditional Dayak motif, a geometrical, floral band around her upper right arm. But this time, she wants it done the traditional way, using the hand-tapping technique. In Ranu’s small house in the outskirts of Depok, she lies on his floor, excited and un-scared by the idea of the pain. As he starts the process, she says: “Ranu, it hurts a lot less than with a gun!” her eyes wide with surprise. She’d been expecting something more intense. He nods and smiles. He’s heard this before. It’s a long slow process. She begins to space out, lying back, listening to the sound of her skin being etched. Tap-tap-tap! Tap-tap-tap! The mosque sounds twice before it’s done.

She’s delighted. The process was part of the story that the tattoo tells. Her story, written in ink on her body.


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