Sarawakian Tattoo - Delving Into An Age-Old Tribal Tradition of Body Art

While the youth and millennials of the world are busy getting inked in the most creative fashion to celebrate and establish their fads and fancies, a Sarawak tribe called the Iban believes that tattoos have protective powers and also represent their social status and experiences. Surprised? We were too! 

Let's find out about this interesting phenomenon which at once was on the vanishing point, but is being earnestly kept alive in the land of indigenous Malay. 

The Kinship of Ibans and Sarawakian Tattoo

Iban is a tribe residing in Sarawak, Malaysia. The Iban folklore considered tattoos to be a sacred ritual with multiple emotions and rationales attached. They strongly believe that each tattoo embodies power in the form of charms that are rendered to them by spirits in their sleep through their dreams. 
Tapping evil spirits are one of the prime features of the Sarawakian tattoo. It is considered to act as a protective shield while fighting evil spirits. It also holds the notion that the spirits attached to these tattoos help men unite with God.  
The Sarawakian tattoo
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Unlike today, it is also a symbol of the coming-of-age of tribal men. The first Sarawakian tattoo that an Iban gets is usually an aubergine flower on the collarbone right before the member's heads for the coming-of-age ceremony. It is said that the tattoo strengthens the wearer before he embarks upon his headhunting adventures. 

This tradition is not restricted to men only. Rather the Iban women's tattoos are associated with weaving ceremonial garments that are used to hold freshly severed heads from headhunting trips.

Each Sarawakian tattoo is unique and holds an identification based on the design and placement. A tattoo on the back of a man is said to protect the wearer from having his head cut off at the time of fighting an enemy or perpetrator. 

Tools and Techniques of Sarawakian Tattoo Making 

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Tattoos today are created with iron needles, but the Sarawakian tattoo consists of tools made from bamboo poles. The ink is prepared to engrave with charcoal or soot. The procedure of designing was to stretch the skin, hit the surface with bamboo needles in a rhythmic pattern, and then work patiently to ensure precision. 

Every tattoo design meant something to the Ibans. A Scorpio on the arm or thigh symbolizes the journey and experience of the man whereas one on the throat was to strongly protect the head of the wearer at the time of battles. They also believed that these tattoos signalled them in the right direction and guided them through tough and significant journeys. But the symbols of each tattoo still remain debatable today. 
Did you know? 
Crazy Rich Asians and The Gentleman famed actor Henry Golding who was born to an Iban mother and English father got himself tattooed in Sarawak motifs after his mother's demise to pay her and the Iban heritage a tribute. 

Sarawakian Tattoo & The Kayans

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Indigenous tribes like the Kayan tribe also hold a great reputation for their tattoos. Unlike Iban, women of these tribes are the sole envoys of these tattoos. Considered to have an eye for detail and precision, women used to tattoo other women only. 

The tribe believed that tattooing across their bodies represented a woman's eligibility for marriage. From ancestor spirits to a connection between plant life and fertility, their tattoos had unique connotations. They were bound by several social restrictions and rules which when not followed could lead to some unheralded sickness of the artist. 

Who Can Get Sarawakian Tattoo? 

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Sarawakian tattoos are not just restricted to the Ibans and Kayans but are also worn by many other Sarak tribes. However, Ibans & Kayans seem to swear by it sacredly. Thus, getting one of their clan tattoos without understanding its significance or symbolism would be highly offensive. It requires traditional and steep knowledge of what they represent. 

While it may be displeased by a handful of them, most of them have been happy to share their culture and are generous enough to spread unique customs with the world. 
Did you know? 
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain got a traditional tattoo in Sarawak done by local tattooist Boy Skrang, during the filming of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”. He got a star on his chest in the traditional hand- tapped technique.  

Where to Get Sarawakian Tattoo Inked? 

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Here is a list of tattoo parlors in Malaysia to get yourself tattooed with the hand-tapped technique! 
Pro tip: Make sure you read about the design, tradition, and story before getting yourself inked the Sarawakian way. Ask the artist to impart his wisdom too! 
Borneo Ink 
8-3, 3rd Floor, Jalan 27/70a, Desa Sri Hartamas, 50480 Kuala Lumpur, Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Borneo Headhunters Tattoo and Piercing Studio
Address: 1st floor, No. 47, Wayang St, 93000 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia

71st skin slavery tattoo studio
Address: 75, Jalan Padungan, 93712 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia

Sarawak Tattoo Supply 
Address: Unit 2.07, Wisma Pelita Tunku, Jalan Padang, 98000 Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia

Nam tattoo and Body Piercing Studio 
Address: No.88 2nd floor Wayang Street, 93000 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia

The Sarawakian tattoo is mostly limited to Malaysia and isn't prominently found across the world. You can get it done at tattoo studios that promote Sarawak tattoos or from the tribe in the hand-tapped technique. 

Now that you know quite a bit about the Sarawakian tattoo, tell people about it, and extend your support in keeping the Sarawakian custom alive.

Cultural appropriation is legit and adopting another community's traditional knowledge can act as infiltration or an attempt to strip their original traditions. Thus getting a Sarawakian tattoo should be processed with responsibility along with the knowledge of the particular design and technique. 

Wasn't the Sarawakian Tattoo story intriguing? Tell us your views in the comments below! 

This post was published by Sony Punjabi

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