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The following is an excerpt from the Tattoo History Source Book:

Borneo Tattoos

Borneo is one of the few places in the world where traditional tattooing is still practiced today. Archeological evidence has shown that ancestors of some contemporary native tribes have lived in Borneo for over 50,000 years. The term, "Dayak" is applied to a variety of natives tribes including the Ibans, Kayans and Kenyahs.

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Headhunting and tattooing were intricately connected in the magic, ritual and social life of many tribes. The hand tattoo was a symbol of status in life and also served as important function after death. It was supposed to illuminate the darkness as the soul wandered in search of the River of the Dead. Tattooing, piercing, and other traditional Dayak arts are of great antiquity. Many of the traditional tattoo designs resemble decorative motifs found in the art of Bali and Java, and the tattooing instruments and techniques used by the Dayaks are similar to those found throughout Polynesia suggesting that Stone Age voyageurs shared their knowledge throughout the area.

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Today, few Dayak women are tattooed but the practice is still popular among men. The designs are mainly traditional but some have commercial elements.

Amongst the Kayans, the men tattoo chiefly for ornament and no special significance can be attached to the majority of designs employed; nor is there any particular ceremonial or tattoo connected to the process of tattooing the male sex.

If a Sarawak Kayan has taken the head of an enemy, he can have the back of his hands and fingers covered with tattoos, but if he only has had a share in the slaughter, one finger only, and generally the thumb, can be tattooed. On the Mendalan River, the Kayan braves are tattooed on the left thumb only, not on the carpals and the backs of the fingers, and the thigh pattern is reserved for head-taking heroes.

Dog designs figure predominantly in Kayan art and the designs have been copied by a lot of other tribes. On the deltoid region of the shoulders and on the breasts, a rosette or star design is found. The rosette might have been derived from the eye in the dog pattern.

Kayan women are tattooed in complicated serial designs over the whole forearm, the backs of the hands, over the whole of the thighs below to below the knees, and on the metatarsal surfaces of the feet. The tattooing of a Kayan girl is a serious and long process taking up to four years. At ten years old a girl would have her fingers and the upper part of her feet tattooed, and about a year later her forearms would be completed, the thighs are partially tattooed during the next year, and in the third or fourth year from the commencement the whole operation should have been accomplished. Her tattoos would be completed before he becomes pregnant because it is considered immodest to be tattooed after she has become a mother.

Tattooing among the Kayan women is universal; they believe the designs act as torches in the next world. The operation of tattooing is always performed by women, never by men but men actually carve designs on wooden blocks.

Kayan wood blocks tattoo designsThe tools used by a tattoo artist are simple, consisting of two or three prickers and an iron striker that are kept in a wooden case. The prickers are wooden rods with a short pointed head projecting at right angles at one end; to the point of the head is attached a lump of resin in which are embedded three or four short needles, their points alone projecting from the resin. The striker is merely a short iron clad, half of which is covered with a string lashing. The pigment is a mixture of soot, water and sugar cane juice, and is kept in a shallow wooden cup. The best soot is believed to be obtained from the bottom of the metal cooking pot. The tattoo designs are carved in high relief on blocks of wood that are smeared with the ink and then pressed on the part of the body to be tattooed, leaving an impression of the designs. The designs tattooed on women are in longitudinal rows or traverse bands, and one or more zigzag lines mark the divisions between the rows or bands.

Borneo Women getting tattooedThe subject who is be tattooed lies on the floor, the artist and an assistant squatting on either side. The artist first dips a piece of fiber from the sugar palm into the pigment and, pressing this on the limb to be tattooed, plots out the arrangement of the rows or bands of the design. The tattooist or her assistant stretches the skin to be tattooed with their feet, and dipping a pricker into the pigment, taps its handle with the striker as she works along a line, driving the needle points into the skin. The operation is painful and there is no antiseptic and often a new tattoo ulcerates.

Universal among the Kenyan-Klemantan of the Upper Mahakam and Batang, Kayan there is a belief that after death the completely tattooed women will be allowed to bathe in the mythical river Teland Julan, and that consequently they will be able to pick up the pearls that are found in its bed; incompletely tattooed women can only stand on the river banks, while un-tattooed will not be able to approach the shores at all.

Tattoo Museum Bibliography, Resources and Links

Oceania Tattoo Map See all Oceanic Tattoo Culture Articles here

Additional Resources:

Tattoo History Source Book by Steve Gilbert

Trisha Allen -

See these Lars Krutak articles Torches for the Afterlife: Women Tattoo Artists of Northern Borneo, Borneo's Tattooed Women 'Warriors' - Weavers of the Skrang Iban and In the Realm of Spirits: Traditional Dayak Tattoo in Borneo for more information about tattoos and tattooing in Borneo.

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