Stories of a fading culture, told on arms and legs

The Kala lengan (arm scorpion) tattoo.

KUCHING: If you knew how to read them, there are many stories that are told on the arms and legs of John Bosco Han Anderson Medan. The most important story is that a practice that is more than 200 years old is fading away.

John, a tattoo artist, bears a host of traditional Iban tattoos, not just on the arms and legs but also on his shoulder and chest.

Each one has its own significance but generally represent a man’s personal strength, protection, success and big events in life.

Iban people used to live by the philosophy of “berjalai” (to venture or wander), which requires a man to leave his village to acquire new knowledge and wealth.

Tattoo artist John Bosco Han Anderson Medan.

The traditional Iban tattoo designs take the form of flora, fauna (scorpions and toads), mythical beings (dragons), objects (anchors, fish hooks or aeroplanes) as well as the “Tegulun”, a mark of the headhunters.

“The “ukir rekung” (throat tattoo) is usually in the form of a scorpion or toad, and is done for young Iban men for protection before they begin to “berjalai”. They will eventually have other tattoos inked on their body throughout their journey,” he told FMT.

The Buah Engkabang tattoo.

Iban men without tattoos would be considered “unmanly” in the olden days, he said,

The tattoos were used by Iban men to woo women.

The main material used to blacken the tattoo were oil soot, battery carbon, manufactured Chinese ink (commonly known as “ink tali sipat” by the Iban) or Indian ink.

“There would be a ritual performed by the “lemambang” (shaman) and offerings such as chickens and swines before the tattoos were done.”

However, after more than 200 years, the art of “Pantang Iban” (Iban traditional tattooing) is slowly dying among the younger generation who have converted to Christianity.

The Kara tattoo on John Bosco Han Anderson’s leg.

Only about 10% – 20% of the Iban population in Sarawak continue to bear traditional Iban tattoos.

In the early 90s, there had been an attempt to revive the tradition, however, it did not make headway because of the influence of other cultures.

“Young people would mostly opt for modern contemporary tattoo designs such as the Maori, Japanese and western tattoo designs. Most of them have very little knowledge on the significance and meaning of the Iban tattoos,” he said.

There had also been a lot of misconceptions on Iban tattoos among people.

“People used to think that the Iban tattoos are connected with the practice of headhunting. The only tattoo that signifies the person is a headhunter in the past is the “Tegulun”, which can be seen on a person’s upper side fingers.”

The two bungai buah terung tattoos on John Bosco Han Anderson’s lower back.

“For example, some people were misled into thinking that the number of petals for the Bungai Buah Terung (eggplant flower) tattoo represent the number of heads taken. This is not true,” he said, adding that the Iban tattoos are complex as there are a lot of stories behind them.

John also shared one of the stories of how the Bungai Buah Terung tattoo design came along.

According to him, in the past, the Iban people believed that when god created the world and man, he planted all sorts of plants and the eggplant flower was the first one to bear fruit. The fruits were then fed to the humans.

“That is why the Ibans would have the Bungai Buah Terung tattoo on their shoulders or back to remind them of men’s first food,” he said.

However, some believed that the Bungai Buah Terung tattoos symbolise manhood and would provide a man the protection and strength to carry his belongings for “berjalai”.