There is a famous photo of British Politician Malcolm Macdonald in conversation with three Iban Temenggong – Jugah, Jinggut and Sibat. The three look every inch the archetype of Iban manhood – tough, taut and tattooed. The Bungai Terong stands out on each of their shoulders, the rangam etched black on their throats. Jugah’s ear lobes are elongated; even longer in photos from his later life. These are motifs that have made it round the world, famous beyond our borders though by a different name – the Borneo Rosette – renamed as an English flower wrapped in a jungle mantle, to be given as a prize. It sums it all up really. The tattoo is back and reinvented, and not just in Borneo. Once the mark of the outsider in the Western world, it has transitioned from subcultural subversion to mainstream mark, adorning the bodies of all strata of society from teacher to traveller alike. Here in Borneo too, ink is definitely in. But in this society where tattoo has a different history, one where it was long socially acceptable, are the young men wearing it in the same way?
In Borneo, the Iban tattoo is probably the most famous. The legends tell of Unggang who visited the spirit world, Panggau Libau, and returned with the art of tattooing, so that the people of Panggau would be able to recognize others of the tribe. However, it seems likely that the Orang Ulu were doing it first and the Iban appropriated the practice – bigger and brighter and bolder than their originators. Much effort has gone into the making out of meaning in Dayak tattoos by various anthropologists and other assorted academics. The idea seems to be that they serve as a roadmap to a life lived and thereby a means to decode the Dayak lifestyle. In reality, while not so structured and universal, the Iban did assign meaning, using the tattoos both spriritually and socially, as a mark of achievements and a symbol of protection.
Are the young men wearing it in the same way?
Nicol Ragai Lang, at the age of 74, is ink-free. He is an expert in Iban culture – the Iban voice of RTM, a specialist in adat, language and folklore but this one experience of being Iban was never his.
He ‘feared he didn’t have the manhood’, put off by the pain. The throat tattoo (the rangam) is notoriously agonizing, worn
Nicol recounts long hours spent at the Siam Company at 28 Main Bazaar where the young men went to have their tattoos before setting off overseas, but he never took the plunge. But his explanation has an undercurrent to it of somehow not recognizing the place of the practice in his modern life.
Nicol Ragai Lang, at the age of 74, is ink-free...‘feared he didn’t have the manhood’.
As the modern primitive movement surfaced in the late eighties, scarification, piercings, tattoos and flesh tunnels moved into the mainstream.
In his area near Saratok, tattooing was not that common, unlike in Skrang. His father’s side had none. But his maternal grandfather, Nicol explains simply, ‘fought for the Rajah on two different occasions, so he needed them.’ The bungai terong (often translated as the flower of the Dayak brinjal though bungai more accurately equates to pattern in this context) actually serves a purpose beyond aesthetics. Originally the ‘ink’ used would be laced with kebal, empelias and jayau – plant extracts to increase potency and to prevent any blade from penetrating the skin. He earned his rangam for his trip to Pahang to source nyatu latex. Those were tough times and the tattoos were more than skin deep.
Baxx's Dayak designs kept close to tradition yet dynamic / Boy Skrang is pure tradition, taking his inspiration from the elders in his community.
Is one of the most famous handtap practitioners in the world, learning techniques from Samoa, Tibet, Japan, Thailand and Tahiti
Mark, a tourist in Kuching from Sheffield, Yorkshire found out the traditional meaning of the Bunga Terong through internet.
Reef Bryh, Max and Nickie Brian wonder if modern men deserve them
For the modern Dayak, the inspiration is more style and skill than substance and spirituality.
Reef Bryh is a tattoo artist at Pengayau Ink. At the tender age of 22, his forearms are already covered in them. Yet not one is tribal, despite his own Dayak roots. ‘It doesn’t make sense for modern people to have traditional tattoos,’ he says thoughtfully. ‘Living in their days was not that easy. They deserve them.’ By implication, therefore, he does not. But yet, he doesn’t want the practice to die out. As Dayak tattoos are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, not just amongst young Dayak men but also worldwide, not one Dayak, young or old, expresses anything but pride that their tattoos are spreading their roots.
For the tourists, it seems the standards are easier. Come to Borneo, get a tattoo! That seems to be the overriding tagline and they are almost always hand tapped.
“Just to experience it,” says Mark from Sheffield, dropping in to see Boy Skrang for the finishing touches on his Bungai Terong. His is in the traditional spot but slightly adapted to the Yorkshire Rose of his homeland – more meaningful for him, yet less linked to its traditional context. Was the traditional meaning important to him?
Of course it was, and in the ultimate nod to modernity, he looked it up on the internet.
But, for young Dayak themselves, the line is much more precarious and the reactions more unpredictable. Boy Skrang, on the one hand, is a Dayak poster boy from his traditional haircut down to his tattooed toes. In fact, his retreating tattooed back in a longboat features in a promotional advert for Malaysia - truly Sarawak! He is pure tradition, taking his inspiration from the elders in his community. He started with the Bungai Terong because people told him that this was the first and he has gone with it ever since, even elongating his ears in a homage to his grandfather. Baxx, his partner, did his own Dayak design with a dynamo, but mostly because he wanted a tattoo and he thought that traditional would be more likely to get past his parents! But Nickie Brian, on the other hand, was actively discouraged from the Dayak designs by his grandfather, even though he sports a skull on his shoulder with the brain exposed! Apparently his elder felt that ‘he already has them so the youngsters don’t need them.’
After all, the Dayak design did almost die out, an inch away from extinction some time in the seventies. Tattoos had taken on a new meaning – tradition translated to old-fashioned; the warrior became unfit for government work; Pagans converted to Christianity; rural migrated to urban and respect turned to fear. The Dayak tattoo looked set to disappear. Brought back from the brink by a young government servant bucking the rules but trailing tradition, the trend has grown and grown. And in many ways, a trend it is, nothing more, nothing less. The tattoo world internationally has a thirst for tribal and you can’t get better than Borneo for that. As the modern primitive movement surfaced in the late eighties, scarification, piercings, tattoos and flesh tunnels moved into the mainstream.
Along Sega, renowned Penan hero with earlobes filled with rough hewn circles of wood and today's flesh tunnel.
Jeremy Loh is one of the most famous handtap practitioners in the world, even though he is Chinese, earning his stripes through skill and knowledge. He has travelled the world over to tattoo and be tattooed, sporting ink himself in the traditional technique from Samoa, Tibet, Japan, Thailand and Tahiti. For him, it is style and skill more than substance and spirituality that is driving the current movement. His inspiration is all aesthetic. At one stage, he says, the traditional tattoos ‘reminded them of their grandfathers, like old cars, old stuff and they didn’t want old stuff.’ But less than five years ago, it started to become famous again. But he cites Miami Ink and skate style as being more influential than longhouse customs.
The long ears are an excellent case study. Colin has tried the weights but he found them uncomfortable and he doesn’t really like the style. Nickie Brian admits his inspiration was mainly musical, naming the band Blink 182 for his odyssey in earlobes. But when asked where he thought the band got their inspiration, he can only blink in sudden realization. One look at an image of Along Sega, renowned Penan hero, his earlobes filled with rough hewn circles of wood, making no mistake about his stature, is enough to explain what tradition this urban, Californian rock band is tapping into. The appropriation has come full circle.
But fashion forward or old-fashioned, dress and identity are inextricably linked. As aesthetically motivated as they are, Jeremy and most of the others will attempt to explain the significance or dissuade the uneducated from making a mistake with the meaning. Boy Skrang and Baxx will not tattoo a taboo. After all, the Dayak designs are deeply rooted in Borneo, no matter where they are worn. Max got his before a stint in KL, not to mark his bejalai to those back home, but rather to mark his home to those he encountered out there on his bejalai. For the young Dayak male, their designs still speak to them of a lineage, a culture, the tribe that they are part of. Whether inspired by the West or drawn from their own ancestral lands, these tattoos are a display of Dayak pride. The meaning is clear.
Always fascinated by the art form, Karen began her own voyage in tattoo back in 1992, introducing a London tattoo artist to the Bungai Terong much to his excitement. It was her tattoo that prompted her first meeting with her heavily tattooed husband one evening in Carpenter Street and the rest, as they say, is history.