Malaysia - From The Ashes Of A Dying Art
ASIAN Geographic|AG 04/2021 - 149
Mention The Words “tattoo” and “Borneo” in the same sentence and chances are that body art enthusiasts will think of the Malaysian state of Sarawak.
Yong Xin Ni ELYSSA
A Sarawak tribesman performing his traditional dance

By stubbornly sticking to their tradition of inking their bodies, the Iban – who make up the state’s largest ethnic group – eventually put Sarawak, and by extension the entire island, on the global tattooing map. And that distinction is not lost on tattoo artists in the adjacent state of Sabah, who admit to enjoying the good reputation affixed to Borneo when it comes to the art courtesy of their southern neighbour.

A performance at Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Sarawak

Unlike Sarawak, however, the inking tradition was not as well preserved in Sabah despite their similar cultures and experiences facing a cultural overhaul by their British colonists. According to Universiti Malaysia Sabah arts professor Dr Ismail Ibrahim, as the British masters systematically dismantled age-old cultures and “uncivilised practices” to make way for their societal ideals, Sabah’s natives eventually saw no reason to continue with the once-significant act of marking their bodies.

The Bidayuh longhouse at Sarawak Cultural Village

Iban elder at Nanga Sumpa longhouse in Sarawak

When a young man returns from a successful sojourn (bejalai), he can get a full-body tattoo (kalingai or pantang) from a tattoo master, who creates the overall design using outline first followed by blackening. The ink is mixed with various protective charms and motives. The tattoo initiation ceremony is started by giving offerings to deities, thanking and requesting for more assistance and protection in subsequent activities.

The Bungai Terung, which literally means “eggplant flower”, is a tattoo that marks the Iban tradition known as bejalai (a journey of knowledge and wisdom), where an individual leaves their longhouse to experience the world. The tattoo is located on the front of the shoulder (never the chest) to show where one’s bag straps lie, to prepare the individual to carry the weight of their own world – the passage of a person into adulthood.

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