Indonesian tattooists revive tribal traditions by tapping into the past
Small group of contemporary tattoo artists has learned hand-tapping tattoo technique from tribespeople. ‘People living in big cities want to be rooted to something meaningful,’ says one
Men in tribal dress stand amid dense jungle on the Indonesian island of Java, their bodies covered in elaborate, traditional tattoos inspired by cultures in distant corners of the vast, tropical archipelago.
Many images on display at the recent tattoo festival that brought the men together were not applied with fast, modern machines, but using a centuries-old, tribal method that involves artists gently tapping a stick mounted with a needle on a subject’s skin.
The practice known as hand-tapping had almost faded out completely, as modernity overwhelmed Indonesia’s tribes and younger generations eschewed their ancestors’ ways, but tattoo artists have in recent years been driving a revival as more and more people seek to reconnect with the past.
“There is a growing trend now, there are more people who want to learn about traditional tattooing – I am very happy about it,” says Herpianto Hendra, a tattoo artist who uses the ancient method and is a member of Borneo’s Dayak tribespeople. “I am proud that my culture is being recognised.”
The body art ranges from flowers inspired by Dayak tattoos that mark the coming of age, to narrow, black lines running across the body, like those of indigenous peoples from a remote scattering of islands in western Indonesia.
The festival in Maguwoharjo village in Java’s cultural heartland in December gathered people from across Indonesia and the world at the studio of celebrated Indonesian tattoo artist Durga, a leading figure in the revival.
Durga has championed tattoos from the western Mentawai islands, home to a semi-nomadic tribespeople famed for their body art and the practice of sharpening their teeth, which they believe makes them more beautiful.
Mentawai tattoos, generally long lines looping over the shoulders and chest and more elaborate patterns on feet and hands, were long part of local culture and signified the tribespeople’s close links to nature.
The other well known body art from Indonesia is found among the Dayaks, an array of semi-nomadic tribes who traditionally lived in the jungles and mountains of vast, biodiverse Borneo island shared between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
Their tattoos featured thick, black lines forming images inspired by nature, such as flowers, leaves and animals, that mark a person’s journey through life. Before head-hunting was banned, Dayaks also received tattoos on their hands if they decapitated an enemy.
While not as well known, other indigenous groups also have tattoo traditions, such as those in the eastern Maluku Islands and the central island of Sumba.
But the tradition has been waning for decades, after Christian missionaries and the Indonesian government sought to discourage what they saw as outdated, tribal practices, and younger tribespeople moved away from villages to rapidly growing cities in search of better jobs and education.
The revival has been driven by a small group of contemporary tattoo artists, some who have learnt hand-tapping methods from local tribes and have put a modern twist on ancient designs – increasingly popular among the young and hip living in Indonesian cities and abroad.
Lars Krutak, an American tattoo anthropologist, said people are drawn to ancient Indonesian designs as they are “unique, beautiful and deeply spiritual”.
“People living in big cities want to be rooted to something meaningful, especially if they plan to wear these tattoos on their bodies for the rest of their lives,” says Krutak, who has written an entry on Durga for the World Atlas of Tattoo, which features 100 tattoo artists.
In the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, a small museum dedicated to indigenous body art has opened, housed in a ramshackle building filled with tribal paraphernalia and photos of tattooed indigenous people.
Hand-tapping regularly takes place at the museum, whose name “Bau Tanah” refers to the musty smell that emanates from the earth after heavy rains.
At a recent hand-tapping session, tattoo artist Ranu Khodir knelt down and applied the image of a dragon in Dayak style on the stomach of Saman, a motorbike taxi driver, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
An assistant stretched the stoically silent Saman’s skin as the ink was applied.
Khodir, who is not from an indigenous group but looks every bit like the tribesmen whose work he reveres, with a wild mane of jet-black hair and motifs of stars and flowers covering his back, used to do machine tattooing but switched to hand-tapping a few years ago.
“I want to defend traditional Indonesian culture,” he said.
There are downsides to the traditional methods – it takes many more hours for a tattoo to be applied by hand-tapping than with a machine.
Still, the old methods have been adapted for the modern world, with tattoo artists nowadays using sterilised needles and a light anaesthetic to dull the pain. In the past in tribal areas, tattoos were applied with fish bones or long thorns.
Despite signs of a revival in some areas, experts warn that tattooing styles of tribes in more remote places could be forgotten.
“I fear this ancient traditional and artistic knowledge will soon be lost forever unless a concerted effort is made to record it immediately,” said Krutak.