Tribal Ink: Writ­ing Sto­ries on Hu­man Skin

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In the early days of In­done­sia’s in­de­pen­dence, the largely ur­ban, Dutch-ed­u­cated po­lit­i­cal elite had strong no­tions and clear ideas of what a mod­ern na­tion and its cit­i­zens should look like, how they should be­have, and what they should be­lieve. In­done­sia was to be­come part of the mod­ern world, and to do so, it had to re­ject not only all traces of colo­nial­ism, but also all ves­tiges of prim­i­tive su­per­sti­tion and be­lief. Of course, cer­tain as­pects of the high cul­tures of the ma­jor eth­nic groups, such as Ja­vanese batik tex­tiles, Ba­li­nese dance and Western Su­ma­tran ar­chi­tec­ture, were re­garded as ev­i­dence of the new na­tion’s strong cul­tural tra­di­tions, ev­i­dence of its glo­ri­ous his­tor­i­cal past, and held in high esteem. A mod­ern na­tion, it was felt, could be proud of these tra­di­tions.

By con­trast, the tra­di­tions, be­liefs and prac­tices of the coun­try’s iso­lated indige­nous groups, peo­ple who lived in for­est com­mu­ni­ties, moun­tain­ous re­gions or re­mote is­lands far from the Ja­vanese heart­land, were frankly re­garded as a source of shame and em­bar­rass­ment. In­stead of en­cour­ag­ing these com­mu­ni­ties to main­tain their cul­tures and tra­di­tions, the new na­tional gov­ern­ment ac­tively im­ple­mented mea­sures to “civilise” them, with laws en­acted in 1954 to “in­te­grate the tribal groups into the so­cial and cul­tural main­stream of the coun­try.” Mis­sion­ar­ies were en­cour­aged to strive to con­vert these com­mu­ni­ties away from their be­lief in “prim­i­tive su­per­sti­tion,” and into the coun­try’s five ma­jor ac­cepted re­li­gions, but par­tic­u­larly Is­lam, Chris­tian­ity and Catholi­cism. In the pe­riod up to and in­clud­ing the New Or­der, Dayak com­mu­ni­ties were pushed to aban­don tra­di­tional long­houses, Ba­jau sea gyp­sies were en­cour­aged to set­tle on land, and the Suku Anak Dalam were en­ticed or forced to aban­don their semi-no­madic life­style in the forests.

Lo­cal au­thor­i­ties of­ten strongly dis­cour­aged or banned prac­tices and tra­di­tions that they deemed to be back­ward or prim­i­tive. Amongst signs of their in­te­gra­tion into the so­cial and cul­tural main­stream, mem­bers of these and many other com­mu­ni­ties were ex­pected or re­quired to aban­don tra­di­tional forms of cloth­ing and body dec­o­ra­tion. Thus, in the early 1970s, the gov­ern­ment launched “Op­er­a­tion Pe­nis Gourd” in the Pa­puan high­lands to dis­cour­age peo­ple from wear­ing the tra­di­tional koteka and to in­stead don “mod­ern” shorts and shirts. Sim­i­larly, some Dayak, who main­tained a tra­di­tion of elon­gat­ing their ear­lobes, were re­quired to cut these lobes off to gain ac­cep­tance in mod­ern so­ci­ety, amongst other ges­tures of ca­pit­u­la­tion.

One form of tra­di­tional body art and dec­o­ra­tion that was par­tic­u­larly dis­par­aged was tat­toos. In fact, amongst the tra­di­tional com­mu­ni­ties, tat­toos told sig­nif­i­cant sto­ries about the in­di­vid­ual who wore them. Amongst both the Dayak peo­ple of Bor­neo and on the Mentawai is­lands, off West Su­ma­tra, tat­toos were of­ten sig­nif­i­cant sta­tus mark­ers, with cer­tain mo­tifs re­stricted to a spe­cific gen­der, so­cial class, or spe­cialised oc­cu­pa­tion, with some mo­tifs worn only by shamans or priests. They might also be the mark of mem­ber­ship in a par­tic­u­lar sub-group or com­mu­nity, the mark of par­tic­i­pa­tion in a rite of pas­sage, or of at­tain­ment and prow­ess in hunt­ing or tribal war­fare. But these were ex­actly the type of sto­ries that the au­thor­i­ties thought peo­ple shouldn’t be telling. They should for­get all that and learn to be pro­duc­tive mem­bers of so­ci­ety in­stead.

In the 1980s, not only were tat­toos as­so­ci­ated with prim­i­tive, back­ward eth­nic groups, they were also re­garded as a mark of crim­i­nal­ity, the sign of mem­ber­ship in gangs of thugs and gang­sters in the ur­ban ar­eas. The gen­eral dis­gust and con­tempt for tat­toos was re­in­forced dur­ing the early 1980s, dur­ing the so-called “Mys­te­ri­ous Killings,” when thou­sands of long-haired, tat­tooed youths said to be mem­bers of such gangs were sum­mar­ily ex­e­cuted by paramil­i­tary groups, to the gen­eral ap­proval of re­spectable, mid­dle-class so­ci­ety. For decades, then, tat­toos were the mark of a

crim­i­nal thug or a back­ward tribesper­son from a mar­ginal, stig­ma­tised group.

Of course, at­ti­tudes have changed a lot since the turn of the new mil­len­nium. Amongst young peo­ple around the world, in some cir­cles, tat­toos have be­come en­tirely ac­cept­able, al­most an oblig­a­tory fash­ion state­ment. In­done­sian mil­len­ni­als are cer­tainly not as con­formist as their par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion, and the faint re­main­ing hint of re­bel­lion and stigma at­tached to tat­toos is for many, if any­thing, part of the at­trac­tion. At any hap­pen­ing hip­ster gath­er­ing spot in Jakarta, tat­toos are now pretty much par for the course. And a lot of these tat­toos bor­row from tribal and re­li­gious mo­tifs, not only from the rest of the world, but also from tra­di­tions within In­done­sia it­self, in­clud­ing the pre­vi­ously de­spised Dayak and Mentawai tra­di­tions. A lot has changed since 1954. In this post-mod­ern world, the whole pro­ject of mod­erni­sa­tion has lost much of its sheen. “Cul­tural di­ver­sity” and “lo­cal wis­dom” are the buzz­words of the new cen­tury, at least amongst the young.

Of course, hav­ing a Mentawai tat­too per­ma­nently etched onto your body doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that you know the first thing about the cul­ture of the is­lands. Maybe you just think it looks cool. But a small band of In­done­sian tat­tooists have made a sin­cere at­tempt not only to un­der­stand the fad­ing tat­too­ing prac­tices of mar­ginal eth­nic groups, but also to work with them to pre­serve their own tra­di­tions. Per­haps the most prom­i­nent of these is Aman Durga Si­patiti, an In­done­sian tat­tooist of mixed cul­tural her­itage who has worked in Jakarta, Yo­gya and Hol­land. Since 2009, Durga has con­ducted fre­quent vis­its to the is­lands of Mentawai to doc­u­ment the Arat Sab­u­lun­gan be­lief sys­tem through the pro­duc­tion of a short film en­ti­tled Mentawai Tat­too Re­vival (Kem­bali Mer­a­jah Mentawai) and to work with tra­di­tional tat­tooists and shamans to re­vive the van­ish­ing tat­too tra­di­tions there. Speak­ing through an in­ter­preter with older peo­ple in the in­te­rior of Siberut Is­land, Durga found that sik­erei (shamans) still play a strong role in the com­mu­nity, par­tic­u­larly in the rit­u­als as­so­ci­ated with house­build­ing and heal­ing. He also heard sto­ries of sik­erei be­ing beaten and forced into slave labour by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, with the sik­erei of­ten iden­ti­fied by their ex­ten­sive tat­toos.

He also found that while many older peo­ple had in­com­plete tat­toos, hav­ing aban­doned the process of com­plet­ing them in the en­vi­ron­ment of of­fi­cial dis­ap­proval that pre­vi­ously pre­vailed and that while younger peo­ple had avoided be­ing tat­tooed en­tirely, they now wanted to re­claim their her­itage. Un­for­tu­nately, there were very few peo­ple left with the skills to prac­tice the tra­di­tional hand-tap­ping tat­too tech­nique, a time-con­sum­ing process in which a nee­dle (or, in the dis­tant past, a fish bone or long thorn) is placed at the end of a stick and tapped with an­other stick to punc­ture the skin. While Durga had learned this tech­nique, he didn’t have time avail­able to use it to com­plete the tat­toos of the lo­cals who re­quested them, so he used a mod­ern tat­too gun in­stead, while at the same time cat­a­logu­ing and analysing the pat­terns and mo­tifs the lo­cal peo­ple re­quested in co­op­er­a­tion with sik­erai and other knowl­edge­able in­for­mants.

In ad­di­tion to Durga, a num­ber of other tat­tooists and afi­ciona­dos have also held live dis­plays of the hand-tap­ping tat­too process so that In­done­sians can learn more about the coun­try’s indige­nous tat­too­ing tra­di­tions. Refi Mas­cot, a much­tat­tooed black­smith, ac­tivist and guerilla pho­tog­ra­pher, who was in­stru­men­tal in set­ting up the BauTanah tat­too mu­seum in Jakarta, also fa­cil­i­tated a dis­play of the process in an up­mar­ket gallery in Plaza In­done­sia, where Ranu Khodir, an en­thu­si­as­tic prac­ti­tioner of the hand­tap­ping tech­nique, dis­played his skills to an au­di­ence of cu­ri­ous up­per-mid­dle class In­done­sians, who form a large part of his clien­tele.

Iriene Natalia, a worker on a late-night news show at a ra­dio sta­tion, de­lib­er­ately sought Ranu out af­ter hear­ing about his use of this tech­nique. She’d al­ready had a few tat­toos, done us­ing a mod­ern gun. Iriene loves owls, night birds like her­self. She’s an au­dio­phile, liv­ing in a world of sound and ra­dio waves and mu­sic, so she al­ready had a tat­too of a grumpy, se­ri­ous look­ing owl wear­ing head­phones de­picted on her right wrist. She’s also a Dayak, al­though it must be said that her knowl­edge of Dayak cul­ture is limited. “I grew up in Pon­tianak and small towns in West Kal­i­man­tan, but my par­ents mostly spoke In­done­sian at home, so I don’t know the lo­cal lan­guage well,” she says. And she has mixed feel­ings about some as­pects of Dayak cul­ture any­way. She speaks with a touch of re­sent­ment about an un­cle, who ex­pected her and the other women to sit on the floor of his house while the men sat on chairs, in keep­ing with Dayak cul­ture. She sat on a chair and tol­er­ated his hard stares, un­pre­pared to yield. She may be a Dayak, but she’s also a tough Jakarta woman who re­fuses to put up with non­sense from tra­di­tional Dayak men.

But she cer­tainly con­sid­ers her­self to be a Dayak, and wanted to mark that state­ment on her skin. Her sec­ond and third tat­too were both tra­di­tional Dayak tat­toos, rep­re­sent­ing flow­ers. They may have some spe­cific mean­ing in Dayak cul­ture, al­though she ad­mits she isn’t quite sure. She chose them from a book. But for her fifth tat­too, she wants an­other tra­di­tional Dayak mo­tif, a ge­o­met­ri­cal, flo­ral band around her up­per right arm. But this time, she wants it done the tra­di­tional way, us­ing the hand­tap­ping tech­nique. In Ranu’s small house in the out­skirts of De­pok, she lies on his floor, ex­cited and un-scared by the idea of the pain. As he starts the process, she says: “Ranu, it hurts a lot less than with a gun!” her eyes wide with sur­prise. She’d been ex­pect­ing some­thing more in­tense. He nods and smiles. He’s heard this be­fore. It’s a long slow process. She be­gins to space out, ly­ing back, lis­ten­ing to the sound of her skin be­ing etched. Tap-tap-tap! Tap-tap-tap! The mosque sounds twice be­fore it’s done.

She’s de­lighted. The process was part of the story that the tat­too tells. Her story, writ­ten in ink on her body.

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