Sarawak Borneo, Malaysia
In an almost trance-like state, I lay on my back as the needle is pounded into my shoulder with a wooden stick. Traditional Sape music is playing in the background. Two tattoo-clad Iban, kneeling beside me, concentrate deeply as they slowly punch the ink into my skin. Then, out of the silence, Boy flamboyantly calls out “Maa Guii!” and we all break into laughter.
This is my second attempt at getting a traditional hand-tapped Iban tattoo in Borneo. It’s not an easy thing to acquire. Anyone can just walk into a tattoo shop and get one done by machine, but I am in search of something different. A hand-tapped, old school tattoo, done by a real Iban tribesman.
The Iban and the Land of the Head Hunters
The majority of the Iban live in Sarawak province of Malaysia’s Borneo. They make up almost 30 percent of the population of Sarawakians. Known for their traditional longhouses, headhunting and tattoos, the Iban are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet.
These days, headhunting is a thing of the past, although locals often joke about it while socializing and sipping Langkau. The Iban today are peaceful people who grow rice and maintain the longhouse tradition and culture.
What do the Iban Tattoos Represent?
Iban tattoos tell a story, the story of the bearer’s life. They can represent knowledge learned, heads taken, and the becoming of a man. They are not exclusive to men, though. Many Iban women sport tattoos as well! At the age of ten, Iban receive their first tattoo, the Bungai Terung, which is an eggplant flower on each of their shoulders. This is the most common tattoo you will see in Sarawak.
After receiving this tattoo, Iban people traditionally would collect more tattoos from events like hunting, fishing, taking heads and bringing back knowledge to the longhouse. You can see many traditional Iban tattoos on the Elders in the Longhouses.
The practice of Iban tattoos disappeared when Christian missionaries arrived in the 1960s. They dictated that these magic tattoos were a pagan belief and should not be done anymore.
These days, Iban tattoos are making a comeback. Young Iban men and women are getting tattoos for finishing education and traveling abroad. Most of these tattoos, however, are not traditional Iban style. They are of more modern designs applied by machine rather than hand tapped with a wooden stick.
I was told the story of the reason some Elders had tattoos of airplanes on their back. This was because, while out in the jungle, some hunters would witness an airplane flying high above amongst the clouds. Growing up in the jungle, isolated from the rest of the world, this would seem like a sign from the heavens. So, this seemingly miraculous event would end up as ink on the man’s body.
Who is Boy Skrang?
I met Boy Skolang (known as Boy Skrang) in Kuching whilst trying to get up the Skrang River to Entalau. Boy was born and raised in the longhouse Entalau. He told me stories of his childhood. He remembers a time when the jungle was full of life. When animals like orangutans, hornbills and wild boars, now all endangered, thrived.
Boy became fascinated with tattooing at a young age and eventually became a tattoo artist. He now co-owns Skrang Tattoo in Kuching. Boy is renowned for his skill doing traditional, hand tapped tattoos, just like the Iban used to do in the past.
Boy is so well known for his craft that he was featured in an episode of the very popular TV series “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” In this episode, you can see him doing traditional Lankau Dance (I don’t think there really is a real Langkau dance) and tattooing Anthony Bourdain himself.
Boy is a close friend of mine. He has taught me a lot about Iban culture. Being a traditionalist, he often reflects on the past. Boy is also very aware of Borneo’s problems. He often talks about the logging, the loss of culture, and Sarawaks future.
Skrang Tattoo Studio
Co- owned by Boy Skrang, the Skrang Tattoo studio is located on China Street in Kuching’s China Town. This outfit offers a more unique approach to getting a tattoo. They focus on giving traditional hand tapped Iban tattoos, many of which are exclusive to the Skrang Region.
Along with Boy, there are also quite a few other very talented artists here. Some of whom also study and practice the art of traditional tattooing. Skrang Tattoo is great not only because of the quality of their craft, but also because of their emphasis on the importance of getting tattoos the old school way.
Boy and Skrang Tattoo are really pioneers in the modern tattoo world. I hope more people can recognize them for their ingenuity and respect for the old ways.
If a hand tapped traditional tattoo sounds a little too extreme for you, they also offer tattoos the regular way.
You can check them out HERE on their Facebook page!
The Skrang River, and Entalau
The Skrang River and Entalau are the true heartland of Iban culture. Here you will find old-time longhouses that have not changed in years, many of which are still adorned with human skulls of heads taken in the past!
Before I was to get my Iban tattoo, I wanted to learn more about Iban culture. What better way to do this than to live in a longhouse with Iban tribesmen up the Skrang River?!
From Kuching, Boy arranged for us to get to Entalau, his home. It’s a four hour bus ride, followed by another four or five hour boat cruise to get there.
This is the same longhouse Anthony Bourdain visited in his “Parts Unknown” episode featuring Borneo. This is where you will see Boy’s big debut; drinking, eating and of course, tattooing Anthony himself!
There are still some men in Entalau with traditional tattoos, many of whom were still alive during the time of headhunting! Sitting down and talking with these men about their tattoos is an amazing experience. Like Boy, they understand the problems that face their culture. The elders will tell you the stories behind each of their tattoos, which often leads to a laugh or two.
I believe that, before you decide to get an Iban tattoo, you also should come to these longhouses. In doing this you, too, can experience why tattoos make up such an important part of Iban culture and way of life.
Getting my Traditional Iban Tattoo
I returned back to Kuching from the Skrang River, keen,on getting my Iban tattoo. I discussed with with Boy on what I should get. He told me to start with the Bungai Terung*.
*Bungai Terung – When young men leave the longhouse and become men they receive the Bungai Terung. A black eggplant flower is put on each front shoulder. In the centre of the flower is a squiggly circle. The squiggly circle actually symbolizes tadpole intestines, which represent life. The eggplant’s flower’s petals represent the virtue of patience. The Iban believe that only with patience can one learn life’s lessons.
I agreed that I should get the Bungai Terung. I also asked Boy about the fishhook design I had noticed many of the elders had tattooed above their ankle. I saw this while staying in the longhouse. Boy said that this tattoo helped one have better luck fishing.
As I am an avid and aspiring fisherman (often very unlucky), I opted to get the fish hook as well.
Before the process of actually getting the tattoo began, Boy placed the ink in a bamboo cup, Traditional Iban tattoo ink is made up from soot and fermented sugar cane juice. Boy then placed a metal spike into a bamboo stick. He warmed up by gently hitting the stick away from me to acquire his rhythm. Meanwhile, I have a shot of Langkau or two!
As I lay down, Boy’s second man, Leo, who is also an aspiring tattoo artist, stretched the skin on my shoulder. Then came the fun part: a metal spike being stabbed into my shoulder by two bamboo sticks striking together.
Does it hurt, you ask? This is, to be honest, a very stupid question I am often asked. Yes, it hurt, a lot. I might be smiling on the camera, but I was defiantly feeling the pain. Would I do it again? Of course I would. The pain is a very minimal thing compared to the experience of receiving a traditional Iban Tattoo, something that you will bear for the rest of your life!
Every so often, Boy would yell out flamboyantly “Maa Guii!!” I am still not a hundred percent sure what this means, but it became a phrase that Boy and I often yelled out. The humour really helped with dealing with the pain.
Four hours later, after lots of laughs and pain, I had my Bungai Terung.
“Wait you’re not finished,” Boy exclaimed, as I stood up.
Boy pulls my ankle towards him and started putting the Fishing Charm on my skin. Instantly I could feel the knowledge of fisherman before me enter my mind… ok that’s a lie, but the fish hook looks really awesome!
This was one of the most amazing travel experiences I have had. I must give a shout out to my boy, Boy Skrang, for giving me the opportunity to experience this!
My Iban Tattoo Video
Location: Sarawak Borneo, Malaysia
Useful Tips: Don’t think about the pain, think about the incredible travel tattoo you can show off later!
Skrang Tattoo: Facebook HERE
Skrang River Tours: Message Boy if you are genuinely interested in seeing the Skrang Region and Entalau.