Tue, 15 Aug 2000

'Sacred' Dayak tattoos lose their meaning

By Edi Petebang and Theresia Game

PONTIANAK (JP): The indigenous Dayak in Kalimantan are known for the art of tattooing, but it is hard to tell whether it is an original tradition or whether it was introduced from outside.

It is strongly believed that the art of tattooing among the Dayak in Kalimantan, both in Indonesia and Malaysia, originated from China. Based on historical record, it is said that the Dayak came from Yunan in the south of China and migrated to Southeast Asia, including Kalimantan. In China, it is traditional for kung fu schools to tattoo their students, mainly on the chest or shoulder, with tigers and dragons to signify the students studied at Shaolin temple.

Moreover, the art of tattooing is not only common among the Dayak, but is also typical among Latin American Indian tribes, Japan's Aino, Indonesia's Mentawai and Asmat tribes.

In the old days, almost all Dayak men tattooed their bodies. But in some Dayak subtribes, such as the Dayak Kayaan, it is mostly the women who were tattooed. Not many men were tattooed due to the requirements and restrictions.

Kayaan men are tattooed only if they have been mengayo (head-hunting). If a Kayaan man has a tattoo on the upper part of his thumb, it means that he once went head-hunting. A headhunter is respected by members of his tribe.

For Kayaan women, the tattoo symbolizes beauty and pride. A Kayaan woman who does not have a tattoo considers herself lower in rank to those who have them.

There are three types of tattoos for Kayaan women. The first one, tedak kasaa' covers the entire part of a woman's legs and is only for grown-ups. The tedak usuu' covers her arms while tedak hapii' covers her thighs.

A series of ritual ceremonies should be performed before getting a tattoo.

Dayak Kenyah people tattoo their bodies inside a house especially built for the occasion. It is accompanied by certain ritual ceremonies. When a man is tattooed, every male member of his family is required to wear cawat (men's underwear) and they are not allowed to leave the house, while all members of his family should refrain from doing certain things. If the requirements and restrictions are violated, the life of the man being tattooed will be threatened.

A rite called mela malam, or praying for the help of ancestors in the tattooing process, is performed the night before a Kayaan woman is tattooed. The next morning, the woman will be taken by her family to a relative's longhouse near the house of the tattooer.

Each Dayak subtribe tattoos a different body part. The Bekantan, for instance, tattoo their faces following the lines of their skin, while Ngaju, Iban, Punan and Ot Danum people tattoo all parts of their bodies.

Since the process is painful, some people have to be held down during the process so that they do not move. In the old days, parents would place a big lesung (mortar) on their daughters to prevent them from moving.

In the process, a picture is first drawn using common writing utensils. Then, it is slowly pricked with a needle until it bleeds. The needle contains ink made out of tree sap. After it heals, a tattoo is visible.

Religious statement

The Dayak do not get their bodies tattooed for aesthetic reasons. For them, a tattoo is an expression of their religious beliefs, social status, heredity and initiation process. For them, a tattoo is an art form that has spirit, a living art.

The Dayak believe the tattoo has deep meaning and an important religious sense. Tattooing their bodies is considered a holy act. For them, a tattoo is a means of expression to God. They believe a tattoo will turn away bad spirits, disease and dead spirits.

A tattoo as a means of expression to God is related to the Dayak's cosmology factor. The Dayak separate the cosmos into three parts: above, center and the underworld. Every cosmos part has its own God. Tattoos for the above world are mostly of the hornbill, moon and sun. A tattoo of a dragon represents the underworld, and the world where people live is symbolized by the Sawang or Sabang Kawalik (the tree of life).

The tattoo as an initiation process means that after getting a tattoo a person can fully take part as a member of the community.

A Dayak man, for instance, is tattooed at 16 years of age. With a tattoo, he is responsible for his own life.

A Dayak woman is tattooed after her first period. With the tattoo, she is considered mature and her rights and obligations as a member of the community are fully recognized.

A tattoo is also used as a status symbol within the community.

Upper-class people, such as a tribal chief, shaman and war chief, usually have tattoos symbolizing the above world. Symbols from the center world are usually used by an imam, who becomes an intermediary between the above world and the underworld. Common people are usually tattooed with pictures symbolizing the underworld.

Tattoo types and symbols are inherited from one generation to another. One group is not allowed to use a symbol from another group. In this way, a tattoo also symbolizes one's family.

Fading out

These days, the art of tattooing among the Dayak has almost vanished. Some tribes still practice it, but it is mostly done by older groups. Dayak youngsters long deserted the practice and if some of them still do it, it is simply for aesthetic reasons.

A researcher on Dayak culture, Fulgen Natalis, said in 1998 that Dayak tattooing has lost its spirit and its religious, social and cultural meaning.

The vanishing tattoo culture among the Dayak is contributed to rapid modernization and development. A religious figure once claimed that tattooing was a sin and those who had tattoos would go to hell.

Communism in Indonesia between 1965 and 1980 also played a role in the loss of the tattoo tradition among the Dayak. Back then it was rumored that anyone who had a tattoo was a member of the Communist Party.

Now only a few Dayak have real tattoos, and most of them are from the older generation. Some Dayak people living in remote areas still continue the tradition, but they do not do it the old fashioned way, or follow ritual ceremonies along with the requirements and restrictions.

"The vanishing of the tradition of the tattoo is regretted. Tattoos are one of the valuable works of art that should be preserved," said Yohanes Eugene, a Dayak Taman artist.

-- Edi Petebang is chief editor of Kalimantan Review bulletin published by the Pontianak-based Institute of Dayakologi; Theresia Game is a Dayak Kayaan Oral Tradition researcher at Dayakologi.