Sacred Ink

The longhouse was enveloped in darkness. The howls of a dog pierced the still of the night and sent a shiver down my spine. Seated cross-legged on a mat, I listened with rapt attention to the tuai rumah (headman) as he recounted tales of courage and daring – stories of young Iban boys venturing solo into the unforgiving jungle, armed with nothing but their faith and a blowpipe.

Curious about the inked motifs that covered his torso and limbs, I had asked Dau anak Salleh, the headman, about their roots, prompting him to share the stories passed down by his forefathers.

Bornean traditional tattoo, Malaysia, Sarawak
Nanga Entalau headman Dau anak Salleh (left) and his neighbour Jalin anak Janggar show off their tattooed bodies, painted canvases that diarise their lives and achievements. Image: Affandi Abd Hamid (FND)

Not too long ago, bejalai (journey) was a rite of passage for Iban males when they reached puberty. In the days of Dau’s grandfather, boys who came of age were encouraged to leave the village and strike out on their own. These young boys had to conquer jungles, learn to live off the land, and also defend themselves against attacks from wild animals and members of hostile tribes. Sometimes, the boys went away for months. Sometimes, for years. And on their return, they would earn their first marking – a pantang (tattoo) that commemorated their passage into adulthood.

The headman pointed out the twin floral motifs just below his shoulder blades. “They’re bungai terung (eggplant flower) and particularly significant to us Iban. The bungai terung is the Iban male’s first tattoo, and it symbolises the crossing over into manhood.”

IMAGE: GETTY, An Iban Tribe man with a blowpipe, Bornean traditional tattoo, Malaysia, Sarawak
Iban men were skilled hunters. In days of old, the men used blowpipes and poison darts to hunt prey. When an Iban male reached puberty, he would undertake bejalai (journey) and venture into the forests alone armed with nothing but his blowpipe.Image: Affandi Abd Hamid (FND)

For the Iban, the bejalai is a journey and an adventure, and while it may often be associated with the pursuit or wealth and status, it is most importantly connected with the attainment of wisdom.


I was in a village located along the Skrang River, in the wilds of Sarawak, East Malaysia. Nanga Entalau, like many villages along the banks of the mighty Skrang, was once home to fearless Iban warriors, whose prowess as headhunters was legendary.

The Iban are Sarawak’s largest indigenous group, accounting for an estimated 30 per cent of the state’s population of 2.5 million. Traditionally, they resided in the lowlands of Sarawak and built their longhouses (dwelling shared with extended family) along its rivers and tributaries, the principal arteries of transportation. In that way, the Iban became known by the river systems they settled along.

Bornean traditional tattoo, Malaysia, Sarawak
An Iban performer at the Sarawak Cultural Village takes a break in between shows at the Iban longhouse. The village is home to replica dwellings of the major ethnic groups in Sarawak.Image: Affandi Abd Hamid (FND)

According to historical records, a European official stationed in Kuching in 1855 once observed that the Skrang Iban were so fearsome that enemies would stay clear for fear of provoking decapitation! In the old days, the Skrang Iban may have basked in their acquired notoriety, but headhunting practices have long since ceased in Sarawak, and today, the Iban farm cash crops like pepper and rice, and are best known for their warm and gracious hospitality.

My journey to the longhouse, home of the Skrang Iban, had not been an easy one. Leaving Kuching, the capital, after breakfast that day, I’d travelled for four hours by van to Lubok Antu, the town closest to the village. Here, my guide purchased supplies – rice and vegetables for our longhouse hosts, and gifts of crunchy crackers, as well as sweets for the younger inhabitants of the longhouse – before we boarded a four-wheel drive for the final leg of the journey.

Enduring an excruciatingly bumpy ride across a muddy track for over two hours, we finally arrived at Nanga Entalau just before sunset. I could not imagine travel into this remote village before the advent of motorised vehicles. Until recent decades, thick forest prevented access by road, and the only entrance to the village, which consisted of a school and longhouse, was via the waterway.


Arriving at Nanga Entalau, I had been greeted with friendly faces and curious gazes. As custom dictates, we’d paid a visit to the tuai rumah to announce our arrival and introduce ourselves. The gifts and supplies procured earlier were presented as tokens of respect, and in turn, he’d invited us to a village feast, for which I learnt I was to cook a curry for the villagers – about 20 of them! It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. After all, I’d come all this way to learn about the symbolism of Iban pantang and the legends associated with them, and this was the ticket!

In the large kitchen of a neighbour’s unit, where the night’s festivities were to take place, I’d nervously joined several women who were busy chopping, cleaning and cooking, and was welcomed as if I were part of the family, while in the backyard, the menfolk were preparing manok pansoh (chicken cooked in bamboo stem) over an open fire.

Later, when dinner was ready, a mat had been laid on the floor and everyone took their places. The Iban, like many indigenous communities, believe that communal dining strengthens the bond between friends and family. I’d witnessed this firsthand as greetings were exchanged and platters of food and drink passed back and forth.

After dinner and many rounds of drinks, I’d politely enquired if I could see some of the tattoos the headman had accumulated over the years. Fortunately, he acceded to my request and showed me the blue-black designs that covered his lower limbs, arms, chest and back. Each had a story.


Dau, who was in his 60s, grew up in the post-WWII era. By the time he was in his teens, bejalai was a little different from his father’s and grandfather’s era. Like the menfolk before him, he went on an adventure, but he was unarmed. He left the longhouse to work in a logging camp in the neighbouring state of Sabah, and his journey was just as ardous; the work was hard and many years passed before he returned to the longhouse.

During his days at the logging camp, Dau and his homesick Iban co-workers would get together and practise the ritual tattooing that they had inherited. Using rudimentary implements that included a tattooing stick – a piece of wood with a sharp object attached to one end – they would take turns to create designs on each other’s bodies.

First came familiar designs like the bungai terung to mark their ascension into manhood. Then, the ketam lengan (crab claws) on the forearm that symbolically strengthened the soul, and ketam belakang (crab back), a large design that covered the back and served as symbolic armour.

Bornean traditional tattoo, Malaysia, Sarawak
This Iban elder’s back is decorated with the ketam belakang, a tattoo design that signifies armour. Smaller motifs, known together as the kena ngelagu, complement the main designs (on the right and left of the back) and symbolically provide added protection for the wearer.Image: Affandi Abd Hamid (FND)

But not all of Dau’s tattoos were traditional Iban hand-tapped designs. When Dau and his friends went into town on their breaks, they were introduced to new motifs – cowgirls, lasso-wielding cowboys, and various other tattoos popular in the Western world. Soon, the men of Dau’s generation were sporting a mix of modern and traditional tattoos, unheard of in his parents’ era. “Back in those days, a woman would never consider marrying an un-tattooed man. The pantang, first and foremost, symbolised bravery. There were certain things a man had to endure before he was tattooed in the traditional way. The designs charted a man’s accomplishments and his journey through life. The tattooing process itself was a test of one’s strength,” explained Dau.

Although significantly prouder of the traditional designs on his body than their modern cousins, Dau appreciated them all. “My body is a diary of my life, and all the markings on it are symbolic in their own way.”


Body art is much more than adornment. The third largest island in the world, Borneo is home to different groups of indigenous people, each with their own language and traditions. Historians, however, have found that many of these tribes have a common thread, and that is the tradition of tattooing. Other indigenous tribes like the Kayan and Kenyah also practise the art of hand-tapped tattooing.

The tattooing tools and techniques employed by the Dayak (indigenous people of Borneo) resemble those used throughout Polynesia, and suggest that the knowledge may have been shared during exploratory journeys by ancient voyagers.

For centuries, tattooing was a ritualistic practice with profound social and spiritual significance for the Iban. According to Dau, traditional hand-tapped tattoos denote a connection with spirits, deities or ancestors, and function to protect against harm or disease, while also signifying one’s social status or tribal rank.

IMAGE: INMAGINE, Bornean traditional tattoo, Malaysia, Sarawak
Besides bravery, traditional tattoos also once signified prowess in skills such as hunting.Image: Affandi Abd Hamid (FND)

These pantang have a blue-black appearance, coloured by ink derived from soot, a substance said to ward off malevolent spirits. In the old days, some tattoo artists spiked their pigment with charms such as shards of animal bone, to render their tattoos even more powerful.

For some, tattoos were considered a shield from death, and a connection to the gods who offered guidance and protection. Elders I met along my journey recalled stories of Iban who served with the Sarawak Rangers and defended Sarawak during the Japanese Occupation of Borneo (1941-45). Everyone seemed to know an uncle or family friend who they claimed cheated death during the war because they were protected by sacred tattoos. Some recounted stories of bullets being repelled by ‘sacred armour’.

Bornean traditional tattoo, Malaysia, Sarawak
An Iban woman at Nanga Entalau demonstrates her weaving prowess. In the old days, the bodies of Iban women skilled in weaving, dancing and singing were also adorned with tattoos.Image: Affandi Abd Hamid (FND)

Tattoos were not just confined to men. Iban women too were once adorned with markings that symbolised their accomplishments in weaving, dancing or singing. Among the more spiritual tattoos are the pantang ascribed to women who wove pua kumbu, a ceremonial garment used to receive freshly taken heads after a successful headhunting campaign. Weaving was considered a hazardous occupation because the blood-red dyes used in the process were thought to invoke the spirits, an act that could endanger the weaver’s life. To keep the evil spirits at bay, weavers wore tattoos of scorpions and centipedes, creatures believed to repel these bad spirits. Sadly, few of these tattoos remain, as the younger generation favours more modern motifs.


Fortunately, there’s still hope in preserving the old designs. Back in Kuching, I met up with Ernesto Kalum of the renowned Borneoheadhunters Tattoo and Piercing Studio, the first professional tattoo studio to take Iban tattoos mainstream. Ernesto’s experimentation with tattoos began at a young age. As a teenager, he used improvised instruments to tattoo himself. His first was an etching of Superman’s logo on his thigh. It would take him years to come full circle and return to his roots.

Bornean traditional tattoo, Malaysia, Sarawak
Professional tattoo artist Ernesto Kalum strives to preserve his heritage by documenting the traditional tattoo designs of his forebears.Image: Affandi Abd Hamid (FND)

As the grandson of an Iban lemambang (shaman), Ernesto learnt the legends surrounding Iban traditions and customs at a young age. Though he grew up in the city, he routinely spent school holidays in his ancestral village in Ulu Spak, Betong, Sarawak, where he observed the rituals of his people.

After a series of unsatisfactory desk jobs, including one at a bank, Ernesto finally pursued his calling, and in 1998, at the age of 29, he branched out on his own and began offering tattooing services professionally.

“Tattooing chose me. I feel I have to pass on what I know. As a tattoo artist, I’m a bridge for others to learn our culture. For us Iban, our tattoos are like armour; they protect us and keep us safe from harm. Anyone can be tattooed but not all of our tattoos are for everyone.”

Ernesto explained that the tegulun (a design applied on the hands that signifies the taking of a life) is one such symbol; back in the day, it was reserved for Iban warriors who had taken heads.

“Unfortunately, it is very rare to still find men with a full suit of traditional Iban tattoos. Very few Iban still practise the traditional art of hand-tapped tattoos. The old guard is vanishing, and with them, a part of our heritage.”

Ernesto is passionate about his heritage, and has set about collecting traditional Iban tattoo designs for posterity. Whenever he has time on his hands, he visits Iban longhouses in the interiors, seeking out the surviving few in possession of long forgotten designs to photograph and document the markings on their bodies. It is with efforts like this that a glimmer of hope remains for the conservation of this age-old custom.


A small hand-tapped tattoo measuring just a few square centimetres can take hours to complete depending on the wearer’s pain threshold. The tapping of the mallet on the needle stick is almost hypnotic; for some, focusing on the steady rhythm helps alleviate the agony.

Malaysia, Borneo island, Sarawak, Dayak warrior (from the Iban) tribe traditional tattoo session, IMAGE: GETTY, Bornean traditional tattoo, Malaysia, Sarawak
Traditional Iban hand-tapped tattoos are applied using a tattoo stick made from a shaved bamboo stem with a needle attached to one end.Image: Affandi Abd Hamid (FND)

In recent years, the handful of researchers and tattoo artists who have worked to document the precious art have revived interest in these hand-tapped tattoos. These indelible ink symbols represent an ancient belief system, and we can only hope that documentation will prove fruitful in the preservation of the Iban hand-tapped tattoos for coming generations.


The process of hand-tapping tattoos is painstaking and begins with the making of the needle stick, which is fashioned from a shaved bamboo stem. Next, a brass needle is attached to the end of the needle stick. Using a wooden stencil dipped in ink, an imprint of the chosen design is made on the body. Finally, the tattoo artist taps the needle stick using the mallet, inking


Perhaps the most common of Iban hand-tapped tattoo motifs, the bungai terung (eggplant flower) is deeply meaningful. The bungai terung is always found in a pair, one flower below each shoulder blade. At its centre is a coil dubbed the tali nyawa (lifeline), believed to be inspired by the humble tadpole. When a tadpole is ready for life on land, its intestinal coils are visible through a transparent belly. The bungai terung symbolises a young man’s coming of age, just as the coils in the tadpole’s belly signify its readiness for the next stage of its lifecycle.

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