Sarawakian Tattoos


Scarification means making deliberate cuts to the skin, and is an ancient art still practiced in many cultures today. The decorative scars are used to confer beauty, status, protection, and identity to the bearers. Tattooing is one way of scarification. Tattooing is probably the most popular form of body adornment today. Although the art of tattooing has been around for quite a while, the word ‘tattoo’ is relatively new. The word tattoo originated from the Tahitian word “tatu” which means to “mark something” (Oxford dictionary). Captain James Cook introduced the word ‘tattoo’ shortly after the word ‘taboo’ to the English speakers. The earliest use of the word was found in Captain Cook’s diary in 1769. The first electric machine was invented by Samuel O’ Reilley which was improved upon an earlier tattoo machine that was created by Thomas Edison.


There are three types of tattoos. One example would be the decorative tattoo which is the most common and are usually placed on the skin for decorative purposes. Some are homemade with needle and India ink; others are professionally applied with a tattoo gun using one or more colors of tattoo ink. Professional tattoos are deeper, contain more ink, and are more difficult to remove. The second type of tattoo would be the Cosmetic tattoo which is known as micro- pigmentation or permanent cosmetics. This type of tattoo is used as permanent eyeliner, lip liner, lipstick, and other permanent cosmetic purposes. This type of tattoo is also used to cover skin pigment disorders, scars and other blemishes. The third type of tattoo would be Traumatic tattoos which are foreign substances, such as dirt, that are embedded in the skin through an accidental injury.


Sarawakian tattoos are categorized under decorative tattoos, under tribal tattoos. It is strongly believed that tattooing among the Dayak tribe, one of the largest tribe in Sarawak originated from China. Among the tribes in Borneo, tattooing is often associated with head hunting which is a visible sign of success for men and the coming age of women, as in some cases, it the tattoos symbolizes their status. Tattoos are part of the "rites of passage" and next to blackened teeth and long ear-lobes, intricate tattoos on fingers, hands, lower arms, thighs, calves, and feet served as important elements of beauty for women. The darker the color of the tattoo, the better it is seen as.


In Borneo, women have tattoos on their forearms in symbols to signify their skill. For example, if a woman wore a symbol indicating she was a skilled weaver, her status as prime marriageable material was increased. Tattoos around the wrist and fingers were believed to ward away illness. Another tribe in Borneo would be the Apo-Kayans. They are a subgroup of the Dayak people. Apo Kayan means the Kayan hill country bordering Sarawak- "A young woman\'s social position is also indicated, among other things, by the number of rings around the calves of her legs. It appears originally the significance of the tattooing was as a protective device." (Tillema [ca. 1924-1927] 1989) This in fact facilitated them to travel to the land of the ancestors. Tattooing of women affects men in very objectionable ways as the outcome of the magic it works. Consequently, it is only permitted at intervals of six years or more, and when the process is completed, a celebration is held. The festivity counteracts the bad influences which threaten the men. But women sometimes go ahead with it anyway, without the chief\'s consent, and they then go to the Ma Kulit, a tribe known for its skillful tattooing of women.


In the old days, almost all Dayak men tattooed their bodies. But in some Dayak sub-tribes, 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 symbolises beauty and pride. A Kayaan woman who does not have a tattoo considers herself lower in rank to those who have them.


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