Borneo Tattoos

"The tattoo image for the Kalimantan Dayak community is not just a decoration, but has a very deep meaning ". As it has for our volunteer Laura presently at JIwa Damai 

Borneo's illustrious tattoos are considered sacred, magical and are tied closely to the beliefs of the Dayak community. For the people of Borneo, as with all indigenous cultural practices of the world, getting a tattoo is closely associated with physical power and the spiritual world. Borneo tattoos are usually the intricate combination of images of humans, animals and plants in a single design, expressing the integration of all living things in the world.


 Just as a great warrior was tattooed to mark his achievements in the human hunt, women were tattooed as proof of their accomplishments in weaving, dancing or singing – as well as for protective purposes.


The Bungai Terung, which translates to the eggplant Borneo flower, is the first tattoo an Iban individual would receive.. The tattoo is located on the front of the shoulder (never the chest) to show where ones bag straps lie, to prepare the individual to carry the weight of their own world (passage of a person into adulthood). The Bungai Terung has a spiral at the center of the eggplant flower the Tali Nyawa, which means the rope of life and is identical to the underside of a tadpole which symbolizes the beginning of a new life.


The scorpion symbol, also sometimes known as kala, isactually based on the highly stylized image of the aso, the mythical dog/dragon associated with protection from malevolent spirits.


This tattoo is typically used by men. This tribal scorpion is still a very popular tattoo in Borneo, even if its original meaning got lost in favor of its spiritual meaning: originally Dayak warriors, who used to cut off their enemies´ heads, got the scorpion tattooed as a protection in battle. The same design, when tattooed on the throat, should protect his bearer from undergoing that same fate, by giving strength to the skin of the throat. Luckily, heads are not in danger anymore, but the meaning of valiance and courage is still deeply connected with this design.


 From each place the tattoos have different styles so the regional differences in his tattoos would tell the story of his journeys in life. A tattoo on the arm of a man is said to be helpful to other people.


All the tattoos, following the eggplant flower, are like a diary. A young male would go out on his own to find knowledge and from each place he went to he would get one tattoo to mark not only where he is from but also where he has been. Therefore, the more tattoos, the "torch" will get brighter and the path to the realm of eternity


Kalimantan is the third-largest island in the world and the largest in Asia. In English, we call it Borneo. Politically divided among three countries: Malaysia and Brunei in the north, and Indonesia (73%) to the south. The island is politically Antipodal to an area of Amazon rainforest, Borneo is itself home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world. Six major, and numerous minor, navigable rivers traverse the interior and function as trade and communication routes for the indigenous peoples who live here, namely the Dayak. Dayak, meaning “interior” or “inland” person, is the term used to describe the variety of indigenous native tribes of Borneo, each of which has its own language and separate culture. Approximately three million Dayak – Ibans, Kayans, Kenyahs and others – live in Borneo. Most groups are settled cultivating rice in shifting or rain-fed fields supplementing their incomes with the sale of cash crops: ginger, pepper, cocoa, palm oil. However several hundred Penan, nomadic hunter-gatherers, continue to follow a traditional lifestyle in the jungle, one that is rapidly vanishing.

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