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For Borneo's Dayak peoples, spirits embody everything: animals, plants, and humans, Krutak explained. Many groups have drawn on this power by using images from nature in their tattoos, creating a composite of floral motifs using plants with curative or protective powers and powerful animal images.

Tattoos are created by artists who consult spirit guides to reveal a design. Among Borneo's Kayan people, women are the artists, a hereditary position passed from mother to daughter. Among the Iban, the largest and most feared indigenous group in Borneo, men apply the tattoos.

These tattoos are blue-black, made of soot or powdered charcoal, substances thought to ward off malevolent spirits. Some groups spike their pigment with charms—a ground-up piece of a meteorite or shard of animal bone—to make their tattoos even more powerful.

For the outline, the artist attaches up to five bamboo splinters or European needles to a stick. After dipping them in pigment, he or she taps them into the skin with a mallet. Solid areas are filled in with a circular configuration of 15 to 20 needles.

Ritual Tattooing

Traditionally, Dayak tattooing was performed in a sacred ritual among gathered tribe members. Among the Ngaju Dayak, Krutak said, the tattoo artist began with a sacrifice to ancestor spirits, killing a chicken or other fowl and spilling its blood.

After a period of chanting, the artist started an extremely painful tattooing process that often lasted six or eight hours. Some tattoos were applied over many weeks.

For coming-of-age tattoo rituals, the village men dressed in bark-cloth. This cloth, made from the paper mulberry tree, also draped corpses and was worn by widows.

Tattooing, like other initiation rites, symbolized both a passing away and a new beginning, a death and a life.

Head-hunting Tattoos

One Dayak group, the Iban, believe that the soul inhabits the head. Therefore, taking the head of one's enemy gives you their soul. Taking the head also conferred your victim's status, skill and power, which helped ensure farming success and fertility among the tribe.

Upon return from a successful head-hunting raid, participants were promptly recognized with tattoos inked on their fingers, usually images of anthropomorphic animals.

Head-hunting was made illegal over a century ago—but even today, an occasional head is still taken.

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