Iban Tattoos a Tradition of Strength and Identity


In the heart of Borneo, the Iban people have long held a unique and intriguing tradition that revolves around tattoos. For these indigenous communities, tattoos are not merely inked designs on the skin; they represent a symbol of strength, identity, and a captivating cultural legacy that spans generations.

As an Iban man transitions into adulthood, he embarks on a journey away from his village, a sacred ritual known as “Anjali.” This pilgrimage aims to acquire as many tattoos as possible before returning home, marking his passage into manhood. The man who returns adorned with the most tattoos is celebrated and commands the respect and admiration of his community.

Simon David, an award-winning tattoo artist of Iban origin from Sarawak, shares insights into this unique tradition. He emphasizes that these tattoos are far more than just artistic expressions; they are akin to passport stamps that meticulously document a man’s life journey. “They indicate that he has survived everything life has thrown at him,” David explains.

Simon David, tattoo artist and founder of Electric Dreams Tattoo Collective. — Picture by Raymond Manuel
Simon David, tattoo artist and founder of Electric Dreams Tattoo Collective. — Picture by Raymond Manuel

The man who emerges with the most tattoos becomes a highly sought-after bachelor in the village and gains the privilege of choosing his bride. However, there’s a catch: if he merely stays home and acquires tattoos without the genuine experiences to back them, he may face ridicule and be considered a lesser man.

Traditionally, Iban tattoos are crafted using a thorn needle attached to a small bamboo stick, and ink is derived from soot and water. The process is not a hasty one, as an Iban man is initially required to obtain an “ukir rekong” (throat tattoo) or a pair of “bunga terung” tattoos on his shoulders before moving on to other motifs.

Interestingly, the aesthetics of the tattoos were not of significant concern in the past as they are today. David humorously points out, “Since the men take turns to draw tattoos on each other, the lucky ones end up with the nicest tattoos. But the best artist often ends up with the worst tattoos.”

An Iban man is required to get an 'ukir rekong' (throat tattoo) or 'bunga terung' tattoos on his shoulders first before pursuing other motifs.  — Picture by Raymond Manuel
An Iban man must get an ukir rekong (throat tattoo) or bunga terung tattoo on his shoulders first before pursuing other motifs.  — Picture by Raymond Manuel

Furthermore, it’s not just Iban men who received these distinctive tattoos. Skilled women weavers were rewarded with tattoos on their forearms, signifying their achievements and mastery of their craft.

David narrates an intriguing legend passed down by his elders, which explains the origins of these tattoos. In ancient times, the Iban people engaged in tribal warfare with the Kayan. Initially, the Kayan men were the ones adorning their bodies with tattoos. However, during the war, the Iban men began to follow suit and even tried disguising themselves as Kayan men, using tattoos as self-defense. Eventually, the Kayan men ceased getting tattoos, while the Iban people embraced and expanded the designs into more intricate and bold art forms.

Simon's colourful workspace. — Picture by Raymond Manuel
Simon’s colorful workspace. — Picture by Raymond Manuel

According to local legends, specific Iban tattoos are believed to possess supernatural powers. For instance, the “kara jengkam,” or neck tattoo, is said to protect decapitation. These mystical beliefs are interwoven into the cultural fabric of the Iban people, enriching the significance of their tattoos.

Today, Simon David operates the Electric Dreams Tattoo Collective shop in Petaling Jaya, further illustrating the evolution of Iban tattoo art. What was once a cultural identity has now transformed into a fashion statement in Malaysia and globally. International tattoo artists actively engage with and promote this native art, spreading awareness and appreciation for the Iban tattoo culture. Moreover, with a new generation of enthusiasts keen to preserve and perpetuate this tradition, the future of Iban tattoo art seems promising.

In conclusion, Iban tattoos are a testament to the enduring strength of a culture that values tradition, artistry, and a deep connection to its roots. These tattoos are more than ink on the skin; they are living symbols of resilience, courage, and the rich heritage of the Iban people. As the world embraces and admires this ancient art form, it ensures that Iban tattoo culture is in safe hands, ready to continue its remarkable journey through time.

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