Cultural tattoos can display a person’s rank or status, tell stories or honor religion and traditions.
One artist considers the art of the method the story of his culture.
Clarke Gable Anak Dablin is from Borneo. It’s an island in Southeast Asia’s Malay Archipelago. He uses a hand tap technique. This ancient tradition has been around for a long time.
He was among the tattoo artists at the 13th Annual Chicago Tattoo Arts Festival that ran from March 17-19, just outside Chicago.
Rosemont’s Donald E. Stephens Convention Center housed the festival, which featured both small and large tattoo shops. There were vendors and working artists, as well as different styles of tattoos available for those who wanted to get inked.
The process of hand tap tattooing involves two steps. First, you outline with taped sticks. Next, you attach a needle to the end to inject color into the stick.
Two sticks are next used to fill the tattoo. One person taps ink onto the skin, while the second person, a stretcher holds the skin taut.
“The two sticks are called tatok in the local language. One stick has a needle attached and the other is the hammer,” Dablin said.
Samuel Pang was Dablin’s stretcher at the festival. Pang, a Fulbright scholar met Dablin while he was pursuing his fellowship studies in Malaysia.
“The stretcher helps to flatten and stretch the skin to make sure the body part is stable to help pack in more ink and help with precision,” Pang said.
Machine tattooing pierces more skin layers than hand tap tattoos, Pang stated that tattoos heal faster because there is less trauma to the skin.
Dablin, who has been tattooing for over 10 years, learned his trade from Jeremy Lo. Lo learned from Borneo elders. He said that there are hardly any elders on the island today. The jungle is home to those who remain.
Hundreds of years ago, boys were tattooed at 11, 12, or 13 years old as a rite of passage beginning with “bunga terung” tattoos, one on each shoulder.
Dablin stated that the bunga-terung was a reminder of new beginnings and family responsibility.
“Borneo people get a full set of tattoos. They travel to other villages to obtain more tattoos. When they come back they are the baddest of the baddest ever in their village,” Dablin said. “It gives them strength and importance. People know this person travels well and comes back safely.”
Dablin considers the revival of hand-tattooing important.
“When the British invaded us, they tried to kill the culture,” Dablin said. “They got rid of paganism, made everyone into Christians and most of the elder people stopped tattooing. They forbade tattooing and headhunting. It is savage to be tattooed.”
In Borneo, tattooing is still a dying art. Now, kids don’t want to learn to tattoo and want to live in the city, Dablin said.
“People like me got interested in this, and a few of my friends began doing hand-tapping tattoos; we are trying to revive it in a modern world,” he said.
Like the Borneo hand-tapping style, tattooing in Mexico is an ancient practice.
Fermin Barbosa, who hails from Salvatierra (a Mexican city in Guanajuato), said that his cultural tattoos are influenced by Mexican folk imagery.
“It’s another way for somebody to identify more strongly with their culture,” Barbosa said about the tattooing style. “I feel like it’s empowering for the individual.”
Barbosa is inspired by Mexican pottery, masks in the form of animals or devils, and mythological creatures called alebrijes, which are a combination of two animals.
Europeans have systematically eradicated cultural heritage from many indigenous cultures.
“Tattooing has always been a tribalistic thing that’s always been innate within our culture,” Barbosa said. Indigenous people modified their bodies by ear stretching, piercings, or markings. Spanish pushed their religions and cultures. [on the indigenous population] He said that these rituals had been ruined and were now being admired.
Tattooing is very common in Mexico today. “It’s kind of hard not to see somebody walking down the street without a tattoo,” Barbosa said.
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