During the Melaka Tattoo Expo we had the opportunity to meet Jeremy from Sarawak, who runs the Monkey Tattoo & Bodypiercing Studio. Sarawak is the largest state of Malaysia located in the northern part of the island of Borneo. Jeremy was one of the jurors of the convention. We were able to ask him some questions about the tattoo from Borneo.

Aleksandra: What are the motifs of your tattoos?

Jeremy: My work is only based on what I see and what I have learnt. Especially Borneo stuff. It’s mostly inspired from these.

A: What do the Borneo tribal designs represent? Are they related to folk symbolism, human life and related events – or are they simply decorative? What are the characteristics of the Borneo tattoos?

J: Most of the Borneo tattoos are ornamental only. Depending on the tribe, they have their own purpose and individual pattern .Mostly, the meanings are changed depending on things like time, purpose and artistic freedom. Most of these tattoos are based on animals and plants that you would find on the island. E.g. scorpions, frogs, crabs, centipedes, flowers, ferns , trees and fruits.

A: Here in Europe, a tattoo from Borneo is a legend for us. We know that they are patterns – tribes like the Iban tribe called Headhunters (that’s what we can google ;), you mentioned to me about tattoos made on the palm of hand, which signified that the warrior cut off the head of their opponent. Are these the tattoos of the Headhunters ? Are there any other warrior tribes / tattoos?

J: The tattoos on the back of the hand (where the knuckles are) and fingers were tattooed by the Iban tribes to prove that they have taken a head and this is only done by the Iban tribe. While many other tribes have some similar tattoos, they mean different things.

Traditionally in Borneo most tattooed people are women, not warriors. For the Iban (or headhunter tribes), it is not necessary for the warriors to be tattooed. It is a choice of decoration, art , style etc.. Traditionally, most Borneo tattoos are considered to be a form of female decoration like make-up is for women today. Tattoos were meant to decorate and beautify women and to signify that they are from a higher class.

A: Speaking at a convention in Melaka, you mentioned that the Borneo tribe starts with a black flower on shoulder? Why exactly in this place? Does it have any special meaning?

J: It isn’t for every tribe, but only the Iban tribe (also – not all of the Iban tribe, some family and villages do not have tattoos). It traditionally starts with the flowers and then progresses with other tattoos. There’s no special reason for starting the tattoo there first. It was most probably the easiest place to begin.

A: Can anyone create such a pattern, are there any restrictions, like those related to symbolism, social status etc.?

J: There is no restriction. Like I explained before, it’s for

A: Are all of these made using the “hand poke” method, and does black ink form the basis for these? Are there any contemporary variations on the Borneo tribal tattoo? What’s the current status of this traditional tattoo
in Borneo now?

J: It was done using the hand tap and poke back method back in the day as there was no machine. And yes, the designs of these old tattoos are changing and many artists have made variations to them . There is a lot of artistic freedom to express the old stuff, but even so there’s still a lot of ‚traditional’ patterns being used. The current status is healthy.