Keeping traditional tattooing alive
My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story
By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
I REMEMBER AN EPISODE of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ where Ted gets a butterfly tattoo on his lower back after a wild night he spent drinking with a random girl he met at a bar. While his friends may have found his tattoo hilarious, it gave Ted yet another unusual and entertaining story of his younger days to tell the kids, which is really what tattoos are all about. Stories.
From November 28th till 30th, the 3rd Traditional Tattoo Expo held in collaboration between the Monkey Tattoo Studio and OurYouth.my at Le Park was held to promote Sarawakian traditional tattoos as a form of body art as well as to raise awareness towards the dying art of traditional tattooing.
For tattoo fanatics, one can only wish they had eyes in the back of their heads since there was so much to see. From intricate local tribal designs to sacred Thai tattoos known as ‘Sak Yant’ or maybe something more personal like the name of loved ones or a favourite quote, walking through the tattoo expo makes it so tempting to get a tattoo for yourself.
Despite the blazing heat and humidity, Okayama-born tattoo artist, Hayashi Sousyu still managed to look calm and collected as he talked about his craft with the help of his friend, Kana, helping with the translating.
With what appears to be a body suit tattoo of a Japanese-style dragon matching his cool and unflappable demeanour, Hayashi explained that while the dragon features prominently in many Japanese myths and legends, for him it actually symbolises the year he was born in.
As a young boy, Hayashi was fascinated by the work of his father’s friend, who was a tattoo artist about 14 years ago. Later at the age of 22, Hayashi then requested his father’s friend to teach him the technique of traditional hand engraving.
According to Hayashi, the technique he learnt from his master was all mainly through observation, without any instruction. Hayashi said that the only time he ever got a comment from his master was when the former came to his tattoo parlour to observe his work and said, “You seem to be doing it right.”
Hayashi performs the traditional hand engraving technique called ‘tebori’ with his own tools, the handles of which are made from bamboo he gathers from the mountain in his backyard. His tools allow him to do outlines and shading, and the length of time he spends on a tattoo depends on the complexity of the design.
He blends modern and traditional designs to make up his own style. Hayashi said that unlike modern design, traditional Japanese design does not have straight lines but rather uses curves as depicted by his dragon tattoo.
Traditional Japanese tattoos are also different from Western tattoos in terms of shading. His tattoos are mostly done in black, with colours used as highlights.
Also present for the traditional tattoo expo was Indonesian tattoo artist, Albar Tikam of Suku-Suku Tatau from Bali who has been in the tattoo industry for over 20 years now, but has only started on the traditional hand tap method in 2010.
According to Albar, the tattoo designs are not much different from those in Sarawak.
Meanwhile, local tattoo artist – Boy Skrang – the founder of Skrang Tattoo Borneo first got a taste of rendering hand-tapped tattoos from his grandfather about six years ago.
“I was nervous and not confident with myself at first, but as I practiced some more, I became a lot better,” said the 28-year-old of his initial experience doing hand-tapped tattoos.
Coming from Rh Nanga Entalau in Skrang where most of the older generation bear traditional tattoo designs, he is passionate about carrying on the family tradition as well as preserving this aspect of Iban culture from dying out.
Traditionally, tattoos are related to the ‘bejalai’ practice, which is a journey made by a young tribesman when they come of age to explore and gain knowledge and wisdom from other Iban communities. Much like a diary, the tattoos the tribesman gains throughout that journey represents what he has learnt and experienced since each place has its own different styles and motif.
Most Iban tattoos designs are inspired by nature and animals. The most popular one seen frequently nowadays is the ‘bunga terung’, a motif based on our local aubergine species, signifying the young man’s coming of age.
Before embarking on a journey, the young man would receive two ‘bunga terung’, one on each shoulder. It is important that the design must be in a pair to balance and protect each side of the body.
While not all tattoos mark one’s journey in life, they also represent something that he has done. For example, the ‘entegulun’ marking on the hand can only be received by an Iban man if he has taken heads of the enemy.
As head hunting is no longer in practice, Boy said that it would be considered taboo to get the ‘entegulun’.
According to Boy, up until a few years ago, traditional Iban and other tribal tattoo designs were not as popular as it is now among the younger generations as back then most would have preferred western and dragon or koi designs.
Today, however, tribal Borneo tattoos are gaining popularity and most youths are beginning to show interest in getting one and are aware of the importance of preserving their culture.
The three-day event also featured those from Sweden, Singapore, Croatia, the US, Thailand, Russia, Switzerland and the Philippines.