Indonesian tattooists revive tribal traditions by tapping into the past


Men in tribal dress stood amid dense jungle on the Indonesian island of Java, their bodies covered in elaborate traditional tattoos inspired by cultures in distant corners of the vast tropical archipelago.

Many images on display at the recent tattoo festival that brought the men together were not applied with fast modern machines, but using a centuries-old tribal method that involves artists gently tapping a stick mounted with a needle on a subject’s skin.

The practice, known as “hand-tapping,” had almost faded out completely as modernity overwhelmed Indonesia’s tribes and younger generations eschewed their ancestors’ ways, but tattoo artists have in recent years been driving a revival as more people seek to reconnect with the past.

“There is a growing trend now. There are more people who want to learn about traditional tattooing — I am very happy about it,” said Herpianto Hendra, a tattoo artist who uses the ancient method and is a member of Borneo’s Dayak tribespeople. “I am proud that my culture is being recognized.”

The body art ranges from flowers inspired by Dayak coming-of-age tattoos to black lines running across the body, like those of indigenous peoples on a remote scattering of islands in western Indonesia.

The festival early this month in the village of Maguwoharjo in Java’s cultural heartland gathered people from across Indonesia and the world at the studio of the celebrated Indonesian tattoo artist Durga, a leading figure in the revival.

Durga has championed tattoos from the western Mentawai islands, home to a seminomadic tribespeople famed for their body art and the practice of sharpening their teeth, which they believe makes them more beautiful.

Mentawai tattoos, generally long lines looping over the shoulders and chest and more elaborate patterns on feet and hands, were long part of local culture and signified the tribespeople’s close links to nature.

The other well-known body art from Indonesia is found among the Dayaks, an array of seminomadic tribes who traditionally lived in the jungles and mountains of the vast biodiverse island of Borneo, which is shared between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Their tattoos featured thick black lines forming images inspired by nature such as flowers, leaves and animals, marking a person’s journey through life. Before headhunting was banned, Dayaks also received tattoos on their hands if they decapitated an enemy.

While not as well known, other indigenous groups also have tattooing traditions, such as those in the eastern Maluku Islands and the central island of Sumba.

But the tradition has been waning for decades after Christian missionaries and the Indonesian government sought to discourage what they saw as outdated tribal practices and as younger tribespeople moved away from villages to rapidly growing cities in search of better jobs and education.

The revival has been driven by a small group of contemporary tattoo artists, some who have learned “hand-tapping” methods from local tribes and have put a modern twist on ancient designs — increasingly popular among the young and hip living in Indonesian cities and abroad.

Lars Krutak, an American tattoo anthropologist, said people are drawn to ancient Indonesian designs because they are “unique, beautiful and deeply spiritual.”

“People living in big cities want to be rooted to something meaningful, especially if they plan to wear these tattoos on their bodies for the rest of their lives,” said Krutak, who has written an entry on Durga for the “World Atlas of Tattoo,” which features 100 tattoo artists.

In the capital, Jakarta, a small museum dedicated to indigenous body art has opened, housed in a ramshackle building filled with tribal paraphernalia and photos of tattooed indigenous people.

Hand-tapping regularly takes place at the museum, whose name, Bau Tanah, refers to the musty smell that emanates from the earth after heavy rains.

At a recent hand-tapping session, tattoo artist Ranu Khodir knelt down and applied the image of a dragon in Dayak style on the stomach of Saman, a motorbike taxi driver, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

An assistant stretched out Saman’s skin as he stayed stoically silent while the tattoo was applied.

Khodir, who is not from an indigenous group but looks every bit like the tribesmen whose work he reveres, with a wild mane of jet-black hair and motifs of stars and flowers covering his back, used to do machine tattooing but switched to hand-tapping a few years ago. “I want to defend traditional Indonesian culture,” he said.

There are downsides to the traditional methods — it takes many more hours for a tattoo to be applied by hand-tapping than with a machine.

Still, the old methods have been adapted for the modern world, with tattoo artists nowadays using sterilized needles and a light anesthetic to dull the pain. In the past in tribal areas, tattoos were applied with fish bones or long thorns.

Despite signs of a revival in some areas, experts warn that tattooing styles of tribes in more remote places could be forgotten.

“I fear this ancient traditional and artistic knowledge will soon be lost forever unless a concerted effort is made to record it immediately,” said Krutak, the American tattoo anthropologist.