For Borneo's Dayak peoples, spirits embody everything: animals, plants, and humans. Many groups have drawn on this power by using images from nature in their tattoos, creating a composite of floral motifs using plants with curative or protective powers and powerful animal images.
Tattoos are created by artists who consult spirit guides to reveal a design. Among Borneo's Kayan people, women are the artists, a hereditary position passed from mother to daughter. Among the Iban, the largest and most feared indigenous group in Borneo, men apply the tattoos.
These tattoos are blue-black, made of soot or powdered charcoal, substances thought to ward off malevolent spirits. Some groups spike their pigment with charms—a ground-up piece of a meteorite or shard of animal bone—to make their tattoos even more powerful.
For the outline, the artist attaches up to five bamboo splinters or European needles to a stick. After dipping them in pigment, he or she taps them into the skin with a mallet. Solid areas are filled in with a circular configuration of 15 to 20 needles.
Traditionally, Dayak tattooing was performed in a sacred ritual among gathered tribe members. Among the Ngaju Dayak, Krutak said, the tattoo artist began with a sacrifice to ancestor spirits, killing a chicken or other fowl and spilling its blood.
After a period of chanting, the artist started an extremely painful tattooing process that often lasted six or eight hours. Some tattoos were applied over many weeks.
For coming-of-age tattoo rituals, the village men dressed in bark-cloth. This cloth, made from the paper mulberry tree, also draped corpses and was worn by widows.
Tattooing, like other initiation rites, symbolized both a passing away and a new beginning, a death and a life.
One Dayak group, the Iban, believe that the soul inhabits the head. Therefore, taking the head of one's enemy gives you their soul. Taking the head also conferred your victim's status, skill and power, which helped ensure farming success and fertility among the tribe.
Upon return from a successful head-hunting raid, participants were promptly recognized with tattoos inked on their fingers, usually images of anthropomorphic animals.
Head-hunting was made illegal over a century ago—but even today, an occasional head is still taken.
Borneo Scorpion Tattoo
One of the great islands of the world, is part of the Malay Archipelago located southwest of the Philippines. It is also one of the few places today where tattooing continues to be practiced in a tradition that may stretch back thousands of years. Although it is but an island, it is home to several native subgroups: the Iban (also called the Sea Dayak), Kayan, Kenyah, and Land Dayak. Often times, though, these peoples are grouped under the single term Dayak, used to refer to any of the indigenous people of the interior of this lush and mountainous island. In the late 1800s, anthropologists started to become interested in the traditional cultures of the peoples of the region and several investigative expeditions were mounted. From these, as well as the work of modern researchers, we are provided a rare glimpse behind some of the symbols at work in tattooing and the meanings that they hold. As with many indigenous forms of tattooing around the globe, the art of tattooing was not simply art for arts sake. Instead, tattooing was an integral part of the culture, a ritual expression, specifically connected with spiritual beliefs. The scorpion symbol, also sometimes known as kala, was noted particularly in Iban tattoo designs by Charles Hose (a civil officer who worked in Borneo over twenty years) and William McDougall (an English anthropologist) in their 1912 publication The Pagan Tribes of Borneo. However, the authors note that the “scorpion” design is actually based on the highly stylized image of the aso, the mythical dog/dragon associated with protection from malevolent spirits. Hose and McDougall suggest that the Iban adopted their tattoo designs from other subgroups on the island and created their own interpretations afterwards.
In the kala design, the claws of the scorpion were originally the back end of the dog while the hooked ends at the back of the scorpion design were originally the open jaws of the mouth of the dog. Although it has no particular significance in the scorpion design, even the rosette-like eye of the dog still persists in the center.