Scarification means making deliberate cuts to the skin, and is an
ancient art still practiced in many cultures today. The decorative scars
are used to confer beauty, status, protection, and identity to the bearers.
Tattooing is one way of scarification. Tattooing is probably the most
popular form of body adornment today. Although the art of tattooing has
been around for quite a while, the word ‘tattoo’ is relatively new. The
word tattoo originated from the Tahitian word “tatu” which means to “mark
something” (Oxford dictionary). Captain James Cook introduced the word
‘tattoo’ shortly after the word ‘taboo’ to the English speakers. The
earliest use of the word was found in Captain Cook’s diary in 1769. The
first electric machine was invented by Samuel O’ Reilley which was improved
upon an earlier tattoo machine that was created by Thomas Edison.
There are three types of tattoos. One example would be the decorative
tattoo which is the most common and are usually placed on the skin for
decorative purposes. Some are homemade with needle and India ink; others
are professionally applied with a tattoo gun using one or more colors of
tattoo ink. Professional tattoos are deeper, contain more ink, and are more
difficult to remove. The second type of tattoo would be the Cosmetic tattoo
which is known as micro- pigmentation or permanent cosmetics. This type of
tattoo is used as permanent eyeliner, lip liner, lipstick, and other
permanent cosmetic purposes. This type of tattoo is also used to cover skin
pigment disorders, scars and other blemishes. The third type of tattoo
would be Traumatic tattoos which are foreign substances, such as dirt, that
are embedded in the skin through an accidental injury.
Sarawakian tattoos are categorized under decorative tattoos, under
tribal tattoos. It is strongly believed that tattooing among the Dayak
tribe, one of the largest tribe in Sarawak originated from China. Among the
tribes in Borneo, tattooing is often associated with head hunting which is
a visible sign of success for men and the coming age of women, as in some
cases, it the tattoos symbolizes their status. Tattoos are part of the
“rites of passage” and next to blackened teeth and long ear-lobes,
intricate tattoos on fingers, hands, lower arms, thighs, calves, and feet
served as important elements of beauty for women. The darker the color of
the tattoo, the better it is seen as.
In Borneo, women have tattoos on their forearms in symbols to signify
their skill. For example, if a woman wore a symbol indicating she was a
skilled weaver, her status as prime marriageable material was increased.
Tattoos around the wrist and fingers were believed to ward away illness.
Another tribe in Borneo would be the Apo-Kayans. They are a subgroup of the
Dayak people. Apo Kayan means the Kayan hill country bordering Sarawak- “A
young woman’s social position is also indicated, among other things, by the
number of rings around the calves of her legs. It appears originally the
significance of the tattooing was as a protective device.” (Tillema ca.
1924-1927 1989) This in fact facilitated them to travel to the land of the
ancestors. Tattooing of women affects men in very objectionable ways as the
outcome of the magic it works. Consequently, it is only permitted at
intervals of six years or more, and when the process is completed, a
celebration is held. The festivity counteracts the bad influences which
threaten the men. But women sometimes go ahead with it anyway, without the
chief’s consent, and they then go to the Ma Kulit, a tribe known for its
skillful tattooing of women.
In the old days, almost all Dayak men tattooed their bodies. But in
some Dayak sub-tribes, such as the Dayak Kayaan, it is mostly the women,
who were tattooed. Not many men were tattooed due to the requirements and
restrictions. Kayaan men are tattooed only if they have been mengayo (head-
hunting). If a Kayaan man has a tattoo on the upper part of his thumb, it
means that he once went head-hunting. A headhunter is respected by members
of his tribe. For Kayaan women, the tattoo symbolises beauty and pride. A
Kayaan woman who does not have a tattoo considers herself lower in rank to
those who have them.
There are three types of tattoos for Kayaan women. The first one,
tedak kasaa’ covers the entire part of a woman’s legs and is only for
grownups. The tedak uses’ covers her arms while tedak hapii’ covers her
A series of ritual ceremonies should be performed before getting a
Dayak Kenyah people tattoo their bodies inside a house especially built for
the occasion. It is accompanied by certain ritual ceremonies. When a man is
tattooed, every male member of his family is required to wear cawat (men’s
tribal wear) and they are not allowed to leave the house, while all members
of his family should refrain from doing certain things. If the requirements
and restrictions are violated the life of the man being tattooed will be
A rite called mela malam, or praying for the help of ancestors in the
tattooing process, is performed the night before a Kayaan woman is
tattooed. The next morning, her family will take the woman to a relative’s
longhouse near the house of the tattoo
Each Dayak ethnic group tattoos a different body part. Dayak Ngaju, Iban,
Punan and Ot Danum people tattoo all parts of their bodies.
The Dusun tribe which is near Mt. Kinabalu Tambunan Valley, the
bordering chiefs (Muslim chiefs) used to reconcile the Dusun by giving the
aggrieved community some slave to dispose of; this is done by tying the
slave up and spearing him through the thorax, then the men of the village
each take a cut at the quivering body (slowly bleeding them to death).
Whoever that does this has the right to tattoo himself. (Alman 1963).
These days, the art of tattooing among the Dayak has almost vanished.
Some tribes still practice it, but it is mostly carried out by older
groups. Dayak youngsters long deserted the practice and if some of them
still do it, it is simply for aesthetic reasons. Today, it is viewed more
as a form of art rather than culture; it is one way of expressing oneself.
It is also a way of re-discovering their heritage and adorning their bodies
with images to bring them closer to their roots.
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(1999). Early Tatoos of Borneo. Retrieved February 9, 2004 from
the World Wide Web: www.vanishingtatoo.com/borneo_tatoos.htm
(2002). Decorative Arts. Retrieved February 9, 2004 from the World
Wide Web: www.meuseum.sarawak.gov.my/decorative.html
(2003). Borneo Ink Tattoos. Retrieved February 9, 2004 from the
World Wide Web: http:// www.borneoink.com
Tattoo Definition. Retrieved March 20, 2004 from the World Wide
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Gateway Aesthetic Institute and Laser Center. Types of Tattoos .
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A Brief History of Tattoos . Retrieved March 20, 2004 from the
World Wide Web: http://www.powerverbs.com/tattooyou/history.htm
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Interview : 8-3, Jalan 27/70A, Desa Sri Hartamas, 50480 Kuala
Tillema, H.F. 1989. A Journey Among the Peoples of Central Borneo in Word
and Picture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.