Learn more
Tattoo as journey through life – about traditional Indonesian tattoo culture
The art of tattooing and body painting played an important part in daily lives of ancient tribal cultures in the archipelago. It was believed that all crucial events of human's experience need to be marked on a body to present a life-long transformation to the world. Getting a tattoo itself was celebrated as a rite of passage and performed within a special sacred ceremony, with all the community involved.


The ethnic tribes, who marked some of the most characteristic body art works are Dayak and Mentawai tribes. Dayak (meaning 'interior' or 'inland' person) is a term describing a variety of indigenous tribes of Borneo island, each with own language and distinguished culture. The Mentawai people belong to a semi-nomadic tribe, living in the little islands in West Sumatra, who until today managed to keep their traditional ways of life, far from a modern society.


Dayak and Mentawai-style tattoos are made with technique known as 'hand-tapping', where tattooists use ink-covered needles (originally – fish bones or long thorns) attached to wooden sticks and repeatedly tap it into the skin of a tattooed person. This practice made tattooing an extremely painful experience, where finishing a tattoo could take between 6-8 hours and some tattoos were applied over many weeks.


Dayak people believe that spirits embody everything in the world, therefore they use images of floral & animalistic motives, using plants with curative and protective meaning, as well as powerful animals representations. During a traditional tattooing ceremony, there was usually an animal sacrifice being made and after, the artist waited for the spirits to reveal the tattoo design. Dayak tattoos feature images with thick black lines to mark a person's journey from the day of birth to death. Among the most significant tattoos to gain, especially by young boys, were anthropomorphic images of animals inked on the fingers after a successful head-hunting raid, as according to the culture – taking the head of one's enemy, could give you their soul.


Tattoos in Mentawai tribes were traditionally done only by men and considered proud marks of a complete warrior. Applying the same technique, tattoos depict generally long thin lines looping over the shoulders and chest part, with more elaborate motives on feet and hands. The patterns were mostly geometric figures, forming more complex configurations of lines and dots with different lenghts and shapes. Drawing a line through the person's body meant here a connection the human will always have with the nature and Earth. It was also illustrating a source of strenght and vital powers.


Nowadays in Indonesia, there is a visible trend to re-connect with the ancient tradition of tribal tattoo works and many artists take journey to the island of Borneo and Mentawai to learn how to apply the 'hand-tapping' technique and discover the most essential tattoo designs. There are also tattoo festivals taking place in Java, Bali or Borneo islands, gathered people from throughout Indonesia and foreign visitors.


The most fascinating part about the Indonesian tattoo culture is the way tradition blends here with the modernity and creates yet new forms representing the indigenous tribes values to the contemporary society. The world of body art work in Indonesia is a whole complex chapter to discover, so feel inspired and add it to your experience list, while interning in the archipelago!

Whant to offer a internship? Let us know!