Early Kayan Tattoo Blocks


Here is a collection of Kayan tattoo blocks documented by Dr. A. W. Nieuwenhuis during his expedition to Borneo in early 1900s. I would like to post it here, because it clearly shows the size of the shoulder rosettes in relation with the arm motifs. The Kayan took pride in their craftsmanship, and have the greatest admiration for beauty. I hope to find a better picture than what I have now. But even with the following picture, one can see the excellent workmanship in the details of the rosette motifs.

tattoo blocks

Wooden blocks with figures used in tattooing. Left, shoulder rosettes. Right, arm figures.


Glow-In-The-Dark Tattoos



There is the interesting idea of getting a tattoo that is invisible under ordinary light. But when the tattooed area goes under a UV light, it comes alive! For this, there are approved ultraviolet reactive ink for tattoos.

Elements that glow in the dark without help from UV light contain phosphors – a substance that glows brightly after being ‘charged’ under another source of light. Inks with phosphors have been used in tattooing. However, none of them has been approved to be used. Why? Phosphors are a known carcinogen – to make phosphors more visible and emit more light, a tiny amount of radioactive substance is added.

Practice caution if you want to get one. Know what type of ink that is going under your skin.

Photograph © SLACKFERNO @ Flickr

For more black-light tattoos, check out these 18 Stunning Black-Light-Responsive Tattoos.

Stereoscopy In Tattoos – Anaglyph 3d



To begin, one must understand how rudimentary 3D vision works. A sense of perspective can be achieved with one eye, but two parallel eyes are needed to perceive depth and relative distances in space. The two separate images perceived by the eyes are merged by the brain to form a single picture. Englishman Charles Wheatstone, discovered a way to represent three-dimensional images on a flat surface in 1838.  At this same time, photography was invented almost simultaneously in France and England. With the discovery that stereoscopy is possible, ‘Stereoscopes’ or viewing equipment, were started to be created with two viewing lenses, each to look at two separate, but same, photographs.


A pair of antique, Victorian, stereoscopic cards with black and white photographic images of little children. By Kelley & Chadwick Publishers, Office: Chicago USA Studio © 1904, entitled “Give You A Penny For A Kiss & He Got The Kiss”

A stereoscope typical of ones from the 1900s. © Pearson Scott Foresman

A stereoscope typical of ones from the 1900s. © Pearson Scott Foresman

Anaglyph comes from two Greek words, “anagluphos”, which means “wrought in low relief” and the word “anagluphein”, which means “to carve in relief”. This process was pioneered in 1850 by two Frenchmen, Joseph D’Almeida and Louis Du Hauron. They created images where red and blue filters were used for color separation, and the viewer had to wear red and blue glasses to view the image with the intended effect: stereoscopic imagery – pictures with the illusion of depth.

A novel way of wearing tattoos will be getting it done in anaglyph 3D. The call for admiration of the tattoo workmanship more than makes up for the extra action of putting on 3D glasses to view it in a proper context. A quick search on the internet brought up only a few examples of 3D tattoos. This shows that there is potential for expansion of this quirky tattoo idea.

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Left) Courtesy of Joker the Tattoo Shop, Finland. Tattoo by Tuula Joka.

(Right) Courtesy of Lost Highway Tattoo, Belgium.


What if you’re afraid of needles?


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A quick method of leaving ink on skin in Borneo tattoo has been documented to exist at the time of needle application. The Kayans have actually used carved wooden blocks to help with the process of tattooing. Wooden blocks are carved with the relief of the tattoo designs, rubbed in ink, and stamped into the area of the body whereupon the design is gone over another time with hand-tapping tattoo (Hose C. and Shelford R., 1901).


Kayan tattoo stencil blocks, called “Kelingai” courtesy of Sarawak Museum.


Tattoo block used by the Kayan in Sarawak, Malaysia, from 1923. Courtesy of Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, England.


A carved wood tattooing ink block, featuring Aso motifs. From the late 19th century to early 20th century.

There are also rubber stamps marketed today that serve the same purpose; to act as a base for the tattoo artist to trace with needle application. Some also target wearers who wish to have temporary designs on their skin. Temporary tattoo types vary today, and range from water transfer sheets, to rubber stamp and ink, even to the use of a traditional material, the henna. One other growing use of temporary tattoos is to mark patrons for entry into an entertainment establishment or to big events like art festivals and music concerts. It is this later development that brought to public eye the interesting use of glow-in-the-dark ink.


An unmounted rubber stamp featuring a tattoo motif by “dragonflycurls” for sale on Etsy.

You can easily wear Borneo tattoos on your body, even without them being permanent ones. As we are moving forward today to new methods of application, one cannot overlook this extremely non-invasive, safe, and non-permanent way of wearing your favorite tattoo motif. Make your own tattoo stamps, have fun!

Am I wearing this right?


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There is a saying of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The classic Bunga Terung design being just that: classic, might not warrant a makeover. However, the traditional Bunga Terung tattoo has such a deep meaning behind it; 1) One on each shoulder for the ‘Berjalai’ journey to make you stronger to carry your travelling pack, 2) Protection, and 3) the centre coil to symbolise the transformation from a tadpole (young man) to maturity.

It is this profound relationship with a dying practise that it is better to preserve its status as an Iban tribal ritual antiquity than to have its importance diluted and misunderstood by being misused by today’s wearers. Tattoos are freely received and given out today in a contemporary society where self-expression in the form of body modification is part of a thriving industry. A very large majority of wearers will get a design based purely on aesthetics, and this unfortunately results in many instances of misapplication of tattoos; misinterpretation, wrong connotations, inappropriate location on the body, demeaning of tribal ritual tattoos and so forth (Christensen W., 2012) Most obvious of all, today’s wearers do not go on ‘Berjalai’ journeys, and many seekers are not of Borneo origins, let alone Iban.


A picture of a young man who wanted to get a tattoo but was afraid of needles. Picture by Alfred Charlie. The wearer is Iban.

Remember, the Bunga Terung must be done in pairs, for balancing and protecting both sides of your body. That being said, you are free to do as you please… after all tattooing is about personal expression. This post is just a gentle reminder as to the original function and intention of the Bunga Terung.

Deconstruction of the Bunga Terung


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As mentioned earlier in the blog, the Bunga Terung is a deviation of the Mata Aso. Here we will look at the components individually.

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The Bunga Terung motif, drawn by Sonny Jumpo.

‘Bunga’ is a Malay word for flower, and ‘Terung’ is Malay for brinjal, or eggplant. Do note that the Iban language contains many words adopted from the Malay language.

eggplant flower

The eggplant flower. Photograph © Juan Buitrago

The frog life cycle is significant to the Iban because of the connotation it has with the coming of age of a young man. This is represented by the coil, or ‘Tali Nyawa’.

According to the diagram, on the 70th day from the frog’s existence as an egg, the tadpole would have begun sprout the beginnings of hind legs. This is drawn in comparison to the Iban custom of a young men going into the jungle alone for the first time to fulfill a certain task, most often, the hunt for the first kill. The phrase for this in Iban is ‘Berjalai’, which means to walk. As the tadpole shows readiness to begin life on land, so is young man who is ready to walk into the world as a grown man. Before the young man embarks on his journey, he will receive two Bunga Terung, one on each shoulder. The Bunga Terung should never be worn as a single design. It must be in a pair to balance and to protect both sides of the body. It should also be noted that it is around this stage of a tadpole’s life cycle that the fully developed and pronounced intestinal coils can be seen through a transparent belly. ‘Tali Nyawa’ directly refers to the coil, and translates as ‘Rope of Life’.


Photograph © Cindy @ http://dipperanch.blogspot.com/


Photograph © Lydia Fucsko

tadpole specimen

Side, top and bottom view of a preserved tadpole specimen. Picture from the Municipality of Caldas, Novas, Goias, Brazil.

Why Tattoo?


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For the people of Borneo, as with all indigenous cultural practises of the world, getting a tattoo is closely associated with physical power and the spiritual world. In Borneo, the major indigenous population is divided into the Iban, Bidayuh, Kelabit and Melanau (Sarawak region), the Kadazan, Dusun and Murut (Sabah Region), the Ngaju (Kalimantan region), the Kayan, Kenyah and Penan (border of Sawarak and Kalimantan), and many other smaller indigenous groups. With the exception of the Bidayuh and Melanau, the men and women of these major groups have been documented to practise some form of traditional tattooing (Sellato, B., 1989).


Distribution of the major Borneo tribes, redrawn by author, based on this.

To the Borneo tribes, spirits symbolise everything from animals to plants to humans. Tattoo designs contain images from nature, merging motifs of plants and animals. Artists have to seek spiritual guidance for a design. For the Kayan, it is the women who are the artists, a highly-esteemed occupation that is passed down the female line. For the Iban, it is the men who have the job of applying tattoos. Inks are made from soot or powdered charcoal, which is thought to protect against evil spirits. This yielded designs of a deep bluish black after healing.

For more potency, there are cases where the tattoo colourant is mixed with ground-up meteorite shards that were found, and even the ivory of animal horns or bones (Krutak, L. 2007). Traditionally, tattooing among the Borneo people was performed in sacred rituals. For the Ngaju, the tattoo artist begins with an animal sacrifice to appease ancestral spirits. There will be ceremonial chanting before the painful process of hand-tapped tattooing that will last six to eight hours per day until the final design is achieved, which can take days, weeks or even years (Guynup, S.  2004).

The Iban believed that a person’s soul resides in one’s head. This is why they practiced the trophy taking of heads in a battle (Charles H., McDougall, and Haddon A.C., 1966). They believed that by taking the head, the victim’s powers and status will be transferred to the victor. This is thought to ensure a good harvest and to nurture the fertility of the tribe. After a fruitful attack on another village, successful warriors were recognised with tattoos on their fingers, usually stylized representation of anthropomorphic animals, called ‘tegulun’. Interestingly, some Iban head-hunters had extremely detailed tattoos covering the visible surface of his body, working in effect to both empower him into battle, and to camouflage himself from spirits living in the jungle. The chests and backs of older, more experienced warriors were covered with powerful images. Hornbills were preferred because they were believed to be a messenger of the war god, at the same time symbolising rank and reputation. The scorpion and the dragon dog were used as well, to repel evil jungle spirits. The Iban women were also bestowed tattoos for producing ‘pua kumbu’, a ritual blanket or wall hanging, with powerful images, patterns and incredible intricacy. Their tattoos of accomplishments took the forms of finger tattoos, and for the more skilful and senior weaver, the form of ‘pala tumpa’, meaning ‘heads of bracelets’ (Krutak, L. 2007).

Kayan girls who come into puberty received tattoos to mark them as adults of marriageable status and also for protection against evil spirits. As the women matured, the surface area of tattoos grew as well, collecting dense patterns wrapped around their legs, across the tops of their feet down to their toes, around forearms, and on fingers. However, that level of blanketed tattooed area only is only available for very wealthy Kayan women. It is because of the hefty payment involved to reward the work of the artist. Payments take the forms of swords, gongs, pigs, or beads. Only Kayan women were tattoo artists. When a Kayan warrior has taken the head of an enemy, he can have the back of his hands and fingers tattooed. But if he only played a small part in the ‘hunt, only one finger (almost always the thumb) can be tattooed. On the Mendalan River, the Kayan warriors are tattooed on the left thumb only and the thigh pattern is especially for those who have successfully brought back heads.


Thigh tattoos of an elderly Kayan woman of the Upper Rejang River.Today thigh tattoos are rarely seen on women younger than 70 years of age.  Photograph © Lars Krutak, 2003


A Kayan women receiving her tattoo, surrounded other children, all females. Picture courtesy of the Sarawak Museum.

Common Borneo Tattoo Motifs – Kelingai Kala, Lipan Kayip, Kowit, and Urang


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An extreme modification of the Kayan Aso tattoo.

a, b,c,d,e : Iban version of the Kayan Aso – tattoo blocks from the Sarawak Museum, (No.1054.102, No.1054.101, No.1054.67, No.1054.109, No.1054.70, respectively) | f : The Iban ‘ Kala’ (Scorpion) – tattoo block from the Sarawak Museum (No. 1054.69) | g, h : The Kenyah ‘Kowit’ (Hook) – tattoo blocks from the Sarawak Museum (No. 1054.63 and No.1054.75, respectively) | i : The Kenyah ‘Urang’ (Prawn) – tattoo block from the Sarawak Museum (No. 1054.89)

Common Borneo Tattoo Motifs – Mata Aso, Jalaut, Ipa Olim, Usung Dian, and Bunga Terung


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Tattooed on the shoulders of many Borneo warriors, two rosette motifs can be found, one on each shoulder. At the time this was written, reliable sources of Borneo tattoos and pagan practices could not pin point the true origins of this design. However, it is widely believed that it was a common Kayan design that spread out to other Borneo tribes, was adopted, with the meaning lost in translation. A remarkable account for this design comes from Charles Hose and R. Shelford (Materials For A Study of Tatu in Borneo, page 66). They explained that ‘Jalaut’ is most likely a new name for the ‘Mata Aso’, a stylized version of the Aso – minus the legs but with regular geometric or spiked edges. However, the Kayans in the 1900s have adopted Jalaut as the name of this design, but they have today returned to calling this design ‘Mata Aso’.


a.  Mata Aso, or, ‘Dog’s Eye’. – Charles Hose and R. Shelford, 1906
b.  Jalaut, or ‘Plukenetia Flower’. – Charles Hose and R. Shelford, 1906
c.  The plukenetia plant fruit, gathered and also cultivated as a vegetable.The plant which lent its name to a degraded rosette design of the original ‘Mata Aso’. Illustration © Anita Walsmit Sachs, 2004.

 The ‘Ipa Olim’, according to the Kenyah and Kayan people, is a stylised rendering of the opened fruit of a wild mango (Hose.C and Shelford R, 1901). Notice the similar rosette design of the ‘Mata Aso’, but with different edges. The double spiral swirl in the middle is probably a retained element of the eye of the Aso tattoo design. It is of interest to note that the mango tree species is not endemic to the Borneo jungle. This fruit is in fact brought over from India and has been cultivated successfully in the tropical regions over 6,000 years ago (Ensminger, 1994). It is logical to assume that this relatively new fruit has influenced the Borneo tribes somewhat, and has evolved to the following example of design.


The open mango fruit. Peeled like a banana to access the fragrant flesh inside. Image courtesy of Panam Properties © Richard Novey H.


The ‘Ipa Olim’, or mango flower, of the Kenyah people. Tattoo block from the Sarawak Museum (No.1054.14).

A peculiar weakness of the Borneo tribes is their love for the durian fruit, almost to the point of veneration. ‘Dusuns’, or orchards, of tropical fruits are a wealthy heritage of a village or a family. Men and women will make annual pilgrimages to collect durians, and these fruits are judged by their fragrance, softness, sweetness, colour, and succulence. It has become such a significant part of life that the Kenyah have durian rosettes tattooed on their shoulders, possibly to give them strength to bear basket straps, carrying their prized contents down from the dusuns.


Kenyah ‘Usung Dian’, representation the durian . Tattoo block from the Sarawak Museum (No.1054.17).


Lahanan man with variation of ‘Usung Dian’ on his  shoulders. Photograph © Lars Krutak, 2003

The King Of Fruits, the durian and the iconic prickly and thick outer shell. Picture from Wikipedia.

The edible part of the fruit, the seeds. Picture from Wikipedia.

Another deviation of the Kayan Mata Aso rosette is the Bunga Terung, which translates to eggplant flower. It is one the first tattoo an Iban male would receive. The Bunga Terung is a coming of age tattoo which marks the passage of a boy into manhood, a journey called “Berjalai”. All other tattoos, following the eggplant flower, are like a diary (Krutak L. 2007). This Iban version of the Kayan rosette has a meaningful and interesting explanation, especially the significance of the double spiral in the middle.

Possible influences of the Kayan ‘Aso’ design on subsequent rosette designs of the Kenyah and Iban.