Common Borneo Tattoo Motifs – Aso

Aso – Dog / Dragon Dog


|a. A stylised dog’s head |b. Two dog heads sharing one eye |c. A derivative of motif in Fig b, |d. A decorative version of the dog, derivative of Fig a. All sketches by Dr. A. W. Nieuwenhuis, 1904.

Dogs feature heavily in Kayan tattoos and other works of art. It was also very common to find mongrels and strays which have been adopted into Kenyah villages and allowed to roam about. The village dogs may enter houses as they wish and no person is allowed to kill one. However, the dog is not a sacred animal but still a dog is hardly kicked or beaten. The following figures show the diversity of the Aso tattoo, being quite up to the artist to depict it. Common elements are the ‘hooks’, the ‘eye (mata), and the claw-like legs (EB Haddon, 1905).

Tomb found at the district of Baram. Photograph © Dr. C. G. Seligmann, 1901.

Indeed, the Aso was such an integral part of Kayan and Kenyah life that this design has been carved as fretwork for many tombs of aristocratic women.


Significance of the Bunga Terung

The Bunga Terung, which translates to eggplant flower, is the first tattoo a Borneo male would receive. The Bunga Terung is a coming of age tattoo which marks the passage of a boy into manhood. The Bunga Terung has a spiral at the center of the eggplant flower, known as Tali Nyawa, which means the rope of life and is identical to the underside of a which symbolizes the beginning of a new life.

All the tattoos, following the eggplant flower, are like a diary. A young male would go out on his own to find knowledge and from each place he went to he would get one tattoo to mark not only where he is from but also where he has been. From each place the tattoos have different styles so the regional differences in his tattoos would tell the story of his journeys in life.