Hands tell us a lot about the people we meet. In the West, we greet each other with a handshake, and Giorgio Gaber, an Italian singer, composer, actor and playwright, even wrote a song about them: ‘Le mani’. 

-“A civilised meeting between polite people who stand up and greet each other, a somewhat anonymous meeting made more human by a cordial handshake”. He then continues ‘singing’ different types of hands, with the subtle irony that has always distinguished this artist.

It is a fact: in Europe, when we shake hands in that first meeting, we can get an idea of ​​the person we are facing straight away. Moreover, precisely from that initial handshake, we form a judgment that immediately becomes a verdict, often without appeal, upon the character encountered.

Tattoos in Borneo

When you leave the national borders and you find yourself wandering in the third largest island in the world, even there you realise that the hands can tell you something about an interlocutor. If this, for example, is an Iban, descendant of the Dayak population and, looking at the back of his hands, you notice some tattoos, well… While times have changed, the wisest decision to make is still to leave, and quickly. 

According to tradition, that tattoo called ‘tengulun’ means that the owner of that hand may have taken part in a headhunting expedition against someone belonging to an enemy tribe. This person may have returned home with at least one head detached from the shoulder of some unlucky guy as a souvenir.

Ill-fated and unlucky or, at least, very unforeseen, since it would probably have been enough to have a ‘pantang rekung’ tattooed on the throat. This tattoo is well-known to strengthen the skin, making it more resistant to the action of the ‘Parang Ilang’, the local sword, which is preparing to snoop behind your Adam’s apple annoyingly indiscreet. The ‘pantang rekung’ is in fact the second tattoo that Iban boys receive around the time of puberty.

Tattoos in modern times

Nowadays, in the civilised world, tattoos are considered a fashion, a body decoration, a way to make a memory or a situation eternal, and at least an act of rebellion. Frankly, however, I believe that tattoos are not elements that particularly reflect our culture, so much so that, in the first place, getting tattooed is a relatively recent practice and, secondly, almost always the designs we imprint on our skin are part of other cultures, such as that of the Maori or the Japanese.

Far be it from me, of course, to express judgments on anyone who has their skin engraved with any type of design: everyone is free to do what they want with their own bodies. Moreover, here I do not intend to speak of a more or less recent Western fashion. I speak instead of people who have made tattoos a kind of logbook of their existence, imprinting themselves on the body with an indelible testimony of what is called the ‘bejalai’, which means journey, wandering, and the path of one’s life.

Things that happen on the third largest island in the world.

Sarawakian people

We are in the Malaysian Borneo, more precisely in Sarawak, meandering between Kuching‘s Rainforest World Music Festival and Miri‘s Borneo Jazz. And it is precisely in Miri, as part of this latest event, that we ​​stumble upon Ukir Anyam Tattoo & Beauty Studio amongst the spaces dedicated to the various aspects of local life.

Local people, modern people, nice people with whom pleasantly exchanging a few words. Someone, like Sylvester, sports his dreadlocks; almost everyone has piercings and everyone, absolutely everyone, has a body covered with tattoos. After exchanging a few words, we realise that their tattoos are not the product of a trend, or perhaps of a passing fashion: they are precise symbols of an ancient culture that they do not intend to give up for any reason. For them, getting a traditional tattoo is a way of keeping Iban art and culture alive, my friend Seth tells me, even if, perhaps, one no longer believes in the magical and ritual meaning of tattooing.

Obviously there is nothing magical nor ritual in the current equipment used for tattooing: there are machines surmounted by an ink tank, a cross between a futuristic pen and a kind of printer. Their needles enter the skin at a speed of about fifty penetrations per second, reaching a layer of skin not subject to continuous cell changes. This is done to prevent these from regenerating themselves, hence deteriorating the tattoo in a short time.

Tattoos from the past

In the past, however, the techniques that were used were slower and more painful, and the tools used were more primitive. It was the time when the Dayak dressed in loincloths and adorned themselves with feathers and beads in everyday life and not only to participate in festivals; when the ‘Parang Ilang‘ was used to cut heads and not as an object to be put on display for sale; and when the bodies were covered with tattoos that were dictated by a form of spirituality, or were intended to tell fundamental moments in the life of the one who wore them. 

The tattoos were handmade with two wooden sticks: one of them had one or more bamboo spines called ‘kayok tatok’ at one end, and the other was used to strike the first stick in order to push the needle into the skin. These tattoos were made by artists who, in addition to having skilful hands and knowing how to dose their strength adequately, also consulted the spirits so they would reveal the right design to be chosen.

The first tattoo ran parallel to the aforementioned bejalai, so that this was engraved on one’s skin, and it was made when one was considered mature. The transition to adulthood was marked with the ‘bungai terung’, represented by a double spiral that it develops from the center of a black spot, taking the shape of a flower, the so-called aubergine flower. After that, the tradition continued according to the person’s experiences, which resulted in more bejalai and more tattoos. 

Seth explains to me that Iban tattoos were believed to protect against evil spirits and the bad, but it was also thought that they were a way ‘to remind the Gods of our existence’, and to allow them ‘to see us after we die’. To tribes like the Orang Ulu, tattoos represent a hallmark of the class they belong to, distinguishing the nobles from the lower class members.

Different meanings for different tribes, different meanings for different designs. And since the Iban believe that every living being has a soul and a spirit, their tattoos symbolise all animated beings.

But these are things of the past: Seth admits that his tattoos are just a way to remember his ancestors, to tell moments of his history and to keep this art form alive. “I don’t believe in their magical and spiritual meaning, yet tattoos are a part of my identity, of who I am”.

Photos by Guglielmo Zanchi (Pluto)
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About the author

Pluto, alias Guglielmo Zanchi, was born in Rome, Italy, on 19 December 1960. After obtaining a Degree in Political Science at the La Sapienza University and working six years at an accountant office, PLuto moved to Phuket, Thailand, in 1993. He had a short spell at a Gibbon Rehabilitation Center in the protected area of Bang Pae, then worked for 15 years for a local tour operator first in Phuket, and eventually in Krabi where he still lives since 2000. Pluto now works self employed in the tourist sector, managing to keep enough time free for his real passions: photography, travels and Vespa, at times merging the latter two. Pluto is one of photo reporters.

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