Borneo & “Tattoo History” by S. Gilbert (Pt. 4)

I’ve heard of Borneo, but sadly geography is one of my weaker subjects…I had no idea where it was. Until now…

In case it ever comes up in conversation ( 🙂 ), here are a few facts about Borneo:

  • Third largest island in the world (behind Greenland & New Guinea)
  • Home to three (mmmm…magical number for Borneo?) countries – Malaysia, Brunei & Indonesia
  • Almost 16 million inhabitants (as of 2005)
  • Many unique tribes (collectively known as the Dayak) had little contact with modern society until recently and still lived a Stone Age life

Borneo Tattoo Artist

Some Borneo tattoo facts:

  • Men tattooed largely for “ornamental” reasons, beginning at no set time during boyhood
  • It took up to 4 years to tattoo a girl (because of the intricacy and level of pain), usually starting at 10 years and ending once she was a mother
  • Dogs were a popular design; a rosette or star was often tattooed on the shoulders or breasts
  • At one time, women were the only ones to design and perform the tattooing, although men were allowed to carve the pattern design blocks
  • Traditional tools consisted of two “prickers” (wooden rods with needles imbedded in the head) and an “iron striker”; the pigment was a mix of “soot, water, and sugar cane juice” (Tattoo History, p. 42); designs, techniques & instruments appear to have been imported from other Polynesian islands
  • Natives still practice traditional tribal tattooing; few women are tattooed, but it’s still popular with men

Borneo Tattoo Designs

In Tattoo History, Steve Gilbert talks in detail about the fascinating tribal life and superstitions of the Dayak. Like head hunting, for instance…more important than territory was the head of an enemy. Heads – not land – were the motivation for warfare.

“When heads were brought home there was a great celebration at the longhouse of the victors. The heads were later skinned and dried over a fire, and the skulls were hung from the longhouse rafters. The skulls were believed to be a source of spiritual energy that would bring prosperity and good luck to the tribe that had taken them. They were kept warm, protected from the rain, and treated with great respect. Only elders were allowed to touch them.” (Tattoo History, p. 39)

Head hunter skull from Borneo

Once a tribal member obtained a head, they were tattooed on their hand. If one didn’t have a hand tattoo, your prospects weren’t so good after death.

“A spirit called Maligang guarded the River [of the Dead]. If the soul could show Maligang a tattooed hand, Maligang would allow it to cross the river on a log….But if Maligang saw that the sould had no hand tattoo, he would roll and tip the log when the soul tried to cross the river, and the soul would fall into the water to be eaten by maggots.” (Tattoo History, p. 40)

Some damn good motivation to be a headhunter while living! (God help if you were a male in some of the tribes…I’ll leave penis piercing to your imagination. Or, you can read about it in detail on page 40.)

As with other aboriginal tribes still in existence today, the Dayak’s lifestyle is seriously threatened. Immigration and deforestation are destroying their ancient way of life. So sad…

To read about the history of tattooing in more detail, click on the link to the upper right to buy the book Tattoo History by Steve Gilbert.



  1. Hmm. . The Dayak no longer practise headhuntings nowdays =) . They are civilized. In North Borneo they no longer live in a stone age. I’m not sure about South Borneo. How do I know? I’m from Borneo =D and a Dayak.

    • Well, that’s good to hear! What a fascinating (and spiritual) history your island has…if I ever get to visit there, I will be sure and head to the north. 😉

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