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.


Tahiti & “Tattoo History” by S. Gilbert (Pt. 3)

The island of Moorea

I was lucky enough to go to Tahiti on my honeymoon…what seems like eons ago. It was my first expedition outside of the U.S. (with the exception of tequila missions to Tijuana, which just doesn’t count). Being a quasi-young newlywed guy guarding his pocketbook, Lance steered clear of the touristic (and pricey) island of Bora Bora and headed to the less visited Moorea and the remote Huahini. I was so “checked out” for the first 30 years of my life that I have very few solid memories…but, it’s odd…I do remember Tahiti…vividly. I think my recycled soul knew it was close to home…

I can remember exactly what it looked like – our huts just feet from the vividly turquoise water, the trade winds that we swore were going to rip off our thatched roof, the lush green of the interior countryside and central rain forest, the crumbling ruins, the sunset cocktail cruises, the crappy food (with the exception of the local dolphin delicacy that we broke down and ate…on our last day). I can still see the people…who were stunningly beautiful with the kindest of eyes. I don’t remember seeing any tattoos, but then I wouldn’t have been too attracted to them at the time…at least not on a conscious level.

The island of Huahini

I have several worthy memories from this two weeks of my life…

  • It was here that I took the first baby step out of my “box”…the only step I would take for many, many years, but one that would never leave me. The French colonizers didn’t make the Polynesians put all their clothes on when they took over…even in 1991, it was the norm to sunbathe topless. I am proud to say that I pushed myself to observe this local custom…and I had a mild sunburn to prove it!
  • I remember a beautiful girl who was staying at our resort in Huahini. She appeared to be an aspiring model with two drooling guys following her every move with their eyes – and their cameras. They were so young and free…and having an amazing experience. Of course, my conscious self judged her…but, my unconscious self wished I was brave enough to have such an exotic and thrilling adventure. Deep down I admired her and she would inspire me to be brave many years in the future. I sometimes wonder who she has become and if that experience is one of her most treasured memories.
  • On our second night in Huahini, I walked out of the humid shower into the humid room. As I dried my hair with a towel, a flash of movement caught my eye. I hit the floor…Lance gaping at me as if I had completely lost it. I struggled to get the words out…there was a man staring at me through the crack in the drapes!!! When I made eye contact with him, he turned and ran…I scrambled to the window and saw him disappear into the trees. Apparently the locals didn’t seem to miss movie theaters or televisions…the visiting honeymooners provided plenty of free entertainment!
  • And, then there was the moment that Lance tried to kill me…where the reef met the tide. I was not happy that he paddled the kayak right up to the point that we were told to avoid…I was both fuming and panicking while he happily snorkeled more than 50 feet away and I frantically struggled to stop myself from drifting out to die. I weighed 98 pounds when we got in the kayak…when I got back to shore, I weighed 90. And, I’m sure that I will die five years earlier than I should because of that experience.

I can’t wait to go back…I definitely feel a connection to the Polynesian culture. On my next visit, I will definitely be checking out tattoos – and abiding by all of the local customs, of course. Oh, and I think I’ll blow a kiss to the Polynesian peeping tom. 🙂

In Tattoo History (see the link at right to buy this amazing book), Steve Gilbert writes about the first accounts of Polynesian tattoos. We have Captain James Cook of England – and his naturalist, Joseph Banks – to thank for this peek into the past. The first voyage to the islands began in 1768, and lasted three years. Here are some of Banks’ writings on tattoos:

“I shall now mention their method of painting their bodies or ‘tattow’ as it is called in their language.” [We still use the same word today…there was no word in any Western language for this form of art.]

“Their method of doing it I will now describe. The color they use is lamp black which they prepare from the smoke of a kind of oily nuts used by them instead of candles. This is kept in coconut shells and mixed with water occasionally for use. Their instruments for pricking this under the skin are made of bone and shell, flat, the lower part of this is cut into sharp teeth from 3 to 20 according to the purpose it is to be used for and the upper fastened to a handle. These teeth are dipped into the black liquor and then driven by quick sharp blows struck upon the handle with a stick for that purpose into the skin so deep that every stroke is followed by a small quantity of blood…”

“…all the islanders I have seen (except those of Ohiteroa) agree in having all their buttocks covered with a deep black…”

“I saw this operation performed on the fifth of July on the buttocks of a girl about 14 years of age. For some time she bore it with great resolution, but afterwards began to complain and in a little time grew so outrageous that all the threats and force her friends could use could hardly oblige her to endure it.” (Tattoo History by Steve Gilbert, Pages 36-37)

I’m so grateful for technological advancements in tattooing, so my friends didn’t have to sit on me while Luis decorated my body…

“Tattoo History” by S. Gilbert (Part 2)

Okay, so some of you know me and some of you don’t. I hope the ones that do would categorize me as “open-minded”, but not “out there”. I’d like to assure the ones that don’t, that this is the case. Now, you can read on…

I got my tattoo last December. I will always remember the moment that I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and studied it for the first time…the strangest feeling immediately and completely overwhelmed me. It’s hard to put into words, but it was similar to that feeling you get when you come home after being away for awhile or when you are reconnected to someone who you have been separated from for far too long. It was a blend of familiarity, relief and happiness. I remember hearing inside my head “Finally!” and knowing to my core that my tattoo was supposed to be on my body. I was pretty taken aback…this was coming from somewhere deep in my subconscious. I instantly remembered what happened while recently reading James Michener’s book Hawaii…I had an intense connection to the Tahitian tribe (the ancestors of the native Hawaiians). When Michener wrote about the way they lived, their spirituality, and their belief system, I marveled at how it was exactly the way I think and I have absolutely no cultural connection with anything Polynesian. There were other things too…all my life, I’ve known that the way I feel when I hear tribal-style drumming is far from “normal”. It moves me…transports me to another place. I have to dance. And, the way I feel when I’m in Kauai has nothing to do with being a tourist…it’s like I belong in a place like this. (I remember having this exact same feeling on my honeymoon in Tahiti 20 years ago, but I shoved it down to a place I kept hidden until recently.) When I put all these things together – here’s where you have to remember that I’m not “out there”! – I began to wonder if my soul had been recycled at some point in time. Was it possible that it had previously resided on some remote Polynesian island? Well, if it did, it was having a damn good time dancing to those tribal drums next to the ocean! I had never even thought about reincarnation before (I was too busy being a suburban mom), but I do believe I’m going to be doing some investigating…

Now you know why Chapter 2 – “Polynesia” – in Tattoo History was of particular interest to me…

According to Wikipedia, Polynesia “is a subregion of Oceania, comprising a large grouping of over 1,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean.” It includes, but is not limited to, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Easter Island, and Hawaii. The ancient Polynesians were far from savages…they were deeply spiritual, navigated unbelievable distances using the stars as their guide, and were sophisticated artists.

When I started reading, I was disappointed – but not surprised – to find out that very little is known about tattooing in Polynesia and what little is known is from the perspective of the Europeans, not the natives. I have never wanted one of my three wishes – to time travel backward (never forward) – to be granted so badly! It’s not a surprise that Steve Gilbert – and many others – proclaim Polynesian tattooing as “the most intricate and skillful tattooing in the ancient world.” Sophisticated geometric designs were started during young adulthood (younger than today’s young adults) and expanded throughout a lifetime until they covered a person’s entire body. Both men and women were tattooed, but for different reasons and with different designs.

Why were the Polynesians so advanced in the arts? The theory is that in addition to desire and ability, they had time. Lots and lots of it. Because life was easy for them living in “Paradise” – no struggles for food and geographical protection from predators, enemies and disease – they could devote themselves to art. According to SG, “Everything they made was decorated: canoes, bowls, war clubs and tools. Even their bodies were punctured with elaborate designs.” I can definitely relate…

How did they do it – and as well as today’s tattoo artists who benefit from technology? They started with a bone, which was chiseled into a “comb-like series of pointed teeth” and attached it to a wood handle. They mixed soot and water together to make black ink. Add a small mallet into the mix and they had all that they needed to create masterpieces. There are still Polynesian tattoo artists who will only tattoo using this ancient method.

Although some early European visitors were enlightened, most were missionaries who viewed tattooing as evil because it was an outward symbol of the Polynesians’ superstitious and savage religion. Later, European settlers viewed tattooing as a resistance to their ways so it was outlawed. Thank God for rebels! When James Cook returned to Europe, people saw members of his crew decorated with Polynesian tattoos and a fad was started. The first tattoo artists were former sailors who had observed the native artists, practiced it on the ships, and opened up shops when they got back home.

Since getting my tattoo, I wondered how such a beautiful – and widespread – ancient art became trivialized as rebellious and distasteful by mainstream society. Now, I get it…because it was a threat to Christianity and the “Western way”, which were perceived as superior to every other religion and culture. I also understand more of that feeling that washed over me when I first looked at my tattoo…in addition to being a possible connection to a recycled soul, I was appreciating that it was an outward sign that I don’t buy into this narrow-minded opinion. And, that I’m a bit of a rebel :)…

For those of you who are interested, here is a long excerpt from the book (p. 26-27)…it’s a first-hand account of Polynesians and tattooing written in 1813 by Georg H. von Langsdorff in Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World.

“The most remarkable and interesting manner which the South-sea islanders have of ornamenting their naked bodies consists in punctuation, or, as they call it, tattooing. This kind of decoration, so common among many nations of the earth, merits greater attention fron travelers than it has hitherto received. It is undoubtedly very striking, that nations perfectly remote from each other, who have no means of intercourse whatever, and according to what appears to us never could have had any, should yet be all agreed in this practice.

Among all the known nations of the earth, none has carried the art of tattooing to so high a degree of perfection as the inhabitants of Washington’s Islands [the Marquesas]. The regular designs with which the bodies of the men of Nukuhiva are punctured from heat to foot supplies in some sort the absence of clothing; for, under so warm a heaven, clothing would be insupportable to them. Many people here seek as much to obtain distinction by the symmetry and regularity with which they are tattooed, as among us by the elegant manner in which they are dressed; and although no real elevation is designated by the greater superiority of these decorations, yet as only persons of rank can afford to be at the expense attendant upon any refinement in the ornament, it does become in fact a badge of distinction.

The operation of tattooing is performed by certain persons, who gain their livelihood from it entirely, and I presume that those who perform it with the greatest dexterity, and evince the greatest degree of taste in the disposition of the ornaments, are as much south after as among us a particularly good tailor. This much, however, must be said, that the choice made is not a matter of equal indifference with them as it is with us; for if the punctured garment be spoiled in the making, the mischief is irreparable, and it must be worn with all its faults the whole life through.”

The rest of the excerpt is a fascinating account of the tattooing of the chief’s son and details of the local tattoo designs. This is a GREAT book…click on the link on the right to buy it (although I wish I got royalties, I do not!).

“Tattoo History” by S. Gilbert (Part 1)

Back when I was a “Perfect Mom”, I started a family tradition of giving my husband and two kids a book each New Year’s Day. Being the woman that I am, I spend months searching for THE book…one that nails one of their interests or somehow applies to their life at that time. For the first several years, it escaped my husband that I was part of the tradition, but he finally got it (he may have been clued in by my snide comment “Hmmmm, I wonder where the hell MY book is???”). Being a man like every other man, he starts searching for my book on December 31…so I usually end up with something that is in stock at Barnes & Noble and only moderately interesting. (BUT, I give him big cudos for doing the deed because I’m definitely not a naggy wife.) My “awakening” in 2009 (see my other WordPress blog – “A Student of the Four Agreements”) must have rubbed off on him a tiny bit because this year he woke up! He actually put major thought and effort into finding my book and…he nailed it! About a week after the start of 2010 (OK, it was a little late, but who the hell cares?), I was climbing into bed and just about sat on my book…Tattoo History by Steve Gilbert. As I read it (slowly), I’m going to share some highlights that I found intriguing on this blog…

In the intro entitled “Confessions of a Tattoo Addict”, Steve tells how his lifelong interest in tattoos began when he was 10 years old during WWII. He shared his interest with his father who proceeded to tell him that “only criminals, savages, and feeble-minded people had tattoos”. (Mmmm…I think I may have legitimately thrown that gentleman for a loop!). Fortunately, Steve was not swayed (“Dad meant well and he was right about a lot of things, but not about that.”). He thought tattoos were “dangerous and fascinating” and spoke to him of “travel, adventure, danger, and sex”. (Wow…I feel exactly the same.) He grew up to be a tattoo artist, medical illustrator and freelance writer. In 2000, he wrote his book, which is a compilation of “historical writings about tattooing in various parts of the world from the seventeenth century to the present.”

It’s very easy for people who aren’t up on history to dismiss tattooing as simply freakish, rebellious, or trendy. But, the fact is that it is so much more than that. Scientists have found proof of tattooing dating back to 38,000 BC and unearthed numerous Egyptian, South American, and Eastern European/Asian mummies with tattoos adorning their bodies. There no doubt that there is deep social, religious and even therapeutic significance to tattoos. The appearance of societies and people has changed dramatically, but, for many, the underlying fascination with tattooing has not.

In the first chapter (entitled “Ancient History”), Steve mentions that “the earliest known tattoo that is a picture of something, rather than an abstract pattern, represents the god Bes.”

According to the Ancient Egypt: The Mythology website, “Bes was the god of music and dance, the god of war and slaughter, and a destroying force of nature. He was also a protector of children. (

The Greeks and Romans? Not so hot on tattoos…except for their barbarian slaves, mercenaries, and criminals. According to Steve, “the Latin word for ‘tattoo’ was stigma…among the definitions of ‘stigma’ listed by Webster are a ‘prick with a pointed instrument,’…’a distinguishing mark…but into the flesh of a slave or a criminal,’ and ‘a mark of disgrace or reproach’.” Starting in 787 AD, Pope Hadrian banned tattoos, which continued until the 19th century. No wonder Steve’s father – and so many other Westerners – have narrow and/or negative views about tattoos.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make my own preliminary conclusion (based on what I read in the first chapter of Tattoo History coupled with my own gut feeling)…tattooing was practiced widely in those societies where there was open expression of sensuality, eroticism, and emotion that was tied in with their religion. In those societies characterized by rigidity and a repression of human sensuality and eroticism, tattoos became tabu. There are individuals that still connect to the ancient ways deep in their spirit and they are the ones who adorn their body to this day. At the very least, I know that applies to me and most of the people I have interviewed to date.

(Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Tattoo History by Steve Gilbert. See the link to the right to purchase this book.)