Tattoos Are More Intricate Than Most People Care To Know

On 3 December 2019, I met a Sarawakian tattoo artist when I went to a tattoo parlour with a coworker. We were there to get her tattoo touched up.

A pretty timely experience considering the tattoo debacle that recently happened in Malaysia. A lot of Malaysians came forward to defend tattoo culture but the problem for me was not just the stigma that many Malaysians have against tattoos.

What was particularly distressing to me was how quick other Malaysians were to dismiss and invalidate our indigenous culture. Many were proudly ignorant of its importance.

When told that tattoos played a significant role in the culture of our East Malaysian counterparts, many said: “Well, don’t bring it to Peninsular then.”

Some even went as far as to say that Bornean culture is backward and regressive! They do not care about the implications of stigmatising tattoos and the effect that it will have on indigenous people.

Tattooed hands of a Kayan woman. Photo Source: Lars Krutak

The tattoo artist we met told us that tattoos weren’t just a form of identity to tribes; they were, and continue to be, a form of protection.

Flipping through a book of Borneo tattoo designs, she went on to explain that the beholder determines the meaning behind a design. The designs are usually an intricate combination of human, animal, and plant motifs.

However, what is most important is the flow of the tattoo. The placement of the designs next to each other and their placements on a person’s body holds significant meaning.

She told us about the Bunga Terung tattoo of the Iban men and how it guided them as lights in the afterlife. She said to us that the length of the tattoo on a Kenyah-Kayan woman’s arm indicated her social status.

Henry Golding, Sarawakian actor who is best known for his role in Crazy, Rich Asians, has the Bunga Terung tattoo. He is of Iban heritage. Photo Source: Malaysian Tatler

Tribal tattoos have evolved, so it is common to see many people combining modern and traditional designs. It has also turned into a form of art.

Inking a modern tribal tattoo is delicate work as the tattoo artist has to make sure they do not disrespect the meaning behind the traditional design.

The rising popularity of tribal tattoos thanks to celebrities (like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) may tempt you to get one, but be sure to consult in a tattoo artist first.

There are a handful of conscientious Bornean artists who will first question your intention of getting a tribal tattoo as they believe it is not one to be taken lightly.

We were told that people had been told off in New Zealand for their carelessly placed Maori tattoos!

Dwayne Johnson sporting a Polynesian piece on his left arm and shoulder. Every symbol in this big piece has a meaning and tells an intricate story.

Many indigenous people are aware there are aspects of their culture they can no longer practice, e.g. headhunting. So they keep their culture alive through musicentrepreneurship, and art — which includes tattoos and tattooing.

It’s unfortunate that throughout the years, tattoos have been stigmatised. Inked people are stereotyped as uncouth, and even when told it is culture, people will say “We don’t want it here.”

Photo Source: Robinson Mike

It is bad enough you’re unappreciated, now you heard from the horse’s mouth themselves that they do not welcome your culture.

Our indigenous people and their culture have turned into mere tourist curiosities. We capitalise on their rich heritage to paint Malaysia as a multicultural country. We pride them only when it benefits us.

But in reality, we treat them as mere History chapters. There seems to be an active effort to erase them and to rewrite history.

Indigenous people deserve better.


  1. Malaysia Orders Inquiry Over Half-Naked Tattoo Show
  2. M’sians Are Defending Tattoo Culture After Local Convention Was Criticised as ‘Vulgar’
  4. Tribal tattoos: From a rite of passage to trendy body art

This article was originally published on Medium.