Reclaiming One's Culture On Skin

strong>By Nina Muslim

KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) – Tattooist Eddie David has a way of dealing with outsiders wanting tribal tattoos from his Iban or other Polynesian cultures.

He gives them what they want but not the exact replica of the tattoos that adorn the skin of elders and traditional members of his and other tribes. 

“I make original designs (based on the style)... I do similar without (the design) being the actual thing. What we’re doing is basically a small way of getting our (culture) back,” he told Bernama, raising his voice slightly so that the writer can hear him over the buzzing sound of his tattoo pen. 

Rock music wafts over the speakers in the sterile-looking office suite in Mont Kiara here, where his shop Borneo Ink Tattoo is located. It is not loud but the mix of music and the sound of the tattoo pen does not encourage conversation.

Bearing a slight resemblance to skateboard legend Tony Hawk, albeit a lanky Asian version sporting several Iban tattoos, the 54-year-old traces the line art on the arm of the customer in front of him with the tattoo pen. The customer winces but soon settles down on the padded bench.

Iban tattoo artist Eddie David working on a tattoo in his studio, Borneo Ink Tattoo, in Sri Hartamas. --fotoBERNAMA (2023)

As an Iban, which has a strong culture of tattooing, Eddie takes cultural appropriation – which is when people outside a culture copy or adopt its influences without knowing anything about it – seriously. 

“It’s (cultural appropriation) nothing you can stop. Come on, man. You post anything online now, everybody is stealing,” he told Bernama.

In fact, one of his clients that day, who is originally from South Africa, plans to get a tattoo featuring the Kelabit Tree of Life to mark his nine years in Sarawak.

Eddie’s ambivalence is something more and more people are debating these days, understanding that cultures are deeply personal and not costumes that people can put on. Cultural tattoos, especially within the Asia Pacific region, have been undergoing a renaissance with members of the culture eager to get tattoos to reconnect even as outsiders are eager to add them as decoration.

However, this does not mean no one can wear, copy or use anything outside their culture. On the positive side, there is cultural appreciation which involves understanding and honouring the culture being featured.

Determining which is which is a tricky issue, especially when it comes to preserving heritage and the rituals and knowledge surrounding it.



Tattoos, Iban tattoos included, are becoming more popular globally among people from all walks of life. In many cultures, there is renewed interest in tribal tattoos by members of the tribe, and the stigma of tattoos is slowly dying. 

But it was not always this way.

For a long time, tattoos were associated with gangsterism and organised crime especially in Asia. As recently as 2016, adherents of the Iban culture feared the loss of the art of tattoos due to negative association and modernisation. Even now, South Korea bans tattoos, only allowing medical doctors to perform tattoos, while there is a thriving underground tattoo industry in Japan. 

Decades earlier in Malaysia and elsewhere, expressions of one’s cultural identity were discouraged while assimilation was encouraged, primarily rooted in colonialism. 

Eddie David, Iban tattoo artist and owner of Borneo Ink Tattoo Studio in Sri Hartamas, showing his Iban buah engkabang labuh (falling engkabang fruit) tattoo. --fotoBERNAMA (2023) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

Eddie can trace his experience with assimilation back to his childhood. 

“My father wanted to be more Mat Salleh (a colloquial expression referring to westerners). Everybody did back then,” he said. 

Growing up he did not know much about his Iban heritage. His foray into his tattoo vocation in the mid-1990s was accidental – he had artistic talent in abundance, lots of free time and reckless friends who wanted a free tattoo more than a professional one.

After a few months of tattooing and unable to answer questions about the Iban-inspired tattoos he was etching on people, he became curious. He told Bernama he visited his elders and relatives in the longhouse to learn the stories and rituals surrounding tattoos. Most importantly, he learned what tattooing and the tattoos meant to the Iban.

According to research done by UOW Malaysia KDU University College lecturer Murina Pawanteh and others, tattoos are an integral part of the Iban culture. Every stroke, line and design of a tattoo has a meaning, which the Ibans relate to mystical power for protection. They are also status symbols and mark one’s achievements.

According to Sarawak Facts and Figures 2021, Ibans are the largest ethnic group in Sarawak with 723,400 out of the state’s 2.560 million population, and has a rich oral history of tattoos.

The most common tattoo an Iban gets is usually the bungai terung, or brinjal flower, which a male Iban achieves after travelling to study or work. Other tattoos include a weaving design for women to show they are ready for marriage and the tegulun, which is the headhunter tattoo to denote a kill. 

As Iban culture is handed down through oral history, Murina is doing a documentary on cultural identity, which includes preservation of the Iban art of tattooing and the meaning of the tattoos for future generations. 

“Like what (Iban tattooist) Mike Robinson said (in my paper), if the person dies, the tattoo dies with him. There’s no documentation on it. Someone has to document what this bungai terung is all about,” she said.

She said cultural identity was very important as it helped define people and gave them a sense of belonging, of connecting to something bigger and older than they were. Therefore, cultural expressions should primarily be done by members of the culture and not outsiders.

“Outsiders can have tattoos but they must mean something. You carry the history on you so it’s very sacred,” she said, adding that the key was respect.

Murina Pawanteh, lecturer in Communications and Media Studies at UOW Malaysia KDU College in Shah Alam. --Nina Muslim/Bernama



But preserving the application of a culture’s rituals and trappings is not necessarily a feasible way for the culture to survive, even with documentation. Although the stigma against tattoos may be dissipating, the trend among the younger generation is for other types of tattoos.

As such, some Ibans believe in sharing their heritage with anyone who is interested, saying it would help spread knowledge of the culture. For them, there is no difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation.

“Even better if outsiders are interested in our tattoos. Now, more are asking for Iban tattoos,” said Iban tattoo artist Nicholas Jenta Anak Anchu who lives in Sarawak.

The 34-year-old owner of Inkzation Tattoo Studio has been tattooing locals and tourists alike for over 20 years since he was only 16. He does not discriminate, telling Bernama he has tattooed women with the bungai terung tattoo.

“The bungai terung is okay for women as long as the person is an adult and is independent,” he said over the phone. As for outsiders getting the tattoo, he said they have earned it as they managed to travel to Borneo.

However, he draws the line with the tegulun tattoo.

Although he lives in a longhouse, he regards tattooing as more of an art than a tradition. Nevertheless, he is well-versed in the meaning behind each Iban tattoo, even if he has updated his interpretation on the dos and don’ts of their application. He said he has an assistant telling the story and meaning behind it. He can also tattoo people the traditional Iban way using a bamboo needle.

He credits social media with the revivalism of cultural tattoos, saying it has helped introduce tribal tattoos to the younger generation, especially to those who live away from the community.

All agree on the importance of keeping the culture and traditions alive.

As for Eddie, he has a love-and-hate relationship with social media. Although the platform may help increase awareness of his culture everywhere, design theft is a huge concern.

But in the end, he believes that cultural appropriation may lead to appreciation.

“Eventually, these people who get these tattoos will want to know more about the culture,” he said.



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