Tribal Ink

Tattoo is a form of body art that has long been practised by ancient civilisations, evidenced by the discovery of mummified remains dating as far back as 2100 BC, all with tattoos on their skin. Tattoos are done using specific needles to puncture the skin and injecting it with ink to create permanent art on the body. It was originally done manually, with the tattooist puncturing a customer’s skin and injecting it with ink by hand. It was a much slower process and was more painful. Today, tattooing is done using special machines and specific types of ink, offering greater accuracy, shorter tattooing sessions and better results.

There are several types of tattoos carrying different meanings. Some, like the ancient Khmer spiritual tattoo known as Sak Yant, are even believed to have certain protective powers or bring its bearer good fortune and luck. In South Africa, some tribes practise scarification or branding for aesthetic reasons, and to indicate their social, religious and political roles.

Tribal tattoo of Sarawak

Tattooing also has great significance here in Borneo, where the ancient body art forms an integral aspect of Sarawakian culture, typically among the Iban folk. For them, tattooing is traditionally associated with their ancient practice of headhunting as well as their ‘Bejalai’ ceremony, which is a coming-of-age ritual that is slowly falling out of practice as societies are becoming more modernised. As part of the ceremony, one would earn himself the ‘Bungai Terung’ tattoo, the most basic Iban tattoo design done on the shoulder below the collarbone. This particular tattoo is believed to give its wearer strength as he embarks on his ‘Bejalai’ journey into the deep jungle.

The ‘Bungai Terung’ is also the most famous Iban tattoo design, and is worn by celebrities like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ actor Henry Golding and Hollywood actor Milo Ventimiglia from ‘Rocky Balboa’ and hit TV series ‘Heroes’. The design also made an appearance in the movie set in Sarawak titled ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’, starring Hollywood stars Jessica Alba and Hugh Dancy, about an Englishman who has to learn the Iban language from a half Iban, half English lass.

Traditional Iban tattoos are believed to be imbued with magic powers. A tattoo on a man’s back for example, is believed to traditionally serve as protection against evil spirits or to avoid its bearer from having his head cut off by his enemies. Today however, many are getting these beautiful tribal tattoos not necessarily for their magical properties but for mere aesthetic appeal.


Souvenir of a lifetime

Tribal tattoos of Sarawak have captured the attention of tattoo enthusiasts around the world. They travel all the way here to the Land of the Hornbills in search of tattoo masters specialising in tribal tattoos of Sarawak. They would return home afterwards, bringing home with them a “souvenir” that would last them a lifetime that can be found nowhere else on Earth. And while modern tattoo designs have overshadowed traditional ones over the decades, the latter has been gaining traction as more people are becoming appreciative of the values of Sarawak’s unique tribal tattoos.



Sarawak has a list of reputable tattoo studios, where you can get yourself a cool piece of Sarawak tribal tattoo design to show off to your buddies back home. The following are some of them:

  1. Borneo Headhunters Tattoo and Piercing Studio (Kuching)
    The description on their website reads “The first tattoo studio in Malaysia that provides world-class and professional standard tattooing service”. That’s already saying a lot about this tattoo and piercing studio established in 1998. Founded by Ernesto Kalum, this multi award-winning establishment has an impressive list of high profile customers, including Hollywood stars. And you can surely expect to go home with stunning tribal pieces tattooed on your skin by this tattooing master.   (CLICK HERE FOR THE LOCATION)
  2. Skrang Tattoo Studio (Kuching)
    Neckpiece? Bungai Terung? Let Skrang Tattoo Studio hook you up. Co-owner Boy Skrang is passionate about traditional hand-tapped tattoos of the Iban and is an absolute expert at it. Expect to go home with an exquisite tribal design tattooed on your skin via hand tapped tattooing method.   (CLICK HERE FOR THE LOCATION)

  3. Tribal 12 Tattoo Studio (Sibu)

  4. High Blood Ink (Miri)

  5. The Ink Studio (Bintulu)

This article from BorneoTalk Vol.55. Click here for DOWNLOAD

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