Iban:s kalingai and its motive meaning

In the evening the elder men in the longhouse explained to Gendup which tattoos are placed where on the body, such as the ones on the throat, shoulders, arms, thighs, back and other parts of the body. They also told him about tegulun (hand tattoo).

“Tegulun can only be done once you have killed someone” said the men to Gendup.

Today the tattoo situation is a little better, although still rare, tattooing is going through a mini revival as many young people look for contact with their traditions and culture.

Strength giving flower design, usually done at the age of 16 or so.

Bunga Terung design, usually done at the age of 16 or so.

Another Buah Terung design

Each design has its own meaning and each area had its own set of tattoo designs.

Both men and women wore tattoos.

For young men the first tattoo was usually the “bunga terung”. This was a depiction of the flower of a local aubergine species. It was tattooed underneath the outside edge of the collar bone. This location is chosen because this is where straps from back packs rest and the design was intended to make the wearer strong for their bejalai journey. During this journey the young man was to gain his wealth and fame, it could last a few months or years. While on the journey he would visit other Iban communities where his help was rewarded with other tattoos. On his return his tattoos could be read as if they were a map of where he had been and what he accomplished.

For the women too there were special designs, each was awarded to the woman upon attaining a particular skill (e.g. weaving).

Women’s hand tattoo design

The tattoo technique itself is similar as in many other places, a hammer and a wooden staff with bone or bamboo needles is employed in tattooing. The needle is dipped in paint and held over the surface of the skin while the staff is used to hit it rhythmically, as the needles do their work the artist moves them across the surface of the skin. The process was fairly painful thus it was regarded as a small test in itself (especially the first two bunga terung designs).

In order for the design to be detailed and well filled out the help of another person was required, this second person would stretch the skin in the area currently being worked on. If applied by an expert the result is nearly indistinguishable from modern machine tattoos. The technique is still being used in Sarawak today although the soot paint is replaced with commercial tattooing ink and the bone needles by metal ones.

Local Tatoo Artist Ernesto Kalum working on a tattoo

Crab design for upper arms.

Other designs for upper arms (simpai?).

Most Iban tattoo designs are either plants or animals (sometimes mythical) in both cases they are a bit abstract rather than trying to be realistic. The topic of Iban tattoos has had much interest from the outside world. Not just from the tattoo community, there have also been two large documentaries filmed in Sarawak with the help of the local artists. Today the tattoos are quite easily available for both locals and tourists who come to Kuching or other parts of Sarawak.

Whole back design (including top design meant to protect the neck from being cut).

On a recent trip to Bukit Sadok, I saw some more original tattoos, here are some of them. Note the Throat design, said to be a particularly painful tattoo to get.

An elderly gentlemen from one of the longhouses near Bukit Sadok showing off his tattoos.

Whole back tattoos, note the compass rose, the Iban take on tattoos is quite free and newer designs often mix with traditional ones

Whole back tattoos, note the compass rose, the Iban take on tattoos is quite free and newer designs often mix with traditional ones.

A “Naga” or dragon design, in the iban tattooing tradition the function of the dragon and the dog is similar and as a result the two designs often mix and mutate.

I was not given a clear name or meaning for this design.

Ketam Lengan, the crab on the arm
Nor for this one

Another Ketam Lengan design

Please note that this page is still very very far from complete, it is a mere introduction to the Iban tattooing tradition I am also aware that there are differing interpretations of some of the designs and even their history. Feel free to comment if you disagree or have something to add.

Ps: I have heard a very strange explanation of the meaning of the Bunga Terung design, I am not going to get into it here but please remember that the Triskel design is NOT an Iban design and has no connection whatsoever with the Bunga Terung.

“Ketam” means crab. Some of the other designs consist of them so for example “Ketam belakang” is on the shoulder blades. On their own I dont think they have much meaning outside of being sort of like a piece of protective armour.


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