Tattoo or Taboo? – A Malaysian Perspective

Raymond Siew

Tattoo or Taboo? – A Malaysian Perspective

by Raymond Siew


Malaysia is a land of many diverse cultures. An eclectic mix that has somehow melded into a nationhood — A land of paradoxes and contradictions… rich with contrasting images, sights and sounds.


“ Tattoos are symbols
of achievements ”

Within this mix we have tribes that inhabit the island of Borneo in two states called Sabah and Sarawak. Sarawakian tribes include the Ibans, Kayans, Kejamans, Punans and Kelabits.

“ Marking life’s journey ”

And within these tribes there used to be the tradition of tattooing (a dying culture but there are efforts to preserve this). In this culture tattoos are symbols of achievements, of obstacles surmounted through life’s journey.

And this journey starts from the age of as young as 10 to 12. The first tattoo, the Bunga Terung (eggplant flower), marks the start of a journey called bejalai, the mark of a passage from boyhood into manhood. The Bunga Terung has a spiral at the center of the eggplant flower the Tali Nyawa, which means “the rope of life” and is identical to the underside of a tadpole which symbolizes the beginning of a new life.

“ Tattoos tell of where a man came from…
where he’s been… what he’s experienced ”

Tattoos are like a diary. The young man would go out on his own to find knowledge. As he travels he is marked by the tattoos that not only tell of where he came from but also where he has been.

For each place the tattoos will have different styles and so the regional differences would tell of his journeys in life.

Borneo tattoos do not just mark physical journeys. Some represent big life events, such as fathering children. For example, there is a tattoo a man can have done on his hand called the Entegulun. You can only have this if you have taken heads! Some tattoos can be for protection, for example the tattoos on the throat (Ukir Rekong) are meant to give strength to the skin on the throat, to stop your enemies from being able to take your head.


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