Tattooing is a major cultural aspect among the Dayak. Till today, many sport traditional designs beside contemporary ones, both men and women. It was not so back in the old days.
The Dayak believe that everything has a spiritual aspect, interconnected with each other. Man, bird, trees, all are different yet connected to one another in a universal balance. Spirits inhabit this Dayak realm, teaching and guiding the people on all matters pertaining to daily life. Farming, weaving and even tattooing was taught by these spirits. They provide guidance through signs like a particular bird call, or through dreams and intermediaries or ‘manang’.
The Ibans believe that the head holds a soul. So when a head is taken during headhunting, you also take their status and power. After the necessary rituals are perfomed, the soul/spirit becomes a part of the community, granting its power for its benefit and glory.
Like a rite of passage, headhunters were marked with tattoos to acknowledge their victory. The Kayan ‘tegulun’ were tattooed on their hands to represent the number of heads taken. Common motifs among the male Ibans were the ‘bunga terung’, Garing tree (believed to be immortal) and the hornbill, a sacred bird that acted as the messenger of the Iban god of war, Lang Singalang Burong. The betel nut palm motif running down the arms and shoulders were considered a protection against evil and mischievous spirits.
Among the women, tattooing was proof of their accomplishments in weaving, dancing, a rite of passage to womanhood. Also as a protective charm, women who were not tattooed were considered incomplete. Among Iban women, weavers were marked with tattoos before embarking on a new weave to appease the spirits she represents in her weavings. The Kayan womens’ ‘tedek’ were handtapped onto their fingers in motifs called ‘song irang’, or bamboo shoots, while some ethnic groups had parallel lines without any discernable designs.
According to Iban customs, certain illness were brought upon by evil spirits. If the ‘manang’, or witch doctor, fails to cure it, they might try a name-changing ceremony. A new tattoo is given to the patient near the wrist. The new name serves to conceal the patient from the evil spirit and confuse it, and to renew the patient’s body. Whilst for the Kayan, the aso’ and ‘tuba’ plants, ‘silong lejau’ or face of the tiger, were used to scare away evil spirits,
According to tradition, only the souls of tattooed women who provided generously for their families and headhunters who possessed hand tattoos – a token of their success – were able to cross the log bridge that spanned the River of Death. Maligang, the malevolent guardian of the bridge, oftentimes refused such passage forcing souls to descend into the river’s depths to be eaten by Patan, a giant catfish. However, if the lingering soul was properly tattooed, it was free to pass into the darkness that awaited it on the other side.
And in the darkness the tattoos will burn bright and become the light that will guide the soul through the darkness into the afterlife where it will join the ancestors in his or her final resting place.