VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE and nowhere is this more true than in the island paradise of what is Indonesia. Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world and this vast island archipelago is home to over 17,000 islands, containing over 250 million people and 500 languages and dialects.
Although it is the largest Muslim country in the world, there are substantial populations of Hindus, Christians, and tribal peoples, whose forms of worship, customs, architecture, and lifestyles await the intrepid traveler to discover.
But what most people do not know is that there’s a new wave of Indonesian tattoo art rolling across the Pacific that is about to hit foreign shores. And what makes this movement unique is that it draws upon the artistic traditions of local Indigenous cultures that most non-Indonesians have probably never heard of or experienced – Until now, that is!
This article looks at five dedicated Indonesian tattooists whose combined mission is to bring traditional Indonesian art into the global consciousness through tattooing, and in some cases they are even preserving what is left of traditional tattooing culture in remote regions before it disappears forever.
AMAN SIPATITI DURGA – DURGA TATTOO (Yogyakarta, Indonesia)
Durga is the leading man of Indonesian New Wave. Born in Yogyakarta, he later attended and graduated from the Indonesian Institute of the Arts with a degree in graphic design. Ever the nomad, he took his skills and talents to Los Angeles where he apprenticed as a tattoo artist under Sua Sulu’ape Freewind at Black Wave Tattoo. It was here that he became inspired by tribal and traditional tattoos.
In 2009, Durga returned home and opened Durga Tattoo in Jakarta that same year.
Animism and Polytheism, which were the original religions of Indonesia, greatly influence Durga’s tattoo art and design, but his artistic works are also infused with Hindu, Buddhist, and shamanic elements.
One of the hallmarks of his professional career to date is the Mentawai Tattoo Revival. Back in 2009, Durga dedicated all of his energies to studying every tattooing culture of Indonesia, including those of the Lesser Sunda Archipelago (Sumba, Rote, Timor), Seram Island in the Malukus, Kalimantan (Borneo), and that which continues to exist on Siberut Island (Mentawai Archipelago). It was during this fateful year that Durga made the first of many subsequent trips to Siberut to document the tattooing traditions of the Mentawai people living there.
Durga has become a regular visitor to Siberut and through the Mentawai Tattoo Revival project he has successfully lead a revitalization movement dedicated to sustaining the culture and tradition of Mentawaian tribal tattoo (called titi) from disappearing. The project also features tattoo workshops directly in the middle of the Siberut jungle where Durga works together with a number of Mentawai sikerei or shamans, who are the tattoo artists among their tribe, to further enhance and preserve their tattoo culture and related traditions. Because the number of tattooing shamans on Siberut is declining, Durga has been asked on many occasions to complete the tattooing of sikerei and other community members. He has also become a sipatiti (a professional tattoo artist in the Mentawai language) in his own right and continues to spread awareness of Mentawai tattooing at cultural events, in publications, and through carefully crafted and produced video documentaries. Durga is a widely sought after artist on the international tattooing circuit and you can often find him at the most prestigious conventions (London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt) and other venues (Amsterdam Tattoo Museum) hand-tapping or creating machined tattoos in the Mentawaian or other Indonesian tribal styles.
You could say that Durga’s mantra is simple. He says, “Tattoos are the Indonesian culture, and if these tribal designs and everything they are connected to disappeared we would lose an important part of our country’s very unique cultural heritage. For the Mentawai, titi symbolizes their identity and their ancestral beliefs, their Arat Sabulungan. This is one system of values that organizes the social and spiritual life of the Mentawai tribe. Each tattoo motif represents something spiritual and meaningful. And from the tattoos found on their bodies we can recognize their original subclans, as well as their professions. Also, tattooing is a kind of spiritual make-up because it makes the human body beautiful in the eyes of the spirits that control human destiny and the surrounding world. Tattoos also make one more recognizable to their ancestors whom they meet in the afterlife.”
Durga also supports the living tattoo traditions of the Dayak peoples of Kalimantan in collaboration with the Dayak Youth Community in Jakarta, as well as with Herpianto Hendra, an Iban tattooist from the Kapuas region of Kalimantan who has dedicated his life to documenting, preserving, and promoting the Indigenous tattoo art of his Dayak ancestors across Indonesia.
DAVID KALALO – RIVER OF INK (Leiden, Netherlands)
David Kalalo was born in Jakarta but his family is originally from the island of Sulawesi, home of the Toraja people who are master woodcarvers and textile weavers. When he was 10, his family moved to Holland where he eventually studied fashion design at the University of Fine Art in Utrecht. Here, he honed his draughtsman skills and learned to design patterns for fabrics. Out of college he worked in the fashion industry but it didn’t work out and at the urging of friends he began designing tattoos for friends and soon picked up the iron. He never lost sight of his cultural roots, especially of batik and ikat textiles from Bali, Java, and Sulawesi and began translating the patterns he drew on paper into tattoos. Kalalo is known for blending several types of Indonesian tribal patterns (sometimes crossed with Polynesian motifs) into large designs and enhancing them with Dotwork to create an original, ethnically-inspired tattoo.
Kalalo only tattoos in the tribal style and when I asked him why that was his mantra, he offered: “I think it is very important to stay close to where you came from. And with my Indonesian background, I can use all of these amazing art styles that are part of my cultural heritage, a rich artistic heritage that is not widely known outside of Indonesia. Well, some people do know about the tattooing traditions of Borneo, but mainly the Sarawak side and not the Kalimantan side. Nor do they know much about the tattooing heritage of Seram, Timor, Irian Jaya, or the Mentawai Islands where they – in some cases – have been tattooing for thousands of years. Of course, some of the indigenous peoples on these and other islands, especially the Batak of Sumatra and the people of Nias, did not have a tattooing culture, but they did have other incredible artistic traditions and tattooists like Chay (see below) are now translating that to tattooing which is awesome!”
Now you (who are reading this article!) and I both know that tattooing is extremely popular in Euro-America and many other places in the world, but in a Muslim country like Indonesia? So I asked Kalalo about that, especially since he travels home often.
“Yes, of course, even Muslim youth in Indonesia want big tattoos, even facial tattoos and they still pray five times a day towards Mecca! But in Indonesia, the form of Islam that is practiced there is more relaxed than say the Middle East, and I liken it to the Berbers of North Africa who still worship their ancestors and pray to nature spirits, although they are Muslim. Indonesian Muslims are more progressive and liberal, and many people drink and eat pork almost every day too. On paper they are Muslim, but they way they act is certainly not.”
He continued: “Tattooing is really mainstream in Indonesia, especially among the upper middle classes. But then again, there are street tattooists (always men) working in big cities like Jakarta hawking their Western-style flash. Although it’s damn cheap by Western standards, I can’t promise you that it’s clean because there is no sterilization whatsoever, which is scary if you ask me!”
And when I quizzed him about the Neo-Indonesian tattoo movement that he and his colleagues have created, he said: “We Indonesian artists are extremely proud of our cultural and artistic heritage because it is unlike anything else on earth. To put it simply, our goal is to educate people about its complexity and meaning through the vehicle of tattooing, because otherwise our tribal arts might continue to remain hidden away in old books that very few people will ever see.”
CHAY SIAGIAN – ON THE ROAD (Indonesia, Philadelphia, New York)
I have had the pleasure of meeting (and hosting Chay) at my home in Washington, D.C., and I have gotta say that this guy is always on the road travelling or doing a guest spot back in Indonesia! Siagian was born beside enchanting Lake Toba in north Sumatra and was raised in the Toba Batak culture (note: there are six tribes that comprise the Batak, but they all claim a common ethnic identity). Rich in mythology, the Toba Batak developed a written language whose letters were derived from Sanskrit, and also a complex numerology and system of magic – featuring elaborately carved magical staffs, wands and other esoteric objects like pustaha (books of magic). Siagian is a direct descendant of a Toba Batak clairvoyant. Traditional Batak houses, which are magical in themselves, symbolize the structure of the cosmos.
Siagian always questioned why his tribe never practiced body art, since other tribes living on islands to the west and east did – like the Mentawai of Siberut and Dayak of Borneo. So in 2009 he created the Djadjak Project (from jojak, or “to trace” in Batak), a movement dedicated to promoting awareness of traditional Batak art forms through modern and interpretive tattoo art.
Siagian built his first rotary machine in 1989 and has been tattooing ever since. But the Djadjak Project doesn’t limit itself to electric machines, since Siagian is an accomplished hand-tapper and traditional hand-poker.
Siagian feels that he has been called by an ancestral spirit to keep alive the beauty of Batak art, which he believes is in jeopardy of disappearing with the modernization of Batak communities and with the passing of more and more datu panggana (“magician-sculptors”), the specialists who traditionally created Batak sculptures and woodcarvings.
The tattoos Siagian creates are composed of elements drawn from Batak art, which has always been an integral part of his life since birth. This Indigenous tradition, which is inspired by the natural and supernatural worlds, expresses itself strongly in Siagian’s bold black and grey designs as well as in his illuminating color works.
When I asked Siagian what he hoped to accomplish with the Djadjak Project, he said:
“I created the Djadjak Project with the intention that it be continued and expanded by other artists, especially Batak artists, so that together we can preserve Batak art and also move it forward into the future.”
HERPIANTO HENDRA – FOLK SPACE TATTOO (Yogyakarta, Indonesia)
Borneo is the third largest island in the world. Six major, and numerous minor, navigable rivers traverse the interior and function as trade and communication routes for the Indigenous peoples who live here, namely the Dayak. Dayak, meaning “interior” or “inland” person, is the term used to describe the variety of indigenous native tribes of Borneo, each of which has its own language and separate culture. Approximately three million Dayak – Ibans, Kayans, Kenyahs and others – live in Borneo. Most groups are settled, cultivating rice in shifting or rain-fed fields, and supplement their incomes with the sale of cash crops: ginger, pepper, cocoa, and palm oil.
Herpianto Hendra was born raised in the Iban region of the upper Kapuas River on the Indonesian side of Borneo, West Kalimantan. The Iban are probably the best known of all of Borneo’s tattooed tribes and this is largely due to tattooists like Leo Zulueta who brought to the world’s attention the various tribal Blackwork styles of Borneo, Polynesia, and Micronesia in the early 1980s.
Hendra, like Durga, graduated from the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (ISI) in Yogyakarta. He is a self-taught tattoo artist and in 2009 he and ISI graduate Erzane NE created Folk Space Tattoo studio in Yogyakarta that specializes in Indonesian tribal tattoos, especially the Dayak of Kalimantan.
Hendra and Erzane regularly travel to West Kalimantan to conduct research on Dayak tattoos and associated customs. During their trips they also create new hand-tapped tattoos for men and women based on traditional designs, and retouch old tattoos to make them bold once again. Hendra and Erzane’s work is very important because there are only a very few elderly Dayak tattooists still living in West Kalimantan.
I asked Hendra about the various meanings that Dayak tattoos (Iban, pantang) have carried over the generations.
He said: “Traditionally, Dayak tattoos were infused with very important religious values because they were an important part of our adat or customary laws. These laws have been handed down over the millennia by our forefathers, and by living in accordance with these basic values all parts of the universe will remain healthy and in balance.”
One hundred years ago, Iban tattoos adorning the skin of men and women could be read like a text and they told the reader much about that person’s accomplishments.
Hendra said: “These stories can still be seen on the bodies of elders, and herein lies the wealth of tattoo art. It can tell you so much about any given person’s biography. For example, an Iban woman with tattoos on her hands or thumbs told all comers that she was an expert weaver and able to create the most spiritually powerful designs on ikat textiles called pua kumbu’ that were once used to create sacred enclosures for shamans and that also held freshly severed human heads from headhunting raids (a former Iban practice). If a woman was particularly skillful in more domestic concerns she would receive a band of zigzagging tattoos around her upper forearms signalling her status. As you can imagine, young men in the community were particularly keen to marry women marked in this way!”
But from a religious standpoint, Iban tattoos had significant meanings relating to the afterlife. For example, it was believed that only those men who were completely tattooed could pass safely into the Land of the Dead (Sebayan) where their ancestors awaited them with the most amazing gifts.
ADE ITAMEDA – 25 TO LIFE TATTOOS (Rotterdam, Netherlands)
Ade Itameda was born in Jakarta and started tattooing seven years ago, although he’s been a piercer much long than that. In 2008, he became the co-owner of Rock n Roll Custom Tattoo in Jakarta, but recently he left Indonesia to permanently settle in the Netherlands where he works to this day.
While Ade Itameda might be the young gun of the Indonesian New Wave, his highly detailed and balanced tattoo works mainly draw their inspiration from the cultural and artistic heritage of Java and Bali. And like his friend David Kalalo, Itameda has gravitated to Dotwork: “Because for me Dotwork gives my designs a more traditional and spiritual feeling. For example, I often use batik textile patterns in my tattoos; these are found on traditional Indonesian fabrics. Batik is similar to Dotwork and the word in Javanese actually comes from the term ambatik, which literally means ‘a cloth with little dots.’ Tik means ‘dot, drop or point.’ So there is a natural connection here.”
“I use old Indonesian ornaments, patterns and carvings and I transform them into new, more modern designs,” Itameda says. “And those ancient, traditional images and symbols are still deeply honored and respected in some parts of Indonesia. By giving my own interpretation of them I hope people can enjoy and respect those images on a different level.”
But Itameda does worry about the future of traditional Indonesian arts, because in some places they are beginning to disappear from view. He says: “The Indonesian heritage holds many beautiful symbols, patterns, and images that should be preserved. So many things have been taken over by modernization and globalization, and I think we should cherish what is left because it is part of our ancestral identity.”
Terima kasih / Salam budaya!