Article Published (2013) “Thorn Hit: Managalase Tattoos of Papua New Guinea.” Total Tattoo Magazine, No. 100, pp. 42-46. February.
IT’S NEVER A GOOD IDEA to drive into the central mountains of Papua New Guinea during the rainy season. Landslides and “rascals” (bandits) are constant worries and even though Landcruisers can plow through just about anything – including gun-toting thugs – bridges get washed out in flash floods and dirt roads become instant mud pits that just about sink anything that comes into contact with them. But sometimes, when you’re hunting for some of the rarest tribal tattoos on earth, all the rules fly out of the window – especially when you know there are less than twenty Managalase men who still wear the ancient marks of their ancestors. So it’s really a roll of the dice, but sometimes the gamble pays off and your reward is something that you’ll never forget.
THE MANAGALASE AND “KUIJE KANAN”
As far as books go, you’ll be hard pressed to find much information on the Managalase people of Papua New Guinea (PNG), let alone their tattooing practices. This is probably due to the relative inaccessibility of their mountainous homeland, which is located on a plateau enclosed on all sides by rugged, rain-soaked terrain that forms the Hydrographer Range of Oro Province. Of course, there’s also the regions all-too-recent custom of cannibalism to put off potential explorers.
There is some confusion over the proper name of the tribe itself. The word “Managalase” translates as “people difficult to understand” and was imposed long ago by coastal Motuan peoples who traded with them from time to time. The name stuck and today this term continues to be used by the government and the Managalase’s neighbors. But ever since the tribe has lived in this part of PNG, they have always called themselves “Ese,” meaning “The People.”
One of the most striking features of Managalase is their tattooing. Here, unlike most other parts of PNG, tattooing is largely male-focused and associated with complex rite of passage ceremonies that have not been conducted since the 1950s. Missionaries and government authorities compelled the Managalase to abandon these puberty rituals for various reasons and now the last vestiges of this painful art form are worn on the bodies of men in their eighties and nineties.
Managalase tattooing is called kuije kanan or “thorn hit” because of the tool used to pierce the skin with natural pigment. The single bush thorn instrument was twined at a right angle to the end of a short stick, about eight inches long, which was hand-tapped by male artists who, like wood carvers and warriors, were highly respected men in their communities. Before a tattoo was applied, the design was stenciled onto the skin with a sticky black tattoo pigment obtained by heating the gum of the local sakira tree. As the tree resin burned, a bamboo leaf was placed over the smoldering mass to catch the smoke on its underside. The leaf was then scraped and the resulting soot was mixed with water and placed in a betel nut palm frond which had been molded into a kind of rectangular dish.
Periodically, the tattooist dipped his thorn tool into the liquid pigment as he worked his client’s skin. After numerous taps, the thorn often became dull and another would soon take its place. As the blood began to flow, a sponge of chewed-up sugarcane pulp or wet tapa (bark) cloth was wiped across the skin to keep it visible. Then, after the first layer of pigment had been applied, the tattooist rubbed still more sooty color into the bloody wounds and the process was then repeated another five or six times until several layers of ink permeated the welted skin. Finally, a leaf of stinging nettle was vigorously rubbed over the incisions to complete the tattooing process.
MANAGALASE TATTOOING RITUALS
Managalase boys were ceremonially prepared for their painful initiation many years before they were actually tattooed. At about the age of ten or eleven, they were removed from their homes to live in the village men’s house: an act that separated them from their mothers and sisters. For one or more years, the young lived here and were taught hunting, war, and agricultural “magic,” while at the same time they were forbidden from eating meat or having sexual relations with women. During this period, male relatives began making arrangements for the boys’ marriages which would occur only after they had been tattooed.
Once a young boy had mastered the knowledge of how to become a Managalase man, he was then allowed to participate in the tattooing ritual with six to twelve other boys; but first he had to undergo a lengthy period of seclusion to prepare his body for the transformation that was to take place. If the boy lived in a village which was hosting a tattoo ceremony, the seclusion period would last three months. If he had to travel to another village, the seclusion lasted six months. Before entering the seclusion hut (marakara) the boys were compelled to have their ears and septum pierced. This act was a “promise” that they would complete their initiations and not give into fear. The ears were pierced with a wallaby bone. For the nose, an elder would pinch a glowing ember between his thumb and finger then apply heat to the cartilage of the septum. Once heated, a cassowary beak was thrust through the nasal cartilage and a ginger shoot inserted into the cavity to keep it open.
The thatched seclusion hut, which was constructed on the outskirts of the village and surrounded by a fence, resembled a rounded-roofed structure with a very low ceiling. Inside the womb-like building, sleeping benches lined the outer walls and a fire pit extended down its center. Apart from a small feeding door (juha), a closely-guarded entrance and toilet area in the rear, there were no openings in the hut and it was very dark. Within the central pit, a smoldering fire was kept burning at all times, creating a very hot, dank, and smoky enclosure.
The initiates were never allowed to bathe and they always spoke in hushed tones. Elders said that if girls heard their voices, their tattooing would be more painful. During the seclusion period, female relatives prepared vast quantities of food – like yams, sugarcane and tubers – to fatten up the initiates. However, the women were tabooed from touching the food they cooked and it was placed at the feeding door (juha) by male elders. When the initiates ate their meals, they were always careful to remove the skins of the prepared foods and to only eat their “white” insides.
When a boy wished to use the toilet pit, he had to ask permission from the elder who guarded the toilet door. This man would utter a few magic words then the initiate was allowed to enter the chamber, but only for a short period of time. If a boy did not seek permission and the magical words were not spoken, it was believed that his skin would sag or “go loose” like an old man and it would be unsuitable for tattooing.
From a symbolic standpoint, the tattoo ritual of the Managalase is interesting because of its relationship to “male” rebirth. Having been separated from their womenfolk, adolescent males were placed in womb-like huts, nurtured (fattened up) by men in a moist and hot environment while gestating for several months in a dark and confined space. Tattooed elders told me they became “big and fat” and that their skin was “light, pale, and supple, like that of a newborn” once they exited the hut. Of course, I was also told that their relatively new, white skin made their tattoos appear to be bold and dark, something which young women found to be particularly attractive.
This cultural pattern, where men attempt to take the power of childbirth away from women, is also found in other Papuan societies, especially in the Sepik River region. There, the loss of blood that flows from male scarification practices is supposed to cleanse them of any traces of feminine blood that remains in their bodies from childbirth. Among the Managalase, I believe that the blood that flows from tattoo initiates also performs the same function.
TATTOOING CELEBRATIONS AND MOTIFS
As the end of the seclusion period neared, male villagers built structures for the “coming out” parties of the initiates. Because the young men in seclusion came from different villages, visitors from across the Managalase plateau would soon arrive to celebrate their accomplishments. Five or six local tattooists, who were often related to some of the intiates, also gathered at this time and constructed a lean-to bush hut (kwejiara) where the actual tattooing would take place. They were eventually paid with pigs, yams, and other foodstuffs for their efforts.
Once all of the preparations were ready, five or six boys were escorted out of the seclusion hut to the kwejiara. Before they were allowed to get tattooed, an elder would inspect their skin. Those boys with the most tender skin were hand-tapped first. The tattooist was assisted by three or four men who kept a firm grip on the boy to be marked. The tattooist steadily plied his thorn tool over the body until one section was completed. Then, the boy was allowed to rest unless he wanted to continue. Some elders told me that a skillful artist could tattoo the entire surface of a boy’s skin in two or three days. However, one tattooed elder with a full body suit boasted that he withstood the pain and received all of his marks in a single sitting!
Traditionally, Managalase tattooists usually began their skin sessions by tattooing a sternum mark called tine. From this central point zigzag lines, representing serrated feathers used in ceremonial clothing, radiate outwards to form quadrants that divided the chest into distinct sections. Interestingly, the tine marked the seat of the body’s soul, since the Managalase believe that the soul resides in this location. The resulting quadrants may also serve as a mnemonic device recalling ancestral exploits, because the Managalase would quarter their enemies in the same fashion before consuming them in a cannibalistic warrior feast.
Other tattoo motifs included the flying fox, circular motifs representing a bamboo musical instrument (hikodi), spiraling forms of a local fern (yuki), and additional zigzagging patterns derived from patterns seen in tree bark. The chest, waist, back, legs, and shoulders all received tattooing. My friend and journalist Dave Lornie interviewed one elder from Tabuane village named Hameni and he noted: “When the needle goes in you feel pain from head to toe. When a section is completed, wet [and abrasive] tapa cloth is rubbed over the tattoo to clean it. This hurts so much you cry and feel like peeing!”
Each boy knew that if he did not get his tattoos he would not be allowed to marry, and he would receive no social support in communal feasts or in warfare. So the initiates endured the excruciating pain in order to move one step closer to becoming a Managalase man. Horace, an elder from Dea village who recently passed away, reported that his tattooing did not start on the chest. He said: “They laid me down, put a bamboo tube under my jaw, and I laid face down and they started on my back. Someone had to hold down my legs. Then they moved to the front and they asked me to sit down and lean back on my hands. When my skin was pierced with the thorn it hurt so very much. I cried and then I peed!”
During the tattooing, male elders sang war songs which were also performed at feasts or after killing an enemy. At the end of the operation the newly marked men made mirrors out of bowls of water so they could admire their tattoos. Then they returned to the marakara for another month and reclined on their beds near the lengthy fire pit. A jungle leaf called susara was placed over the embers of the fire and then pressed to the wounds to promote healing. Then the tattoos were cleansed with mountain spring water and the entire process was repeated until the men were ready to leave the smoky confines of the marakara.
THE END OF A TATTOO ERA
Today, Managalase elders lament that the tattooing customs of their forefathers will disappear in the next generation. Although there is interest in resurrecting the tradition, there are no living tattooing masters and only memories of those men once skilled enough to tattoo human flesh. Men in their fifties expressed to me that they felt they had missed out on a very important cultural tradition that was intimately related to Managalase concepts of manhood and identity. Other men said that the demise of tattooing customs has led to social problems in the Managalase community. With the breakdown of traditional marriage rules and the arranged marriages once associated with the former practice of tattooing, many children are now born out of wedlock and some men neglect their parental duties altogether, leaving some children fatherless. And as households increase in size so too does environmental stress on the land, and sometimes there is not enough food to sustain the population. One man exclaimed: “There is a lot of disgrace and it is shameful for us. Many children have no respect for their elders and our traditional customs. We don’t want to stay on this earth and see these things happen. Tattooing would stop these things and it would also help us with our population problems and strengthen our bonds with neighboring villages.”