Travel is undoubtedly one of my many passions together with working in the tattoo industry and in my career as a Geometric Dotwork tattooist I’ve been lucky enough to travel widely, taking up guest artist positions and working at conventions worldwide.
The combination of travel and the enormous cultural and anthropological history of tattooing has led me to documentary journalism as a way of capturing and preserving the origins of the art form particularly by seeking out tribal tattooing, shining a light on traditional methods so easily forgotten in a contemporary setting.
In 2017 I travelled to Borneo and produced a film, The Point of No Return, a close up look at hand tapped techniques used by the Iban tribe deep in the jungle. Llast year I toured the American south west, then flew to Texas and interviewed a personal tattoo idol “Shanghai’ Kate Hellenbrand. Then mixing it up a little this Spring I interviewed Sea Shepherd’s artistic director and guested at their new Amsterdam tattoo studio in support of marine conservation.
Since then I’ve been back to the rainforest, this time to meet the Mentawai Tribes, semi-nomadic hunter gatherers native to the Mentawai Islands of West Sumatra, known for teeth sharpening and for full body hand tapped tattoos which symbolise their connection to nature.
The trip was primarily part of my research for tribal tattoo anthology, my way in was delivering the crowd funded solar lighting organised by Stef Senn, organiser of the Strasbourg Tattoo Convention and fellow adventurer. I had arranged to interview my guide and translator, a Mentawai member named Esmat. Having completed a thesis on Mentawai Tattoo History while studying in Jakarta, Esmat was the perfect component and a mine of information and insight into a way of life and tattoo style unknown by most.
The Mentawai tribes are governed by ‘Sikrei’ (shamans) who live communally in ‘Uma’ longhouses and have a strong spiritual identity and practice, believing all things in nature carry a spiritual essence. I flew from London to Doha, Doha to Kuala Lumpar, then on to Pedang in West Sumatra where we met with Esmat and mentally prepared ourselves for the next two weeks away from any internet, phone signal, electricity, gas to cook, etc.
Travelling in a region without tourist infrastructure, where pirates are known to operate, with a guide I hardly knew, on the way to meet a tribe I could barely communicate with, I became acutely aware the locals weren’t used to seeing heavily tattooed white women as we all took a 7-hour boat journey accompanied by dolphins to Siberu island.
At the port we were picked up by a van with rope tied seats and took a ride to the house of Esmat’s friend in a village close by. Their garden hosted a small jetty perfect for bathing and fishing and I dived into the sea to wash away the many miles already behind me. At 5.00 a.m. the next morning my alarm went off and we travelled 6 hours against the current in a ‘Pompom boat’, seeing small crocodiles, jungle pigs bathing in thick mud, and wild children running naked through the jungle.
We banked the boat and I stepped out into knee deep stagnant swamp. It was impossible to balance, tiptoeing along cut tree trunks through the swamp and jungle uphill for miles. We approached a clearing with an original wooden Uma around 300 ft long and 100 ft wide at its brow, the notched entrance steps led up to a porch overlooking a stunning jungle horizon. I first thought no one was home, until an old man with a frail frame, dressed in a traditional red loin cloth and lighting a large roll up with a wooden taper stepped out of the shadows from the back of the long-house.
He was tattooed from his jaw to his ankles. This was my first meeting with a Shaman. Esmat explained the reason why we were there and we made our introductions. The Shamen’s wife was all warm smiles, proudly displaying her chest tattoos and breasts and gesturing for me to do the same. I found this was very much the way with Mentawai women and my reveal obviously went down fairly well as she invited me to stay and become a member of the family which surely translates as the best hospitality known on Earth.
Our Pompom driver showed the way to a different Uma and we set about assembling and explaining the solar kits, one for each house. Although the community do have petrol lighting, any fuel has to be bought from Indonesian industry, something to be avoided ideally due to regional history and environmental issues.
Even as recently as the 1980s, hundreds of Shamans were rounded up and taken to the mainland where they were publicly undressed and beaten. Many were imprisoned for their beliefs and for their tattoos. They were then forced into so-called modernization programs in purpose built settlements.
In the years that followed vast swathes of Siberut island has been taken from indigenous tribes and sold on as industrial plantation forest.
Solar kits are the way forward.
From here the next village beckoned but the trek was no easier than before. We walked for miles between slippery trees, swampland and thigh-high mud crossing a river to a path where the jungle disappeared, exposing a village with many cabins.
Walking through we drew a small crowd of curious onlookers wanting to waylay us to compare tattoos, before passing through thicker jungle and crossing a wide steam, where a beautiful Uma stood surrounded by flowers and trees.
Here we were welcomed by a young Shaman, Aman Telepon. Esmat told him about our plans to distribute the solar panels and with much gratitude he invited us to the largest Uma, where the tribe could gather for a ceremony that would continue day and night for three days. This would save us walking to each house in turn.
The Uma was quite spectacular, standing above a winding river surrounded by paths fading into the jungle. Inside, the skulls of monkeys, turtles, pigs and deer decorated with vines hung in rows above the fireplace. His village is home to beautifully, traditionally tattooed couples with clusters of happy kids of all ages playing. We gave them presents of biscuits and coloured pens which created an extra hubbub of chatter and activity.
The women cared for the children while making food for the ceremony and the men went into the jungle collecting ornamental flowers and tropical leaves to be added to ritual garments, later capturing a wild pig for sacrifice. Before nightfall there was a tense and excited atmosphere of what was to come. A grandfather, Lao Lao, painted his skin with orange spices, and the many Shamans began to dress in beaded headdresses topped with hibiscus flowers.
Around the Uma hearth, floorspace became a stage and the approaching evening brought chanting, trance-dancing, drumming, and a blessing of the houses and lands. The ceremonial ritual had begun. As a Westerner and guest, I appreciated that I was experiencing something totally unique and extraordinary, ancient but still very much alive if you know where to find it.
I’d come a very long way to see this side of the human spirit, to learn and understand who these people are, how they live and how tattooing is ingrained into their existence and a distinct mark of their tribe.
I finally took the opportunity to question Esmat in depth so I could record and fully comprehend the specific significance of Tattooing for the Mentawai. I’m not sure anyone other than he has formally studied their own precise art form, so I felt I’d flown over oceans, taken trains, taxis, a Pompom boat, and waded through swamps, especially to sit down with this man and document his expert knowledge.
With help from a translation app I began by asking…
What is interesting about tattoos in Mentawai tribal culture?
Esmat explained: ‘For the Mentawai tattoos are eternal clothing and a way to know us individually. Tthey are a sign of identity and also a measure of our wisdom in the tribe.
Unlike any property they accompany us to death. Tattoos show our kinship, our line of love, we read a meaning, a message, telling whether someone is a child, a teenager, or an adult because this is not measured by age alone, but by intelligence, expertise and skill, so we know what responsibility they can be given.’
At what stage in someone’s life will they receive this tattoo?
If they’re male at the age of 14-16. Parents feed their children through hunting, through farming a sago plantation, through boat building and fishing. If the child starts to be able to do these tasks then the parents continue the tattoo progression.
Who does the tattoo and what process do they use?
The person who does the tattoo is from the family’s tribe or another Mentawai group. Not all Mentawai people can do tattoos. It is a special skill.
What are the tools and ink made of?
Our ancestors used a needle made of hard thorns or sharpened bone and a wooden beater. The ink is a concoction made of fire smoke and sugarcane water stirred in a coconut shell.
What does the design mean?
The design of the Mentawai tattoo has many meanings in every part of the body. But all the tattoo designs are interconnected so they become a whole unit like visible clothing. First, men and women are tattooed on the finger. This means they have reached adulthood and are able to be independent. Hands perform activities or find food.
Second, men have tattoos on the legs on the thigh (from the buttocks to the knees). This means that someone can live alone. They can get married, own their house, own livestock or a sago plantation. At this time women are tattooed on the chest and back.
Third, a man is tattooed on the chest and back. This means they can lead their family. They have greater life responsibility. It shows someone has begun to be wise. They can solve social problems between families and between other people’s families.
Fourth, the calves. This is a measure of someone who is wise or is a Customary Elder or Tribal Chief.
Is this tradition still continuing in the new generation or is it historic?
For many generations it didn’t continue because the people of Mentawai had dark events in 1953 – 1954. The Indonesian government tried to erase the culture of the Mentawai people and likewise their tattoos. The government did not allow our religion and made us choose a recognised Indonesian religion and insisted that the Mentawai culture and tattoo must be abandoned. Now a number of people in the new generations like me are starting to see the benefit and high quality of the culture and Mentawai tattoos. Since 2010, the new generation has been campaigning that it is important for a cultural identity for us to be Mentawai people. We have too strong an identity and character to throw away the fruit. We have a culture of mutual cooperation, a culture of deliberation and so on, and this has not been lost in the current generation.
All around us sounds of the ceremony rang out, Hhearing Esmat’s authentic first hand account of Mentawai culture while present and immersed in the midst of it myself had made my journey worthwhile.
But it wasn’t over. There was more to be done: I still had several solar packs destined for a neighbouring village.
The next morning I woke at dawn, bathed in the river and trekked out with Esmat and Stef, a new Pompom driver (and his gun-toting friend) whisked us away down a fast flowing river, out into more snake decorated swampland then up to an Uma on the brow of a hill.
It was here we donated our final solar kits to 6 Shamans, all over the age of 75.
For me, its hugely important to acknowledge the wide heritage and sociology of tribal tattooing from forgotten parts the world.
The Mentawai are a hidden people who were almost filtered out of existence by ethnic cleansing, religious persecution and governmental oppression. Their way of life still very much hangs in the balance as impacts from industrial logging and wider industry encroach on their land.
But for now they survive with reaffirmed group identity and a strong connection to each other, to their beliefs and their environment and in marking rites of passage as stories to be read on their own skin.