Few weeks ago I went to an event “A Night with Dayak” at Goethe Institut, Menteng. This event was organized by Dayak Youth Community. There were photo exhibition (I am more interested with the 19th and 20th restored photos of Dayak tribes), traditional Dayak tattoo (with Durga Tattoo), traditional Dayak handicrafts, and traditional dances of Dayak tribes. I went there with Toni. Initially we planned to take up as many photos as we can, but eventually we ended up with Durga and his friends, discussing about tattoo, life, travel, and coffee :). So we didn’t see (and take photos) of traditional Dayak dances hence this writing will be mostly about Dayak Tattoo.

Dayak Tribal Tattoo

I was totally new to Dayak Tribal Tattoo so I made a little research in Google about Dayak Tattoo. I found that these articles are good enough for starters:

For convenience, I am summarizing the above mentioned articles.

There are about 3 millions Dayak in Kalimantan. Most groups are settled cultivating rice and basic trading. Smaller groups still maintain nomadic hunter-gatherers and continue to follow a traditional lifestyle in the jungle. The Dayak have good techniques of rice cultivation, textile weaving, and tattooing. Physically, the Dayak have resemblance with the Chinese, but the Dayak skin is a bit darker (however, typical Hokkian people are known to have darker skin as well).

Have you seen Avatar the movie? Perhaps it is easier to compare Dayak with the Navi race in the movie. Among the Dayak, all life – whether animal, vegetable, or human – is endowed with a spiritual aspect. Spirits living in the jungle must always be propitiated and never offended. The Dayak in Borneo still use tribal tattooing to this day. When a young man makes his first hunting kill, he is thought to pass into adulthood. This occasion is marked with a variety of tattoos. The Dayak also believe that tattooing the image of a creature or object on their bodies helps them draw energy from their spirits. Like the Samoan’s, applying the Dayak tribal tattoo was deeply ritualistic. Spirits, both good and bad, exercise many powers. Spirits usually come to individuals through dreams and even tattoo artists are under the protection of a particular spirit. Dreams are believed to be revelations sent by the gods, sometimes by deified ancestors, and all Dayak are guided by them in their daily affairs.

Dayak Tribal Tattoo skill is very rare, because not many people really master this skill anymore and to be honest, there’s hardly commercial incentive for Dayak people to develop this skill. Durga is one of few people who have this skill and knowledge.

Early Photos of Dayak Tattoo in the Past

1) Dayak, ca. 1927. Credit: H.F. Tillema. Dayak woman’s hand tattoos. The black spikes that run from the knuckles to the mid-digits are called song irang (shoots of bamboo), the lines that run horizontally behind the knuckles are called ikor (lines), and the design on the wrists is ? It is possible that this is an anthropomorph of some kind and may represent silong lejau (tiger’s faces).

2) Dayak, ca. 1927. Credit: H.F. Tillema. Dayak woman’s thigh tattoo. This woman was of high rank as evidenced by the number of rings around the calves. The motif running up the thighs is called silong lejau (tiger’s faces). At the terminus of these bands you can barely make out a different pattern just above the horizontal lines on the calf. This is called nang klinge (important design) and is a degraded anthropomorph. What is unusual is that this design is usually found on the kneecaps of both men and women and this tattoo was the one reserved for the last portion of the body tattoo. The curlicues below the horizontal ikor around the calves are called tushun tuva (the tuba root motif). What is great about this photo is that the unmarked portions of her thigh are visible. These were important because if a woman decorated these areas (known as tedak danau – lake tattoo), her legs would become mortified.

dayak tattoo 3

3) Dayak, ca. 1896. Credit: Dr. A.W. Nieuwenhuis.
The central tattoo design on his chest represents the trunk of the garing tree; adjoining it above are two great designs depicting the wings of a hornbill. What is significant about this aesthetic is that the hornbill symbolizes speed, strength, and cunning while the garing motif represents invulnerability, since this tree is believed to never die. The tattooing that appears down the arms and over the shoulders represents the leaves of the areca palm. In a sense, then, this Dayak man is covered with a visual canopy of the creatures and plants that live within his jungle domain. Furthermore, and when combined together, they act as an indelible form of camouflage acting upon the malevolent forces encountered in the jungle – headhunters and evil spirits.

Intermezzo: Why the Old Dayak was Interested with Human Head?

Some rumors even saying that today traditional Dayak are still interested in taking the head of their enemies. I have never seen it and for sure, modern Dayak do not take heads anymore.

According to the beliefs of the Iban, one of the souls of a person resides in their head and by taking someone else’s you capture their soul as well as their status, strength, skill and power. Thus, it is not surprising that human heads, once taken and preserved, were respected in ritual; their spirits became adopted members of the group that took them and were persuaded to aid their captors in many ways.

Some Nice Pictures from the Event (Click Each Image to Enlarge)

Durga prepared his tools. Although the method is traditional (handtapping), but the equipments are hygienic (new equipments) and they wear gloves.

Aman Durga Sipatiti prepares his tools

This is the handtapping process. Painful? He said no.


Several Dayak crafts (These Masks were usually worn in harvesting ceremonies)

Dayak Tribe Mask 1

Dayak Mask 2

Dayak Adults (See the costumes. I wondering how did the old guy get his dayak-motive Batik?)


Modern Dayak Costume

Do you think these cute kids are taking head anymore? ;)


Dayak Kids 2

Durga and his working parner (with cool ear-stretching)

Aman Durga SipatitiMarsono Bagong

Some Notes

I really appreciate the DYC’s commitment toward the preservation of their heritage. Salute for them. Not surprisingly, good references regarding Dayak Tattoo (and perhaps other Dayak Arts as well) are found in abroad, not in Indonesia.

By the way, if you’re interested to make a well-thought and special tattoo, you may visit Durga’s studio:

Business Hours:
Tuesday – Saturday : 12:00 – 23:00.
Sunday – Monday : Close
Phone: 021 3152478