Tattoo pattern block and equipment

Kayak people, Sarawak, Malaysia

[b]Top:[/b] Collected by, and purchased from, Charles Hose in 1907; 1907.83.2–.9[br][b]Bottom:[/b] Donated by the Third Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Vyner de Windt Brooke in 1923; 1923.86.197Top: Collected by, and purchased from, Charles Hose in 1907; 1907.83.2–.9
Bottom: Donated by the Third Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Vyner de Windt Brooke in 1923; 1923.86.197
These items were collected in the early 20th century in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.

Many of the indigenous tribes of Borneo practised tattooing, using similar patterns in other decorative arts such as beadwork, painting, wood-carved panels, tombs and boats. Unfortunately many of the old designs were lost with the spread of Christianity among the islanders in the 20th century, but there has been a revival of traditional tattooing techniques and updated designs. The Kayan in particular are still noted for their extensive tattoos as well as other forms of body art such as feather ornaments and stretched earlobes.

Pattern blocks like this, carved by Kayan men, were smeared with black ink and pressed on the skin to give the tattooist (usually female) a template. Many of the patterns derive from natural inspirations such as trees, flowers, and animals. Kayan men received their first tattoo as boys and again at major events in their lives. Designs based on the eyes, teeth, or figure of a dog (a revered animal), tattooed on the thighs, hands and shoulders could be either ornamental or indications of success in war or raids.

Women had tattoos in different places on the body. For example, the forearms were often tattooed when a girl acquired domestic skills such as cooking and weaving. Before she earned these skills and these tattoos, she was unlikely to find a husband. Women were also tattooed on the lower legs and feet. Unlike male tattoos, which often used more free-flowing, scrolling patterns, female tattoos were conceived as a series of bands. This pattern block is a common one used for a woman's arm. The concentric circles represent full moons, separated by rows of zig-zag lines known as ikor, finishing up towards the elbow with a large transverse zigzag representing a tuba root, and a series of star shapes which are variously described as representations of egg-plant flowers, dogs eyes' and special beads. Often large tattoos like this had to be completed over several years since it was a long and painful process involving complex ritual and significant cost.

Next to the pattern block is a tattoo artist's wooden box, known as a bungan. What looks like a pair of wooden goggles is actually a double ink-palette, one well for red ink, the other for black. The bundle of fibres was used in the same way as the printing block to mark out both straight and winding lines on the skin as a guide for the tattoo artist. Finally, there are two mallets of dark-reddish wood, and two triangular-shaped metal tattooing needles set into wooden handles with resin. The needles were dipped in the ink then tapped into the stretched skin using the mallet.

Although not visible here, the kit also contains a string of yellow, green and purple-brown beads, which acted as a protective charm. It was against Kayan custom for a person to cause a friend to bleed. Therefore, when the first blood was drawn during the tattooing process, the person being tattooed gave the tattooist this charm to protect him- or herself against blindness or some other misfortune. Some tattoos even emulated the circular shape of this special bead, known as a lukut, as a permanent way of drawing on the charm's powers.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England