MENTAWAIAN AND THEIR TATTOO TRADITION

MENTAWAIAN

The Mentawaian live on the Mentawaian Islands off Sumatra. Also known as the Mentaweier, Orang Mantawei and Poggy-Islander, their women have traditionally raised taro and tubers and gathered shellfish while the men hunted and fished and grew bananas. The live in group organized around clans and clan houses. In 1966, there were 20,000. In recent years many of them have take up rice farming. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Although the Mentawaian Islands are not that far from the Sumatran mainland tricky currents, strong winds and coral reefs have made movement between the two bodies of land difficult and the Mentawaian remained isolated from the outside world until well into the 20th century. They had their own language and customs and were skilled boat builders but had no crafts. ~

Mentawaian villages are built along river banks and consist of a communal house surrounded by single-story family houses with several families living in a single unit, with single men living in their own quarters. Society is remarkable egalitarian with decisions on matters affecting the whole community are made in a meetings at the communal house. Large meetings are marked with sacrifices of pigs and chickens and certain normal activities become taboo. ~

Mentawaian History

The Mentawai are Proto-Malays who have migrated from the Yunnan in China then mixed with the Dongson in Vietnam. Many sailed further to the Pacific Islands and New Zealand, while others landed on the Mentawai islands along the west coast of Sumatra. These were the ancestors of the present day Mentawai clans. One of the first outsiders to observe them was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. In 1821 he wrote: “Now I have to acknowledge the fact that the people of the Mentawi Islands atr even more admirable and probably much less spoiled than we.”

Lars Krutak wrote: “The Mentawai are an ancient tribe that for thousands of years has lived on Siberut Island. Although 19th century Christian and Muslim missionaries converted most of the Mentawai living on the neighboring southern islands of Sipora and the Pagai’s (which are relatively flat), the traditional culture of the Mentawai living on rugged (and somewhat mountainous) Siberut has remained relatively intact; albeit just barely. [Source: Lars Krutak, Tattoo anthropologist +++]

“With Indonesian independence in 1950, an aggressive government campaign was launched to modernize the Mentawaians of Siberut. Traditional cultural practices such as tattooing, tooth filing, and the wearing of loincloths were forbidden because they were considered “pagan” and “savage.” Moreover, every individual was forced to join either the Christian or Muslim faith. +++

“In the 1990s, cultural oppression against the Mentawai took on more brutal forms of forced relocation from jungle villages to resettlement sites in government-created villages. Mentawai religion (e.g., shamanism) was for all purposes outlawed, and police stripped practicing shamans (sikerei) of their medicine bundles, sacred objects, loincloths, and their long hair. Sadly, Mentawai shamans, the keepers of the rain forest and their peoples, were denied their basic human rights; even when these abuses occurred under the noses of international organizations like UNESCO, the World Wildlife Fund, and Friends of the Earth, who were more concerned about saving Siberut’s primates than their indigenous peoples! +++

“Thankfully, several Mentawai clans living in the remote interior of Siberut succeeded in escaping the disruptions and dislocations of the government. One such group, theSarereket or “the people of this place,” made a courageous decision to leave their ancestral village of Ugai – a place where mosques, Catholic missions, and Western clothing were becoming a thing of the present – and move deeper into the jungle in an attempt to retain their original culture.” +++

Mentawaian Religion

Most Mentawaian are Christians. In their traditional religion they worshiped spirits with the spirits of the jungle, sky, rivers and the earth being the most important. Sickness was viewed as the soul leaving the body temporarily and death was when the soul left the body for good. When death occurs the soul becomes a ghost and certain taboos are observed to prevent these ghost from stealing people’s souls. ~

Lars Krutak wrote: For the Mentawai, the jungle has always been a place where everything, from plants to rocks to animals and man, has a spirit (kina). Spirits are believed to live everywhere and in everything – under the earth, in the sky, in the water, in the treetops, in bamboo, in a dugout canoe – and they are spoken too because they speak and act as human beings do. Some spirits offer protection and help to humankind. But others are evil and hand out punishment in the form of sickness and disease. In the malaria infested jungles of Siberut, there is no doubt that human existence is constantly threatened by disease. For this reason, the population density has always been low. The Mentawaians attempt to explain the onslaught of illness as not living in harmony with oneself and the environment. To maintain this harmony, religious and everyday codes of conduct must be followed at all times because acting recklessly or breaking taboo will anger the spirits of disease that live in the jungle. [Source: Lars Krutak, Tattoo anthropologist +++]

Pagete Sabbau or Teteu (“Grandfather”) is the Mentawai’s most revered spiritual figure. “According to myth, Pagete Sabbau was the first Mentawai shaman and taught his people everything they know today – including tattooing. But the people became jealous of him because of his magic and determined to kill him. When they built their first uma they sent Teteu down to dig under the center post. Then they let the post down on his head, imprisoning him in the ground. In revenge,Teteu knocked the uma down with an earthquake. +++

To fend off disasters, “the Mentawai people began to offer human sacrifices to their Grandfather. Traditionally, these were made under the center pole of a new uma upon its construction. Although these types of sacrifices are no longer practiced, today it is taboo to let blood drop to the ground for fear of earthquakes. So when chickens or pigs are sacrificed, their necks are wrung or their bodies are speared so that they bleed to death internally. Pagete Sabbau is so revered today, that it is taboo to mention his name unless in the most serious of conversations. Aman Lau Lau is very hesitant to speak about him, because his power is so great. And the only time Teteu is summoned these days is when a new uma is built; because Teteu is pleased by the beautiful dancing that takes place in his honor. +++

Mentawaian Taboos and Sex

Lars Krutak wrote: The Mentawai have developed an elaborate system of taboos that govern everything they do. For example, they live in harmony with nature by taking only what they need; they only eat fruit when it is season, and they only eat meat during ceremonial occasions. At all other times of the year, they eat their staple food sago which comes from the sago palm, various types of greens, and rice. [Source: Lars Krutak, Tattoo anthropologist +++]

“But taboos extend far beyond breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the traditional longhouse or uma of the Mentawai people, sex is taboo. If you want to “get busy,” you and your companion must head out to the jungle and use one of the “love shacks” that dot the landscape. Before a hunt, men cannot wash their hair or else they will shoot their arrows poorly or they will become sick. When making arrow poison, men are forbidden to sleep or bathe that night. If they do, the monkeys they hunt will die high in the trees, or the poison will become diluted and ineffective. During the hunt itself, hunters cannot strike their dogs; because if they do, it is believed that they will not catch any game. +++

Mentawaian Shaman

Lars Krutak wrote: “The religious beliefs of the Mentawai are centered on the importance of coexisting with the invisible spirits that inhabit the world and all the animate and inanimate objects in it. Health is seen as a state of balance or harmony, and for the Mentawaians it is something holy and beautiful. But if the balance is broken, the only way to restore it is by placating the spirits that have been offended or accidentally distressed. With the help of medicinal plants, these malevolent spirits can be “cooled down” by magical means, and then they are appeased with sacrifices. The intermediary in these contacts is always the Mentawai shaman, or sikerei, because only he can communicate with the spirits. [Source: Lars Krutak, Tattoo anthropologist +++]

“Aman Lao Lao is a Mentawai sikerei, literally “one who has magic power.” But he is not just a doctor. He is a leader, priest, herbalist, physician, psychologist, dancer, family and community man. Although Mentawaian society is egalitarian, shamans are considered to be the leaders of their people. They are the tribe’s connection to the spiritual world, but also to the outside world. Sometimes they travel to distant cities to meet with government officials to fight for their human and environmental rights. +++

Because the Mentawaian belief system is animistic and has many taboos limiting it, it is the responsibility of shamans like Aman Lau Lau to maintain his people’s balance with the natural and spirit worlds. For Aman Lau Lau and the other Mentawai shamans of Butui village, nature is both religion and survival, and they must know the forest inside and out to successfully maintain the balance between these complex worlds. Sickness may be treated with medicinal plants, but it is the intervention of the shaman on the spiritual plane that ultimately determines a patient’s fate. And for this reason, the sikerei must fly away on the wings of trance to work his deeds of magic rescue. +++

“As in other indigenous cultures, the Mentawai believe that all disease is nothing but the loss of the soul (ketsat), and if it abandons the body sickness or death will be the result. Soul-loss is usually attributed to the spirits of disease or of ancestral ghosts (sanitu), and numerous ceremonies are carried out to appease them if taboos have been broken. One of the most important shamanic ceremonies held to mend broken taboos is the pasaksak. Once it begins, all work is taboo except for the necessary cooking and rituals. Though the Mentawaians have many pasaksak – for the cutting of trees, the building of canoes and longhouses, weddings, funerals, hunting expeditions, initiations, visiting strangers, healing rituals, and tattooing – all of them are conducted to make amends to the spirits of the jungle and of the ancestors for the breaking of any number of taboos. +++

Old and Young Mentawaian Shaman

Lars Krutak wrote: “Aman Toshi, who is approximately 80-years-old, is completely tattooed and is the oldest shaman residing in Butui. All Mentawai shamans, like Toshi, must be tattooed so that they are more beautiful to the spirits with whom they communicate on a daily basis. Of course, it is easy to spot a Mentawai shaman because only they can wear red loincloths (kabit) made from the bark of the baiko tree. Barkcloth or tapa as it is known in Polynesia, is found throughout the forests of Indonesia and the islands of the Pacific. When it was dyed red in Polynesia, it almost always indicated that the wearer was nearly divine; a belief that the Mentawai people continue to share. [Source: Lars Krutak, Tattoo anthropologist +++]

Aman Telephon is Aman Lau Lau’s second oldest son and recently he became a Mentawai shaman. For days, he vanished alone into the jungle to meet the spirits, because this was an important part of his shamanic training. But before Aman Telephon could become a full-shaman in the eyes of the community and his father, he needed to be tattooed. After a 45-minute tattoo session with Aman Bereta, he passed the final test. The tattoo master finished the job with a ritual cleansing of his wounds with water and medicinal plants: a type of fern and the leaves of an unidentified shrub used to “cool down” the tattoo so as not to aggravate spirits lurking in the vicinity. +++

Mentawaian Culture

Mentawaian men traditionally wore loincloths made from the bark of the breadfruit tree and women wore skirts made of the same material. Both sexes wore red-colored rattan around their arms, fingers and toes, covered their bodies with tattoos and sharpened their teeth and wore long hair. These customs are now rare. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Describing his visit to an uma— a traditional Mentawaian house, Lars Krutak wrote: “Aman Lau Lau and his youngest son Politik sit beneath the skulls of water buffalo that were killed for his shaman initiation. His uma is massive and houses a family of twelve. Wooden birds dangle from the rafters so that when good spirits (sanitu saukui) come to the uma, they have “toys” to play with. Aman Lau Lau shows me a death symbol (takep), carved into the trunk of a durian tree, that bears the tracing of the foot of a deceased clan member. Because the dead man was a shaman, the joints of his hands and toes were severed at death so that his magic would leave his body and not enter the uma and cause sickness. Of course, this operation was also necessary since Mentawai shamans hold the souls of their people in their possession. And when they die, they sometimes bring the souls of the living with them into the grave. [Source: Lars Krutak, Tattoo anthropologist +++]

“Game animals that live in the jungle are believed to be the domestic animals of the ancestors. And success in hunting is indicative of the ancestors’ favor. Skulls of monkeys and other animals hang in the uma to please their spirits. Shaman Aman Lau Lau’s beaded headband (luat) serves as a kind of antennae between him and the spiritual realm. It is through these and other devices that the shaman talks to the spirits that visit his uma. Aman Lau Lau’s sister-in-law said, “Our traditional practices are our strength. And they are pleasing to the spirits of our ancestors who invented them.” Python-skinned drums and conch horns announce important messages to people of neighboring umas, sometimes warning them to stay away or challenging them to do better. Successful hunts, a new visitor, a birth or a death are all communicated this way.” +++

Mentawaian Tattoos

The Mentawai are famous for their most intricate and elaborate tattoos, which cover the entire body. To the Mentawai islanders, the art of body tattooing is not only an artistic expression but is part of one’s life cycle where tattoos signify age, social status, as well as profession. At the age of 11 or 12 years, children are given their first tattoos beginning from the upper arms. At age 18 tattoos are applied on the thighs while in the final phase the entire body is tattooed from head to toe. [Source: indonesia.travel /=/]

The Mentawai believe that “dressing” themselves up with tattoos forms an essential part of life and their culture, since in the afterlife they will be able to recognize each other and their ancestors through their tattoos. Additionally, to the Mentawai communities, tattoos also symbolize harmony and balance in the natural world. And for this reason, they tattoo animals, flowers, or rock formations on their bodies. /=/

According to studies made by Ady Rosa, researcher at the Padang University, the Mentawai tattoos belong to one of the oldest on the planet. On the island of Siberut, tattooing has been done from the time the Mentawai tribes first settled on the islands around 1,500 B.C. to 500 years B.C. Whereas, Egyptians were found to have started tattooing since 1,300 BC. The Mentawai tattoos have been found to resemble those of the Dongson of Vietnam, and similar motifs have also been found worn by a number of clans in Hawaii, the Marquesas, the Rapa Nui on the Easter Islands and the Maori of New Zealand. [Source: indonesia.travel /=/]

Lars Krutak wrote: “Another way the Mentawaians keep their souls “close” is by beautifying the body. Individuals, be they male or female, who neglect their bodies by not keeping them beautiful with beads, flowers, sharpened teeth, and especially tattoos will cease to be attractive to their souls. In such cases, the soul may decide to leave its human host and roam about the body free. But if the soul does not return to its home, it may decide to withdraw to the ancestral world at which point that person must die. Shamans like Aman Lau Lau, Aman Toshi, and Aman Berita are experts at beautifying themselves. And almost every day flowers adorn their hair, beads their necks and wrists, facial paint accents their rigid faces or their strong bodies are smeared with fragrant ground turmeric. [Source: Lars Krutak, Tattoo anthropologist +++]

“Continual care for one’s soul is one of the guiding principles in the life of the Mentawai people. And permanent decoration of the body through tattooing keeps it near at hand. So does good food, music, and dance because each are a religious means of benefiting the members of the community and longhouse (uma) by pleasing their souls, as well as their “Grandfather.” Traditionally, tattooing was performed after a religious ceremony called punen lepa. This was held to wipe out the evil influence of blood spilled in the village or longhouse (uma). A special porch was constructed in front of the uma, so that no blood would fall to the ground. If it did, Pagete Sabbau or Teteu (“Grandfather”) would be summoned, and an earthquake soon followed. +++

“Because the soul is pleased by beautiful and complete body tattoos, the Mentawai believe that it allows them to bring their material wealth into the afterlife. The Mentawai also say that their tattoos (titi) allow their ancestors to recognize them after death. More importantly, however, many forms of tattooing are specifically believed to protect their owners from evil spirits lurking in the jungle.

Tourists are encouraged to visit the island of Siberut where they can see "primitive tribal people with tattoos, wearing loincloths." But ironically according to writer Art Davidson the Siberut people are forbidden to wear their traditional tribal clothing unless tourists are around." [Source: "Endangered People" by Art Davidson]

Mentawaian Tattoos as Life Cycle Events

According to arat sabulungan—Mentawai's ancient animism belief—tattooing reflects one's initiation into adulthood. It is a rite of passage. "The first tattoo [A Mentawai native] has to make is an outrigger canoe on their back which represents a balanced life between the present and afterlife,” tattoo enthusiast Rahung Nasution told the Jakarta Post. “The next tattoo is on their arms, with lines resembling a crocodile's tail as respect to the water deity. There are also other important tattoos that resemble sago leaves which is their staple food and young fern which is their sacred plant because it can get rid of evil spirits>” popularity.[Source: Keshie Hernitaningtyas, Jakarta Post, May 28, 2013]

Lars Krutak wrote: Tattoos are applied by a designated tattoo artist called asipaniti or “man who makes the needle” at specific stages in life. Traditionally, when a girl or boy reached the age of seven, they received their back tattoos; now this practice begins in the mid-teens, if at all. Then, after waiting one or two years, their upper arms and the backs of their hands were marked. Next, the tattooing of the upper thighs and legs was executed (note: traditionally these marks were made just before marriage), and followed by the intricate tattoos of the chest and neck. The final stage of tattooing, which usually commenced after the individual reached forty years of age, was completed when the calves, shins, and the forearms were tattooed. [Source: Lars Krutak, Tattoo anthropologist +++]

“Of course, different Mentawai clans observed their own customs when it came to the different stages of tattooing. Bai Lau Lau, Aman Lau Lau’s wife, who is from a different region of Siberut told me that her hands were tattooed first (all in one day); then she waited one year and her chest and back were tattooed (all in one day)! Aman Ipai has many tattoos, including a crucifix-like crab tattooed on his right forearm. Although he is not a shaman, crabs are invoked by Mentawai shamans during healing and other rites because they are believed to never die (e.g., they can discard their old bodies and obtain new ones or regenerate severed limbs). +++

“Bai means “wife of” and Bai Lau Lau told me that, “I am proud of these tattoos not only because they are beautiful, but they also remind me of my father who made them for me. I will have them the rest of my life.” Bai Toshi is perhaps the oldest woman in Butui with a complete set of tattoos. “When I was a young girl, everyone had tattoos,” she said. “Now, virtually no one does.” +++

Mentawaian Tattooing Process

The art of tattooing is a most painstaking (and obviously also very painful) application where the event itself must be preceded by prescribed rituals and fasting, the process of which can take months. Rituals are led by the tribal chief, known as the sikerei. While the head of the household must first hold a feast for the entire village by slaughtering a large number of pigs and chicken. Therefore, just preparing a family member for tattooing already requires quite a sum of money. [Source: indonesia.travel /=/]

Tattooing is executed with traditional, natural tools. First the design - which has remained unchanged through the centuries because they denote symbols of identity and culture, - is drawn with sharp palm leaf splintered ribs (or lidi). Designs are drawn following a measure of distance, as for example one finger width, two fingers and so on. Once drawn, the design is then carefully etched into the skin with a pointed needle made from animal bone or sharpened wood. The handle is then beaten to allow the color to seep into the skin. Coloring consists of natural dyes made of sugar cane syrup and charcoal from burnt coconut shells. When the entire body must be tattood, work begins from the palm of the hands, the soles of the feet and only then on to the body. In compensation and thanks for his meticulous work, the master tattooer, called the sipatiti, will receive pigs or chicken as token of gratitude./=/

Keshie Hernitaningtyas wrote in Jakarta Post, “Using a sharp splintered rib of a palm leaf and natural ink made of sugar cane syrup and coconut shell charcoal, a Mentawai tattoo artist, or sipatiti, meticulously draws a simple design on his client's skin. Satisfied with the result, he then attentively etches the design into the skin using a mabiau hammered down rapidly with a lili 'pat. A mabiau is a pointed needle made of animal bone or sharpened wood attached to a wooden stick, while a lili 'pat is a long wooden stick. [Source: Keshie Hernitaningtyas, Jakarta Post, May 28, 2013 \+/]

"It hurts and bleeds and can take a long time to heal. But the sipatiti has a special herb from medicinal plants to stop the bleeding," local tour guide Rilus Saleleu Baja, 40, told The Jakarta Post at Manai Koat Guesthouse in Mentawai Islands regency's Siberut island in West Sumatra recently. Rilus said that he had endured the pain of tattooing some two years ago, even though it was not something that he had wanted to do. "My clients wanted to take pictures of someone with tattoos but none of them wanted to do it themselves. So, in the end, I got the short stick," Rilus recalled. Due to the painful process, his first Mentawai tattoo is only a half-finished artwork. \+/

Lars Krutak wrote: Traditionally, Mentawai tattoo artists sometimes used a sharpened piece of bark taken from the karai tree as their skin-plying tool. Others used a lemon thorn set into a small bamboo stick which was hand-tapped into the skin with a wooden mallet. Among the indigenous Atayal and Paiwan of Taiwan, and the Kalinga of the Philippines, thorns of the mountain orange tree were used in this capacity. However, the coastal peoples of Papua New Guinea, who are essentially Polynesian, also used the lemon thorn as a tattooing tool. [Source: Lars Krutak, Tattoo anthropologist +++]

“Before Iman Ipai was tattooed, fetish poles or kera were placed at the entrance and all around his uma to keep away evil spirits and the diseases they bring. It is believed that flowing blood attracts them. Sometimes kera are hung with magical plants and thorns. However, it is not the sticks that do the work; it is the spirit (kina) that resides within them. Traditionally, the Mentawaians believed that if someone had been killed or had shed blood inside the uma, all of the fetish poles would bring sickness. To resolve this misfortune, a tattooing ritual was conducted to cover the blood of the dead man. The blood of the dead man goes under the blood of the tattooed person and is lost under the earth of the village.” +++

Mentawaian Tattoo Artists

Lars Krutak wrote: “Anyone in the Mentawai community could become a tattoo artist, but only those people with sufficient skills and talent actually found work. Aman Bereta, who tattooed me and several of the Mentawai men living in Butui with and old brass nail, learned the art from his father who was a renowned artist. Unfortunately, there are not many practicing tattoo artists working on Siberut today, and the reason why Aman Bereta is not fully tattooed is because there is no one in his community that can properly tattoo him. [Source: Lars Krutak, Tattoo anthropologist +++]

“Aman Bereta is the tattoo master of Butui, and he learned the art from his father. His tattoo equipment rests on the floor, including his hand-tapping tools and sugarcane sticks that are squeezed to release their sticky fluid into a coconut bowl of carbon-based pigment. His lack of tattoos stems from the fact that he is the only regularly practicing tattooist in the region. Aman Lao Lao tattooed him on his belly in the past, but Bereta wasn’t impressed by the quality. He asked me to give him some ink, but I am certainly not a tattooist, and I didn’t want to end our friendship! +++

“Moreover, tattoo artists like Aman Bereta cannot find apprentices who have the talent or patience to learn the traditional techniques. Of course, some Mentawai people who wish to get tattooed cannot afford these expensive markings either. For example, the cost of a full suit of tattoos, which takes a lifetime to receive, is high by Mentawaian standards: 1 medium size pig; 1 durian tree; 4 sago palm trees; 1 coconut palm tree; and 1 chicken basket with several chicks! But if you want to become a “real” Mentawai man, woman, or shaman, tattooing is the necessary vehicle; because it is the apex of everything that comprises Mentawaian identity.” +++

Meaning of Mentawaian Tattoos

When making a tattoo there are rules to be followed according to a persons’s origin of village or clan, since this is required to denote the individual’s identity, status and clan membership. Both men and women are tattooed. Tattoos on a clan chieftain or sikerei , therefore, are distinct from those of a hunter, for instance. A hunter will have designs of his prey, such as birds, pigs, monkeys, deer or alligators. While a sikerei will have the sibalu-balu star on his body. [Source: indonesia.travel]

Keshie Hernitaningtyas wrote in the Jakarta Post, “Local administration representative Minarsih said that, in the old days, everyone in Mentawai had to have a tattoo, as it was seen as a person's badge, much like an ID card is used nowadays in modern societies. Indigenous people from Matotonan and Butui villages in Siberut, for example, have similar tattoos since they come from the same clan. "There are five types of tattoos available, in accordance with the number of Mentawai clans. So, when people from different clans meet, they can easily recognise where the other person comes from just by looking at their tattoos," Minarsih said in Siberut. Other than as identity markings, Mentawai tattoos also acknowledge the bearer's life story. For example, there are special tattoos for a person who is good at hunting animals, has killed another person, or works as a sikerei. popularity.[Source:Keshie Hernitaningtyas, Jakarta Post, May 28, 2013 \+/]

Lars Krutak wrote: “Tattoo can distinguish people regionally, and I was amazed that the Mentawai with whom I lived with could tell me which community a man or woman was from by the style of their tattooing. In the past great headhunters were easily distinguished by their markings including tattoos of frogs on their torsos or shoulders. And today in some regions of Siberut, the intricate body tattoos of the Mentawai are said to represent the “Tree of Life” or sago palm: the stripes on the upper thighs represent the veins and trunk of the sago; long dotted lines running down the arms symbolize the prickly fronds of its branches; patterns on the hands and ankles may mirror the bark or roots; and the curved lines on the chest represent the sago flower. Some Mentawai elders say that this “Tree of Life” must be tattooed on every shaman, because there can be no death when one is part of a tree of life. Of course, the sago palm is the staple food of the Mentawai people, and all of their domestic animals eat it too. [Source: Lars Krutak, Tattoo anthropologist +++]

“But the Mentawai of Butui told me that their tattoos do not necessarily depict the “Tree of Life” for them. For example, the barbed tattoos running down their arms represent the thorny fronds of the rattan palm. Small marks tattooed on the inner thighs and tops of the feet of men (that resemble chicken’s feet) are dog’s paws; a kind of sympathetic magic that enables the men to run as fast as their hunting companions. The intricate tattoos that appear on the chest (dudukat) and wrists are tattooed beads (ngalou: note that this word also means “talisman”) which “tie-in” the soul and keep it close to the body. The hook-like tattoos on the backs of the hands have a similar function, but Aman Lao Lao also told me that they help you catch fish and game animals more easily by making your fingers and hands more dextrous. The rosettes tattooed on the shoulders of men (sepippurat) and the bold starburst patterns (gaylan) inked on the shoulders and backs of women symbolize that evil should bounce off their bodies like raindrops from a flower. Of course, no evil will find someone marked in this way, because it is the protective shield of the Mentawai. +++

There are about 160 different tattoo motifs on the island of Siberut. Tattooed Mentawai men or women usually have dozens on their bodies. Unfortunately, the unique tradition of tattooing among the Mentawai is fast disappearing. On the island of Siberut, this tradition can be seen only in the villages of Madobak, Ugai and Matotonan. /=/

Keeping Mentawaian Tattooing Alive

Keshie Hernitaningtyas wrote in Jakarta Post, “Rilus' reluctance to continue his tribe's long-held tattooing tradition is shared by many Mentawai people nowadays, especially those from the younger generations who consider the art as nothing more than an old-fashioned custom. The fact that the tattoos are closely associated with Mentawai's ancient animism belief called arat sabulungan, which the younger generations no longer practice, is also a major factor behind its significantly waning popularity.[Source: Keshie Hernitaningtyas, Jakarta Post, May 28, 2013 \+/]

Since 2009,tattoo enthusiast and video maker Rahung Nasution has collaborated with Jakarta-based tattoo artist Aman Durga Sipatiti in a project called Mentawai Tattoo Revival which involves creating tattoo workshops and documentary videos in Siberut's remote villages. The project aims at helping Mentawai people and sikerei (shamans) to motivate their younger generations to continue the tattoo tradition. \+/

As body art, Mentawai tattooing is internationally regarded as unique thanks to its traditional technique. "It offers an artistic romanticism that you don't get from instant and modern [tattooing] techniques. Many people are interested in doing it simply to get the spiritual experience of traditional tattooing," Rahung said. \+/

Mentawaian Culture Threatened by Deforestation

Lars Krutak wrote: “Off in the forest, the drone of an illegal logger’s chainsaw is a constant companion. What remains of Siberut’s once vast rain forest is not known, and as deforestation continues to plague the region it not only threatens the natural diversity of the island, but the shamanic religion and tattooing practices of the Mentawai people. [Source: Lars Krutak, Tattoo anthropologist +++]

Aman Lao Lao says, “Mentawaian culture, including tattooing practices, depends on the rain forest for its existence and meaning, and the degradation of the forest will destroy it and my people if we cannot stop it.” Aman Ipai, another respected elder said, “I am very worried about losing the forest and our tattooing traditions. Because this leads to the loss of everything else in our culture – fromuma building to sago agriculture.” +++

“But as second class citizens on their own island, the shamans of Butui rarely have the opportunity to voice these and other concerns to the outside world. Regardless, they are their people’s mouthpiece, and their voices will not be silenced or ignored, because they will continue to fight to keep what is rightfully theirs. After all, shamanism and tattooing practices have been the basis of Mentawaian culture for millennia, and the Mentawai shaman is the “keeper of the rainforest” and everything associated with it.” +++

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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